Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Religion of Writing: Part Seven -- The Priesthood

The idea of the priesthood in a religion is an interesting one. Generally speaking, the idea of priests (no matter what they're called: pastors, rabbis, politicians) starts out as a group of people meant to help their congregation or flock. They're assistants.

But it never ends up that way, because those guys always end up with the authority. No longer are they there to help people out, they're there to tell them what to do, how to think, what's right and what's wrong.

It's not all their fault.

People like to have other people in authority over them. They like to have people tell them what to do so that, if (when) it goes wrong, they have someone else to blame. Besides, thinking is hard, so why not have someone else do it for you? Also, for instance, reading the Bible is a lot of hard work, so, if you can have someone else do that and just tell you what it says, why not? It certainly makes life a lot easier and more convenient.

So, ideally, you'd have people reading the Bible and going to a priest (or whomever) and saying, "I don't quite understand this; can you help me with it?" And the priest would say, "Well, because I have studied this stuff and based on these other texts, my interpretation of this is... Now, here are some other resources you can use to figure this out, because you shouldn't just take my word for it."

Instead, you have, "What does the Bible say?" And you get:

  • The Bible says <group a> are all going to Hell in a handbasket.
  • The Bible says <group b> are all going to Hell so fast that they don't even get a handbasket.
  • The Bible says <group c> aren't even going to make it to Hell because God is going to strike them down here on Earth.
  • The Bible says that if you wink your left eye while crooking your pinky you will also go to Hell.
  • Or if you crack your egg on the small end. (How's that for a literary allusion?)
Basically, you have people preaching their own, personal feelings as scripture, because, I'm here to tell you, the Bible does not say "abortion is a sin," and anyone that tells you that the Bible says that is a liar. Whether abortion is a sin is based upon an interpretation of other things the Bible says, so the correct way of dealing with that is to say, "Based upon these passages, I have come to believe that abortion is wrong," or, conversely, "Based upon these [other] passages, I do not believe abortion is wrong." Because the Bible does not speak about abortion.
For example.
And, yeah, I picked a touchy subject, but it was the first thing that popped into my head, and, no, I am not going to go into my personal opinion (because it doesn't matter and isn't what we're talking about), and, yes, there are passages of scripture which support both sides of that argument. (Maybe, I should have chosen the death penalty as my example, but I think people could get just as riled over that.)

[I do know that it's not like this everywhere, but those other places are the exceptions, not the rule.]

At any rate, the point of the priesthood (and, yes, I do include politics and, even, science) in any religion should be to help people to understand things and come to their own conclusions, not just deliver the "Word of God" and expect people accept it blindly. Except that, like I said, people want to accept things blindly. It doesn't take so much work.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to editing and editors, the priesthood of the publishing industry. You know, because "no one can edit their own work. They're too close to it." Which is just like "common people shouldn't read the Bible. It's too confusing to them. Only the priests should read it and tell the people what it says." And before you accuse me of Catholic bashing again (which is not to say that I'm not bashing that idea), most religions promote that kind of thought. Sure, the Baptists want you to have your Bibles with you on Sunday so that you can open them up and read along with the pastor, but the pastor is actually going to tell you what that thing you just read means, and you don't have to worry your pretty little heads over it. And, sure, Bible studies are promoted... full of handy little guide books that will explain everything for you. Forget any other interpretation which may be possible.

So, yeah, I hate that whole "no one can edit their own work" thing. And I hate that publishers give editors greater power over the work than the author, the one that knows the work and what it's there to communicate. Or not communicate. Or whatever. There was a time when an editor was just someone that came alongside the author to help. "Hey, this may not be the correct word here." "This sentence is confusing; what did you mean?" "What happened to Billy? He just disappears after chapter four?" Editors were meant to help authors think about what they had written and make sure they were saying what they thought they were saying. And the grammar? The author was expected to know all of that, because why? He was the author and knowing how to write, the grammar and punctuation, was his job.

But, you know, if we can let the editors be the authority on grammar and whatnot, why should we bother to know that stuff? So we fail to be as knowledgeable as we could and, then, complain at what the "editors" (and publishers) did to our works. [Not that that is the case with all authors, but there are plenty of big name authors out there that take issue with the editing in their works, and there are plenty of "author's preferred editions" out there trying to overcome what the editor did.]

Here's the thing that complicates all of this: Many, probably most, authors out there do need an editor. Or three. And I don't just mean someone to catch typos, either; I mean someone that can help them make their stories readable. And I kind of have to wonder at that point, if that kind of editing is needed, if that person should be seeking publication at all. For instance, there's an article or something written by Lovecraft about all of the things a "novice author" needs to master before seeking publication; many of those things were grammar related (this is not that article, but it does summarize it and link to the original text) and almost all of them are things authors (or publishers) expect editors to do these days. And Lovecraft has not been the only author to to talk about how novice writers need to learn their stuff before trying to get published. Don't let the editor be the authority.

And I'm hearing, again, many of you saying, "But you're too close to your own writing." To that, I will respond with a quote from my wife (because she's smart that way (and we talk about this kind of stuff all the time)):
To that I would say: Then what did we spend all that time in high school and college to learn to write for? We had to self-edit our papers, theses, and so on. We had to learn structure, pay attention to spelling, provide references and all of that. Did we forget it all just because, maybe, we're writing fiction? Do we believe that editors (people who edit) just sprang from the womb able to do it, or is it something they maybe learned? It's like a priesthood.
And, yes, that's what gave me the idea for the title of this one, because it is like a priesthood, and only the priests are allowed to edit. And that's just... foolish.

Of course, the key here in all of this is knowing your strengths and knowing where you need to get help. No matter what it has sounded like I've been saying in this post, I'm not advocating for people not to get editing help. Far from it. I wish more people would get better editors. What I am saying is that the idea that no one can edit their own work is fallacious. What I am saying is that authors shouldn't just give over authority of their own manuscripts to other people. What I am saying is that authors do their parts of the job and learn all the technical skills about writing as they can, because, to paraphrase Lovecraft, "Anyone can learn that stuff in school." The implication there is that if you don't know it, go back to school and learn it. Be able to approach an editor with, "I'm not sure about this part right here (whether it's a grammar question or a structure question); what do you think?" rather than, "Here's my manuscript; you do the rest." Know your stuff well enough to be able to tell editors, "No, what you're saying doesn't fit with my manuscript."

There was one point when Lovecraft was still starting out when he sent this:
"If the tale cannot be printed as it is written, down to the very last semicolon and comma, it must gracefully accept rejection. Excision by editors is probably the one reason why no living American author has any real prose style."
I'm pretty sure no one these days would get published under any traditional model with that attitude, and it was already rare a century ago, but Lovecraft did get published and is still considered the master of his... field? Genre? Man, I don't even quite know what to call what he did, and I don't like the title "weird fiction" which is what I often see it being called. The point is that he became his own authority. Clearly, self-editing is possible. Tolkien often had to go back and re-edit his manuscripts because the editors, not being as skilled or as knowledgeable as him, would cause problems in his works. The first edition of The Hobbit doesn't have "dwarves" in it; it has "dwarfs," which is a completely different connotation, because the editor thought Tolkien had made a mistake and didn't bother to check with him about it. That was not the only time that happened in the early days of Tolkien's books being published.

Editors have no special gifts. They have not received divine inspiration. They are not magical. They do not know anything that any author cannot learn. Any author should learn. But, of course, if you don't bother to learn that stuff, I suppose an editor can seem like an all-knowing priest.


  1. Being a blogger, I will never have to deal with editors but sometimes I wouldn't mind having one. It is hard for me to be objective about what I write. The reason I say that is too often I will write something one day and the next think, "oh jeez." It would be nice to be able to say, "what do you think of this?" That said, I would never agree, at least I don't think so, to let someone else have the final authority.

  2. Editors are specialists in their field and a good one can help an author take a piece of work that is marginal and make it a masterpiece. Such is the case with "To Kill a Mockingbird", one of the greatest works in American Literature. Without her editors, Harper Lee's novel would never have been published and would never have won the Pulitzer. This is not to say that an author should give up creative control, they shouldn't.

    Also you are giving priests, pastors and rabbi's very short shrift. They do not enter their profession in order to have "power" over people. They teach, they guide and they comfort. They encourage a person to understand what is in the Bible and how they can apply it to their own lives. Some people would say that teachers enjoy having "power" over their students. But to say that would be as ignorant as it is to generalize the role of the clergy.

  3. Well said, Anne.
    I do think the author who can write and self edit everything perfectly by himself doesn't exist. A second set of eyes is always necessary. As for editors, a good one is there to help. I enjoy working with my publisher's editor. Yes she finds the mistakes I've made, because we all make them, and she offers suggestions.
    Our pastor's role is to guide us, and as Anne said, teach. And he is always telling us to get into the Word ourselves and discover God's word on our own.

  4. I'm kinda a snob when it comes to Bible study. Study inductively, or you might as well just have someone else tell you what it says. In our church, we read along with the pastor, and when he explains he's clearly giving his OPINION of the interpretation and always invites us to contact him to discuss it if we disagree. Which I have done and it was very fruitful.
    As to the editor comparison, I'm with Alex, another set of eyes is really helpful, but those eyes shouldn't have to restructure your work or make major changes. If so, YOU haven't done YOUR job correctly.
    Tina @ Life is Good

  5. David: I'm not sure if being objective about your work is necessary. I think you need to be able to be critical of your own work, but Lovecraft and Tolkien weren't objective about their own work. I think having a deep investment for own work is what is necessary to produce something that is truly -your own- work.

    Anne: I would like to agree with your assessment about editors, but the truth is that most editors (by far) are not specialists in their fields; they are just people with a BA in English and have no special qualifications. Really great editors are a different story, but they are as rare as really great authors.

    And I never said priests or whoever went into their profession for those reasons any more than any of those televangelists from the 80s went into that to make tons of money and cause scandals or the prosperity preachers of today went into it to get rich. BUT, and as I said that it's not all their fault, people go to them expecting "an answer" and don't want to think and, eventually, that's the way things are.

    I worked in and around churches for 20 years, I have a degree in theology, I went to school with dozens of ministerial students. The number of people in any sort of ministry that approach things with an actual "you need to be doing/learning this stuff for yourself and I'm just here to facilitate this" are so few that I can count them on a few fingers. Teachers are the same way. I've also been involved in a lot of teaching, and I've only encountered a few teachers that don't have the "I'm the teacher and I'm right" attitude.

  6. Alex: The problem there, Alex, is that you'd be demonstrably incorrect. Many of the greatest works in literature were accomplished without editorial oversight. The first editors weren't even there to edit the author but to make sure the people that set the copy hadn't made any mistakes.
    And, maybe, you have one of those exceptions as a pastor; I don't know. What I do know, though, is that lots of pastors say that because that's what they're supposed to say, but, if you go talk to them, and you have a different interpretation than they do, they're going to tell you how you're wrong and an uncomfortably lot of them are going to fall back on the "I went to school for this" excuse as to why they're right.

    Tina: I'm not saying that a second set of eyes can't be helpful. But that set of eyes should be there, mostly, to catch things like leaving a word out here or there or homonyms or... mistakes. Specific mistakes that are due to putting the words on the paper. That is not, though, the function of editors, on the whole, within traditional publishing.

  7. I don't critique partners have helped me realize some of my writing sins (and agents who have rejected my work too). I wasn't born an excellent writer. But they are helping me get better by pointing out things I don't see for myself. I hopefully do the same for them. And not just typos and stuff, but big story elements too, like where I'm too nice to my character and should make her work harder. Maybe that's a writer flaw I can't overcome on my own, but with help I can hopefully be redeemed. :)

  8. Lou Anders, one of the more respected editors in the biz, says if you ask him about grammar you'll just get a blank stare from him. He's much more interested in story than the line level stuff, I suppose a distinction should be made, as there are copyeditors, line editors, story editors... all having different functions at a big house.

    Still I recall a podcast I heard late last year, or early this one, I forget now, where they asked the author what the biggest difference between being an aspiring author and a professionally published one (from a major house) and she said that the conversations with her peers changed from one about sentence structure and micro-details, to ones about story.

    The take away from that could be that pros have a better grasp of the fundamentals than newer authors do, and therefore don't have to discuss those things, but I think the point she was trying to make is that an amazing story will offer some forgiveness for less than perfect prose, but prefect prose will not overcome a bad story.

    I'm not really trying to make a point here, I just enjoy repeating that anecdote.

  9. L.G.: My point is not that they are not, can not be helpful. The point is that the idea that they are a requirement, are necessary is a falsehood.

    Rusty: That's true; there are different types of editors. Lovecraft would have said that you weren't ready to be published until you were ready to dispense with all of them. Tolkien certainly had no one his equal in his day and felt all editorial changes forced on him hurt his story, like having to break LotR into three books.

    The point, in the end, is that the author's goal should be to overcome the need for editorial oversight, which is actually a possibility that publishing houses won't admit exists, because they want control over the final product.

  10. I am not sure about the function of editors or proof readers, but from the point of view of a reader, I wish someone would do something, particularly with ebooks. I recently read a book with some glaring mistakes, such as ingenious being used when it should have been ingenuous. Was it a typo or did the author not know the difference? There were other similar errors in the same book, drove me nuts. I have done some proofing for 2 authors now and I hope I have helped.

  11. Jo: Well, on the one hand, those people definitely need editorial help; on the other, Lovecraft, for instance, would tell them that they shouldn't be seeking publication if they were making errors like that.

  12. Editing is TOUGH. That's why authors don't want to do it, I think. That's why I don't want to do it, anyway.

    I have this feeling that the way I write it the first time is the best, and I dislike rewriting for the sole purpose of rewriting. But I've been trying to edit more of my stuff before it gets posted nowadays, really edit -- not just spell check but edit and think it through, and I think some of it is better for it.

    Blog posts I tend to not edit at all, mostly -- at least not the first one you read. I write 'em and post 'em and then read it and maybe make some changes. Stories I edit more and more now, trying to figure out what works and what doesn't.

    Like you said, a lot depends on what the author's voice is. Certain posts and essays and stories of mine are MEANT to be rambling, as that's a style I like. I read a story on McSweeney's, yesterday, "Versions" that reminded me of my writing, only was about a billion times better. It's hard to imagine many editors wanting that story to get through them, but the way it was written (you should check it out!) was beautiful.

    So I agree with you, and your Gospel of Editing has gotten through to me. I figure it might never been my strong suit, but I'm working on it. (That, by the way, is part of why I started my 250-word-exactly stories: to make sure that I was paying attention to what, actually, needed to be in the story. When I started it, many stories needed to be pared down quite a bit. Lately, the last two I've written, I've had to ADD stuff to, which is a different kind of editing.)

    As for why priests, politicians, etc., seek that authority, it's because of that: authority. I always said it's tough to be a small government Republican who gets elected to the federal government, because true conservatism means devolving power away from a centralized government; so Republicans who get to the presidency or the Senate tend to not seek to focus on a limited federal government at all, because nobody voluntarily gives up power.

    Priests who say "Well, here's my thoughts but interpret it for yourself" would be delegating authority to their flock. And if a priest says "Your opinion is as valuable as mine," then why have him around? That's what they fear, I think.

