I spent several decades as a creative writing teacher, literary consultant and book doctor. For most of that time I seldom needed to draw the distinction between coaching and editing. Both elements merged together with my clients and I loved that process. Although it was sometimes grueling work, especially the editing part, it paid well and many of my clients became published authors.
Now the world of publishing has changed so quickly and comprehensively that we have to clearly separate the two functions of coaching and editing.
Writers who want to become published authors need to learn to write well. Many come to the foothills of the profession with a love of story and perhaps some ability to tell stories; however, strangely, most authors start out as not very good writers. They have to learn their profession, and it’s not easy. The innate “talent” in a writer isn’t usually in putting words on paper, it’s more often the almost mystical ability to remember and imagine, and only then to impart imagery and emotion to readers through skillful language. Imagination is free, the ability to write is costly to learn.
I can’t tell you how many times in my professional life I’ve heard some non-writer say, “That book was so simple—I could write that!” I always answer by telling them to let me know when their first draft is done.
Good author coaching should be friendly, supportive, and, above all, honest. I’ve yet to run across a motivated writer who could not be taught to write well in some sort of genre, and often not exactly of the genre of his or her choosing. It might be hard to hear that you’re more like Elmore Leonard than D.H. Lawrence, or write more like Jackie Collins than Virginia Woolf. Discovering a writer’s strengths is usually a collaborative effort, which requires trust and a hefty investment in time and money.
And then there’s the “life coaching” that writers need: how to set up for success; how to retain good discipline; how to maneuver through the treacherous waters of traditional publishing and satisfying self-publishing; which classes to take; which MFA programs tontry. It can all be very confusing, so what’s needed is straightforward and clear mentoring.
The process of editing is, of course, multifold. In the analogue days of paper manuscripts I always used my editing marks as a teaching tool. I would show the writer why a particular sentence or paragraph needed moving to a more useful place in the text. I would show clearly how faulty punctuation could make the writer look foolish. I would try to talk them out of using cliches or trendy words and phrases. I still use that method today by clearly red-lining the electronic manuscript and encouraging the writer to examine every edit. I do this through all three phases of the editing process.
There are three kinds of editing, and they’re not always called by the same names: I always used the terms substantive editing, copy editing and proofreading. Those terms have given way to new, more universally understood phraseology. For more information, go to the Editorial page to read the distinctions. You’ll find them interesting and perhaps a little intimidating at first.
The main thing to remember is that writing is not easy. Part of authorship is having the wisdom to accept the hard work–the multiple edits on various levels that a book needs if it is to be considered a ‘good’ book. This is the hardest part of authorship–to know when to keep going and to resist the silly urge to “publish and be damned.” I hate that phrase. No one needs to be damned; much better to be praised.