I'm stoked to have editor extraordinaire and author RJ Blain guest blogging for me today. My mission in every post post is to provide advice, encourage and inspire other writers. So far, I've had other writers share their advice, but a writer and an editor? Double Whammy!
Critique Groups and Paid EditorsRJ Blain
For a solo sport, writing is one of the most intensive intellectual group activities out there. Learning to write fiction is more than just slapping words on a page and hoping someone will like it. There are a lot of skills that need learned, and many people need help learning them.
That’s where ‘group’ part of writing comes to bat.
A story or novel written by one person is often touched and influenced by many. A beginning writer who isn’t quite ready for a paid editor will often turn to a critique group for help and advice. In some cases, these fledging writers turn to the critique groups for attention and validation.
Critique groups are an excellent way to learn basic skills if you’re a part of a group that has a serious core group of members. The writers that make up the group will determine whether or not you end up in a good group that improves your writing or if you end up in a group that fluffs and boosts your ego.
The truth, in my opinion, is that a critique group will only take you so far. Members of critique groups are under no obligation to make certain your book becomes the best it can possibly be. They are under no obligation to point out every little detail, find ways to reinforce your writing, and pick apart every potential plot hole they find. They’re obligated to try their best and offer their thoughts.
They are under no obligation to give you more than a few hours of their time. This doesn’t make them a professional, and often enough, critique group members are still learning the craft, so they may be struggling with the same things you do. Most critique groups do not have a requirement for quality – they have requirements of participation and little else.
An editor, on the other hand, is a professional. Their job is to make your story as strong as possible.
As a side note, when I start an editorial project, I usually put aside at least 80 hours for one project. A critique group or beta reader is under absolutely no obligation to give you this sort of work and effort.
There are many different types of editors, so here is a brief description of a few of the common types:
Developmental Editor: This person picks apart all aspects of your novel, including characterization, plot, pacing, storytelling skills, style, and so on. The developmental editor will often address reoccurring grammar errors, as well. It is up to the developmental editor whether or not they comment on spelling and proofing / line edits. Many do, but not all.
Line / Copy Editor: This is the person who picks apart how you word things, improves sentence structure, helps with word choice, and things of that nature. They don’t handle characterization, plot, most forms of pacing, and they usually won’t touch your storytelling skills and style. They will catch you on grammar usage, word choice, and spelling.
Proofing Editor: This person polishes your novel and corrects little errors. The proofing editor is the King or Queen of the comma, punctuation, spelling, subtle grammar errors, and little things that make your novel perfect. They catch your they’re/their/there errors, they know the difference between witch and which, and they know whether or not you should use that pesky oxford comma.
What editors don’t do:
- Implement the changes for you
- Rewrite your book for you if a rewrite is warranted
- Dictate how you fix your book – the writer always makes the final decision
There are many other things editors won’t do, but this is something you’ll need to discuss with your editor, because every editor is different.
Should an author choose between an editor and a critique group?
The author must make that decision, but why close doors unnecessarily? Critique groups and beta readers offer writers a lot of things. Editors offer different things to writers. They aren’t the same type of feedback. But, there is absolutely no reason you can’t take advantage of both worlds.
So, can editors and critique groups play nice together?
Yes, they can! In fact, as someone who does edit to put food on the table, I like when my writers expose their books to either beta readers or critique groups – beta readers and critique groups serve the same function. They do the same thing, except groups consist of more than one individual, and a beta reader is often hand-selected by the writer for a variety of reasons. A good beta reader and critique group exists for the same reason: To give you solid feedback on your story.
Ideally, an author will use a beta reader or two – or a run through a critique group – to prepare their manuscripts for editorial work. While a developmental editor will likely not care if there are major errors, spelling mistakes, and things like that, line and proof editors tend to get upset if the author has done no work on the book before it gets to them.
Having the experience of working with a critique group or beta reader will also help prepare for the reality of professional editorial. The editor wants your story to be the best it can be. Their feedback will be written with this goal in mind.
Your comfort and emotional well-being are secondary to their job. Working with an editor can be a shock to many, as the editor will touch on things that many beta readers and critique groups are afraid to do. It’s not easy accepting criticism from an editor. It’s very important that writers understand that editors aren’t there to make you feel happy. They’re there to make your novel the best it can be.
