Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Editors versus Critique Groups

I recently got into a fascinating discussion with Kevin Hanrahan about using critique groups versus using an editor to make your work better.  We have, shall I say, a slight difference of opinion on the best way to move forward.  Kevin is big into thinking that professional editors are the route you need to go, while I lean more towards using beta-readers and critique groups.

There are times a writer absolutely needs a professional editor to look at his or her work.  However, I think this should be geared more towards structure and grammar than content.  The reason I say this is because I don't view an editor as any different from an audience I'd like to reach.  Tastes are subjective, and one editor isn't likely to be a greater indicator of the mood of the general public than someone off the street.  The editor is (hopefully) better trained than most folks in what looks right on paper from a structure perspective, but given how many people out there love books, I don't think an editor knows any more than most about what the public wants to read.  Recent trends back me up on that.
(Another editor shows emotion over a recent novel)
Plus, a great number of editors I've run into seem like they'd rather have been writers, but they didn't want to go through the trouble of, you know, actually having to write a novel - they just want to re-write yours.  As the author, I know the story I'm trying to tell.  However, a few editors have tried to get me to make changes that would've turned the story into something altogether different.  Then they get pissed when I've told them that I wasn't going to make those changes, as if I'd insulted their artistic intelligence.

Critique groups, on the other hand, let me get my work in front of the target audience I will eventually try to sell to.  Not all of them will see the work in the same vein, and they'll usually suggest changes.  Some of the suggestions are good, and some are shitty, but it lets me know what my audience is thinking.  Plus, if more than one person makes the same basic suggestion, that's an indicator I should pay attention.

For me, it boils down to who you want to target.  If you want to get your work to editors, that's who you should go after.  However, if you want the general public to buy what you've got, you should get them to look at it.  How many times have you looked at what a movie reviewer said, then you watched the film and thought the reviewer was crazy?  Editors and critics were the ones who liked The English Patient and hated Star Wars, while we peons in the general public were going wild over those works.

Critique groups also allow for much more back and forth.  You'd think a professional editor would give you this kind of dialogue, but as stated above, a fair number of them view not taking their word as gospel to be a personal affront.  In a group, beta-readers can let you know what you made them feel and if your plot worked.  Someone may have a wild suggestion that you should incorporate, while others will have the kind of input that belongs in the round file, but at least they don't view themselves as a Solomon passing law over what you're written that should, nay must, be changed.

In the end, it's your work.  You have to decide whether a suggestion on content change is right for you.  You also have to decide if that spelling mistake or grammatical faux pas should be corrected, of if it was part of the character's accent.  Regardless of your technique for feedback, take ownership of what you write and put out the best product that you want to, not the best product someone else wants to - our critical eye is just as valuable.


  1. I agree with this. Happy that my publisher's editor doesn't try to change the content. And, if I didn't like the fact that they changed a word that I used because it was more descriptive, I can still change it back.

    I had no idea editors (the ones you hire)were so egotistical, and try to change entire portions of a book. Eeek! No thank you! I know how to write entertaining books, my fans tell me so repeatedly.

    Stick to your guns RD!

    1. Thanks. I'm sure there are great editors out there who work collaboratively, but the ones I've seen want the writer to change the story completely. Egotistical doesn't even begin to cover it.

      Readers are the ones whose opinions I'm interested in.

  2. We have spilled over to your blog now Russ....nice!

    I've never met an egotistical editor.....confident...for sure! I've never met an editor that tried to change my story. I suppose they are out there but I would never consider one. When I was searching for an editor I interviewed four. They all had similar backgrounds (experience with a big six publishing house and had launched successful freelance careers) I was concerned they would try to transform my novel from character to plot driven. I was direct and clear in regards to what I was and wasn't looking for.

    You are in control! You can take or leave their advice. I normally took his advice....when I didn't it wasn't an issue. He routinely said, "This is your story." When you work with an editor you are in control. If you let the editor take control then the problem is you and not the editor.

    I opted for a professional, highly experience editor who has a proven track record of success. He has edited thousands of book, understands pacing, arch, character development, etc. If you can replicate this with your critique....have the time to participate in said group then I think that is wonderful.

