The value of good feedback

Every book you have ever read was written by an author and then edited, and improved,  by a professional editor.   It is this team that produces a book worth reading, writing combed thoroughly to make it as readable and coherent as possible.  No writer can anticipate every problem a reader might encounter with her work.   Tics the writer can’t see may make an otherwise excellent piece impossible for many people to read.    I understand now how important good editorial input is for good writing.   For the best results, writer and editor must have similar sensibilities and goals.   In the scantest of published careers, I’ve experienced the horror of having whole paragraphs rendered barely coherent by an overzealous and untalented editor who swapped specific. carefully worded opening sentences for generic ones that meant something completely different.  The wrong opening sentence curses the rest of the paragraph.

We try to impose editorial oversight on ourselves as we write by imagining our reader’s reactions, with mixed results.  It is easy enough to learn to distrust and murder the overly cute darlings we may come up with from time to time.   Writing under strong emotion we might write, in an otherwise persuasive analysis of a vexing subject, that the man we are describing is the closest any of us will ever encounter to a talking piece of shit.   This is not an observation that will clinch the moral correctness of an argument.  Many readers will be repelled by a writer who stoops to scatology to portray an arguably despicable zealot; turn away and never turn back.  

An editor will immediately flag the line, something the writer may have a harder time even noticing.   The editor will demand more of the writer than a summary dismissal of a man who is, arguably, the very thing the writer has described.  Good writing requires more and a good editor asks the writer for it.

I offer this example of a paragraph I rewrote after considering my sister’s comments on the original paragraph.    After hearing her concerns, I was unable to defend the specificity of the original paragraph and I understood more clearly what I needed to write in its place, in terms of advancing the story.   Here is the rewritten paragraph about my thankless career as a lawyer:

The fees I should have earned on those two cases would have allowed me to pay off my student loans and choose a life more suitable to my personality.  I didn’t have the stomach to persevere on either case, finding both clients despicable.  I persisted unhappily in a distasteful career I’d undertaken mostly to try to please a father who nothing could have pleased.

The original paragraph, which my sister told me had an off-putting whiff of anger notably absent from the rest of the piece, read:

In one case the attorney who took over the case after I’d spent months securing a rare win at the EEOC got one-third of the half-million or more we won for the discriminated against asshole client; for reasons too sad to detail, I got $6,000.   In the other case, a frivolous but not illegal attempt at a lucrative eviction, I took in about a quarter of what I should have, put off by the client’s offhand anti-Semitic slurs. The opposing counsel was, indeed, a vile piece of shit, though “dirty Eastern European kike” proved impossible for me to swallow.  

I had already rewritten the paragraph above in response to another reader’s discomfort with the original, even more detailed paragraph.   The rewritten (now discarded) paragraph above was about half as detailed as the one before it, and, as it turns out, still many times more detailed than it needed to be.    What point was the paragraph trying to make? That I’d been unable to hold my nose as a lawyer, even on the rare occasions when there was a strong monetary incentive to do so.   No details really needed to make that point except that I turned away from a bad smell, and two excellent paydays.

You can read the original piece and see the rewritten paragraph in context.   If you are fortunate enough to get thoughtful feedback from someone whose intelligence as a reader you respect, consider it carefully.   The value of good editorial input is nothing to sneeze at.  Comments by perceptive readers help us write better.   Dismiss the considered opinions of others you respect at peril to your writing. 

This entry was posted in writing.

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