Walking the Line: An Editor's Nightmare

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Title: Walking the Line: An Editor's Nightmare
Creator: Cinda Gillian and Jody Norman
Date(s): December 1993
Medium: print
Fandom: multifandom
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Walking the Line: An Editor's Nightmare is a 1993 essay by Cinda Gillian and Jody Norman.

It was published in A Writers' Exchange #8.

From the Essay

Who are we? What are we doing? And how far can we go?

After reading E. Michael Whitmore's article "Just Who Is Editing My Story?" [in "A Writers' Exchange" #7] we're not sure. We don't fit any of the categories exactly, but if you had to label us, Ghost WriterlEditor is the closest you'd come. We want our zines to be professional, or at least as professional as we can get and still have jobs, graduate school and something that passes for a social life.

We are Ghost Writers, according to E. Michael's classification. And, quite frankly, we can get it done faster ourselves. Speed isn't the only rule we work by, but it is an important one. We have a set of standard writing problems that we clean up in any story we receive (these include corrections for spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax, passive voice, redundant attributives, and unclear pronoun referents). We don't feel that it's necessary to send stories back to the author if these are the only changes made. For us there simply isn't enough time to do markups for every submission we receive. So, we take it upon ourselves to get the job done, at least with a particular set of revisions. (This fact is clearly stated in our guidelines, along with notification that the author will not be given a chance to review these edits before publication unless they specifically request it.)

We do not see a problem with this approach, but a recent incident caused us to re-evaluate it. (We decided not to change our strategy, but it has heightened our interest about where editorial boundaries lie.)

So, how far can we go as Editors or as Ghost Writers?

What follows is our editor's nightmare. This is the one and only time anything like this has happened to us-and we sincerely hope it never happens again. (We also thought that WE would be an appropriate forum to "vent" our frustrations about this incident.)

But back to our story.... One hot and humid summer afternoon a thick envelope greeted us at the post office box, and upon opening it, we discovered a 100+ page Western written by an editor-shy writer. The story was imaginative and interesting, but there were numerous mechanical problems relating to passive voice, incoherent pronouns, muddled point of view, and bizarre paragraph structure.

Since the writer was editor shy, we randomly selected two pages of the text and did a mark-up in red ink showing the kinds of changes we'd require to solve the above-mentioned problems. We returned the two pages to the writer, whom we shall call Alice. We also explained that, due to the volume of stories and zines that we deal with, we'd make these corrections throughout the text ourselves and send her a galley co·py for her approval. She agreed, and we proceeded to do just that.

When we returned the galley to Alice, we asked her to read it over and make any changes she thought necessary. We made it clear that if she didn't like some of the changes we'd made, she was free to substitute her own corrections on the galley and return it to us. The changes Alice received were exactly the same as those on the marked-up pages we'd sent earlier. We told Alice that her story was the last edit that needed to be completed before the zine was ready to go to print, and encouraged her to return the manuscript with the necessary changes as soon as possible.

Alice agreed that the majority of changes benefited the story, but she disagreed with some. She marked these in the text, and sent the edited galley back to us. So far so good.

However, some of the changes Alice demanded were clearly grammatically incorrect. Others challenged what we've been taught is good writing style and structure. But, we believe that a story does belong to the author, and if said author insists on bending the rules of grammar and good writing, it's the writer's responsibility. After all, she had left enough of.our corrections unaltered that we felt the story still fit our overall standards.

About a week later, we received a call from Alice stating that she had read the galley over again and found more changes that must be made, or it "wouldn't be her story anymore." She said that the changes were necessary in order for the story to "feel right" to her. We could expect ten more pages with corrections we were to include.

Three days later, we received 38 pages of corrections that returned much of the manuscript to its original form, or replicated the problems we'd corrected in the first place. At this point we considered pulling the story and suggesting that she find other editors, but we had counted on the pages when planning the zine, and losing 100+ would have made going to print unfeasible. We didn't feel this would be fair to the rest of the contributors, so we decided to delay the print and make the "required" changes.

We informed Alice that we'd made the second set of corrections, and that we were going to print. We ran a master copy of the zine, but before it reached the printer, Alice called again and said that she had more changes that "absolutely must be made" because the story still "didn't feel right." We explained that a master copy was already run, but we were willing to reprint a few pages. She said three more pages were in the mail. We received ten. Some of her changes were to sections that we hadn't even edited.

Knowing Alice's supposed history, we made ten pages worth of changes and ran a new master copy. We thought all was safe. We informed Alice that her latest edits were made and that the master copy was now with the printer.

A few days later we received yet another call. Alice demanded three more changes. We must, she insisted, call the printer and have him stop the run. If the changes were not made, we should pull the story. We were not pleased.

[MUCH more snipped]

What Alice needed was a Publisher, according to E. Michael's designations. When every word is considered a pearl by the writer, any change is too much. She didn't need an editor, even a Ghost Writer, because she was completely smitten with her own "voice."

Obviously Alice is one extreme. But within this continuum, at what point, realistically, has an editor gone too far? What kinds of changes should be expected from any editor? Where do we draw the line between allowing what an author thinks "feels right" or "sounds right" and what is laid out in grammar and writing manuals? Who has the final say when both writer and editor have entered into what should be a working partnership? And in a partnership each participant has their own set of tasks to perform, as well as shared tasks.

Which tasks belong to the writer, and which to the editor? Which are shared?

Obviously if we hadn't sent the story back to Alice, she would have screamed and cried that she had been taken advantage of once again. But would she have been? We don't think so. If we'd ignored all her whining and wailing and printed the story with just the first set of changes, it would have been a better read. Technically, it was certainly more grammatical. But would that have been a breach of her rights as an author? And where are the editor's rights in all of this? At what point were we taken advantage of?

And, as far as we were concerned, doing a page-by-page mark-up on that 108 page story was completely unrealistic. We wouldn't have published the zine until 1994! We're Ghost Writers, but we're Editors, too. We try to put out the best zine possible. We try to help each writer tell the best story possible. But sometimes this means that we make changes ourselves, without consulting the writer. Are we always right? No. Do we always try? Yes.

Maybe the notion of Editor, Ghost Writer and Publisher is too simplistic. There are some writers who need Publishers, at least until they reach a position where they're able to accept editorial suggestions. And we don't mind a good Ghost Writer polishing our submitted stories-it saves us time, makes for a better read for everyone, and we learn something. When we do get extensive mark-ups from Editors, we learn from those, too. Fandom and fan writing are extremely fluid and flexible, and that's part of the fun, but how far should editors go?