    PEOPLE, though, transfer power to priests, editors, publishers, and politicians in part for simplicity. It's hard to choose books on our own, so we want someone to filter them for us. In the past, that was publishers and bookstores: by putting books in big stacks in the front of stores, we were told their relative worth. Now, we have Goodreads and Amazon's "People who bought this..." to help us with that.

  13. Briane: Editing is tough but so is writing. Editing is just another skill that can be learned, and, actually, the more proficient you are at writing, the less editing you should need. Which is kind of the point.

    And, also (rather than respond to the rest of what you said directly), choice is hard. Most people don't want to make their own choices; they just want someone "in charge" to tell them "this is good" or "this is bad" and just go with that. Which is why I said "it's not all their fault." It's not.

  14. I can say that my personal difficulty in editing my own work is a lack of emotional detachment. I'm vain and I fall in love with my own writing too quickly. I find it helpful to ask someone if I'm conveying what I intend. Mind you, I've never gone so far as to bring anything to a professional editor. I usually just ask my wife. She's read more and better books than most of them have anyway. Then again, my own publishing aspirations are fairly modest.

  15. TAS: Well, that's part of it; most "professional" editors don't have anything more to qualify them to do editing than a degree in English. I'd had more actual editing experience while I was still in high school than at least 80% of "editors" out there. [I did work for a law firm editing depositions and other documents. It was a good place to start, I think.]

  16. I never let anyone tell me what to think about anything, but, just like anyone, my opinions can be influenced by what someone says. As far as priests and the like go, (and yes, this is a personal opinion) I think they're the ones going to 'hell in a hand basket'..(except for the ones who get no hand basket, lol!)..even though I don't believe in hell, or heaven for that matter. I just don't think that most of them are decent humans...what do I know though?
    As for writing and editing, I've read a couple of absolutely atrocious ebooks...I mean, so bad that I'm embarrassed for the 'author'. I don't think any amount of editing, by anyone, will help these stories. The writer obviously thought they were okay, cause they put them out there, and had the nerve to charge money for them!
    That's the trouble with self publishing...although I don't think that there can be as many 'books' as badly written as the one I'm referring to, I'm sure it's not the only poorly written ebook in existence.
    When I decide to publish something I may go the ebook route, and hopefully I will have learned enough about editing that I won't have someone think as ill of my writing as I do about some of the stuff I've read.
    I agree with you and your wife that we have the power to self-edit. After all, aren't we all reasonably intelligent creatures, with the ability to learn and apply what we've learned?

  17. Eve: I've read a couple or few of those books, too. One guy actually said to me that he was only concerned with getting his book out there as quickly as possible (so that he could start getting rich off of it) so he didn't bother to do any editing on it. At all. Not himself or anyone else. It was just write a draft and BAM! It's a horrible way to do things and perpetuates the idea of indie books being crap.

  18. What a great post: all of it. I don't know if I'd have agreed so much if you hadn't added the caveat about most people needing the help of an editor, though. I get a lot of unsolicited manuscripts from people, since I am an editor, and let me tell you — they are dire. You'd think people who call themselves "writers" would bother to learn the basics of grammar, but what I get looks like it was written by the proverbial hundred monkeys at a hundred typewriters. These guys (the writers, not the monkeys) run their manuscript through spell-check, call it good, and pass it to me. I get lost in copy-editing even though they actually want story feedback. I just can't get past the errors.

    But I agree: my editing skills are nothing special. I'm like a dental hygienist, who wishes people would take better care of their teeth even if it would put her out of a job. If I can do it, you (people) can do it.

  19. Stephanie: Well, that's the thing: it doesn't matter if it's the best story ever if no one can read it. People are frequently all "it's the story that matters," and, while I agree with that in sentiment, from a practical standpoint, it just doesn't work. Bottom line is that if you want to be a writer, learn to do it.

  20. Stephanie: Oh, and thank you for commenting. It's very nice to actually hear an editor agree with me.