    For me it comes down to resources.....I don't have the time to spend hours working on others work. Like many aspiring authors I work full time and have a family. As it is now I wake at 4:00 AM everyday so I can get my writing in for the day.

    Your critique group? Who are these people? Are they random folks or other authors? If they are other authors are they really your target audience? If they are random do they really understand the pacing of a novel? How about the arch of a book?

    You can get your buddies to help you refinish your basement. It will take extra time and hopefully they know what they are doing and have the tools to get it done....or you can hire a professional. Personally, I'll do all the work that I am comfortable doing and then hand it over to a profession with experience to make the basement shine!

    1. Kevin, here's an idea- reject your editor's "suggestions," particularly the one from your publishing house, and see if your book still gets published. That's where they hold the power and control.

      In the basement thing, I think you're comparing apples and plexiglass. It'd be akin to me saying that the basement I'm building is meant for the comfort of the carpenter rather than my friends and family. I'm not asking my friends and family to build the basement, but to tell me what they think of it and if they'd enjoy spending time in it. I'm sure the carpenter could make some wonderful suggestions...after I've already built it, but he'll go home and the other folks are the ones I'm trying to get to spend time there.

      My critique group and beta readers are carefully selected from the target demographic I'm trying to hit. They're not random folks off the street, nor are they other writers just trying to do me a favor.

      We can talk about if they "understand the pacing of a novel" or "the arch of a book," but to me that sounds like asking a restaurant customer if they appreciated the cloves or the subtle hint of garlic in the dish they just ate. I personally don't care if they can or not - I'm more concerned with whether they enjoyed the book, what would've made the book more enjoyable, and would they recommend it to a friend. It's the public I want to like it, not an editor, seeing as it's the public that will plop down the money to buy it.

      Remember - experts loved the idea and flavors behind New Coke, but it was the public that demanded Classic.

  3. I haven't worked with a publishing house editor yet so I can't speak with any knowledge about how they work. I'll let others with these experiences chime in on that one!

    But what you are doing is asking a sample of the population if your book works. Instead of asking professionals. For every Coke example I could provide a counter example. I'm not asking my uncle to check my taxes...... I'll hire an accountant.

    Are you getting bang for your buck? How much time are you investing in these critique groups? How much time do you spend reading their work and providing feedback? Do you trust their feedback? Maybe they don't want to hurt your feelings...maybe they are jealous of your success or you theirs.

    How much time do you spend diving through their recommendations trying to determine which have merit and which don't. How do you decide who you listen to..... Why even bother if you won't listen to them. Listen to them all and you are just trying to please them...make them feel valuable and part of the process. Don't listen...ignore them and how much effort will they put in to you future works? Why bother?

    Ahhh...just the thought of the complexity of bringing in a group of people in an attempt to gleam insight on to how to improve my novel would drive me mad!

    1. Kevin, it's exactly that complexity that breathes life into your work. And again, you're not comparing like items. The accountant prepares your tax returns, while you actually write your book. Your tax returns are meant for a specific group of professionals - the IRS - while your book is meant for the general public. Were I to target my work for book reviewers and trade publication professionals, that editor you like might make sense; however, my work is for a much larger swath of people.

      As for how I know I'm getting bang for my buck - I trust my instincts and have faith in my abilities. Yes, I know this is arrogant - I prefer to think of it as extreme confidence - but I know what sounds good and how to craft a sentence to evoke an emotional reaction in readers. As I've said many times, a lot of advice, even from so called professionals, is total garbage. It's how you evaluate it and whether it works in your story that makes it valuable or not. You've seen a lot of professionals in our own line of work who I wouldn't trust with a potato gun, and I certainly don't always cede to their "expertise."

      My last point is that given the current state of book sales, I'd have fired most of the professionals you admire if they worked for me. They ARE New Coke. Most books fail to earn out their advance(latest figures are around 70%), which doesn't speak well to their abilities to properly piece together a winner. Were you or I to have a batting average of around .300, we'd (rightfully) be fired. So it's not just the condescension I've seen most editors operate with; it's their abysmal track record as well.

      Remember, editors thought 50 Shades of Grey would never make it, but those who bought the book, tens of millions, would disagree with such "professional" advice.