The author’s feelings come second.
When I edit for a client, I’m always aware of how I think my client will react. Do I soften the blow through exclusion? No. But, if I know I have a chapter of edits that are the equivalent to a kick in the gut, I make myself available, I warn the client that the edit notes are extensive and will be difficult to swallow, and I make certain I point out every good thing I can find in the story – this really helps to soften the blows of the negativity.
Yes, it may sound insane, but a good editor focuses on the good just as much as they do the bad – the last thing I want as an editor is to neglect the good things, as the author may very well edit out what is working in order to address what isn’t working. By pointing out the good things, the author has a much better chance of preserving the things that are working when fixing the things that don’t.
I’m going to take this discussion a step further – critique groups, beta readers, and editors all do the same thing: They help you improve your manuscript. Mileage varies. A good editor will do a significant amount more work than a critique group or beta reader.
What doesn’t change is how you handle the feedback you receive. There are a few things that you need to keep in mind when you’re accepting a critique:
- It isn’t about you. It’s about your story. You are not your story.
- You never have to use a piece of advice someone gives you.
- You’re under no obligation to agree with criticism – you’re only obligated to seriously consider what you’re told.
- You only have to thank them for their time. If they ask questions, answer them politely. You are under no obligation to write a novel in response to a critique.
- If you do not feel a change will help your story, don’t make the change – but you are obligated to prove to yourself why the change isn’t necessary.
Side Note: One of my clients calls me a devil-spawn child, because my favorite question is “why?” When I edit, I ask why. I ask why a character did something, why this plot even happened, why this conversation is important, or why that thing has to be detailed so intricately. At the same time, I’m also making comments on what I think will happen – that’s a foreshadowing edit, which lets an author know if they’re leaving enough clues behind for future things and set-up for big events.
If the answer doesn’t hold water, I ask why again – until the client finds a reason that fits the story and serves as a strong foundation for the rest of the book.
A good editor will force you to answer those why questions and justify your characters and world building. It is a difficult process. It’s hard for the writer not to roll over and play dead. But, when you have the courage to give the answer to that ‘why’, in a way that strengthens your story, you’re on the right track.
This can be a very, very difficult pill to swallow. Writers need to remember that initial vision is often not the best way to handle the story. There’s nothing wrong with changing things. Writers who accept this often grow in their writing skills much faster than those who do not accept the fact they’re not perfect and may need to change to breathe life into their stories.
Back to the list…
- Don’t be rude. Just because they didn’t like your book doesn’t mean you can be a jerk about it – they gave you their time. Give them your professionalism, even if you don’t feel they were a professional.
- Be willing to change. The only way you’re going to get the most out of a critique is if you decide you want to change yourself and your story for the better.
- Your glass is half full – this will help you get the most out of a critique. Sure, you have to fix things, but everything you need to fix is a good thing – it makes your story stronger.
How you perceive things is a big part of making a critique viable. If you believe you’re the best cup of coffee ever, no editor on this planet is going to be able to help you write a good story. You’re too set in your ways, and won’t be open to criticism.
Your beta readers, critique groups, and editors are there to help you improve. Sure, sometimes there are bad seeds out there, or people who don’t give good advice. It’s up to you to decide if advice is good or not.
If you aren’t sure, approach someone and ask for their opinion. Not every editor will make the time to read through critique or edit notes, but if you have a short email or comment thread, many will, if you ask them nicely and accept their thoughts without rejecting them because you don’t agree with it.
If you aren’t certain about something in the critique, ask the person who wrote the critique. They’re under no obligation to reply, but many will, because they want to help.
When it is all said and done, your attitude is what will determine whether or not you get the most out of a critique. Critiques can hurt, but if you go into it with the attitude of knowing you need to improve, the medicine is much easier to swallow.
Finally, remember the golden rule: Treat others as you want to be treated. If you want to receive thorough critiques, give those critiques to others. You’d be surprised at how many people will respond by offering you what they were given.
Like this advice?
Stalk RJ Blain, author of The Eye of God, at her website.
She has more precious advice for writers as well as listed resources.
Don't forget to look for: