Something came up recently in a social media group which I thought it might be prudent to address, as many of you are probably running into it to the detriment of your careers as writers.
It was the question of whether or not a writer should accept criticism based on an editor’s feedback when that criticism is entirely a matter of that editor’s personal taste. For example, ‘Your story is well-written, but we didn’t like the way the heroine died at the end so we’ll have to reject the piece’ or ‘Great story, but we feel that the hero should have accepted his destiny and gone on to triumph, so we’re not printing it.’
These kinds of comments brought something important to light: it seems that many editors accept work for their publications based perhaps entirely on personal taste.
Now let’s be clear: it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone to set up a publication and to accept submissions for that publication based completely on what they, the editors, personally like or dislike. You might be a big fan of Regency romances, for example, and so decide to publish an anthology of such stories. You take in submissions and choose stories you personally like for publication. So far, so good.
But there’s a distinction to be made between stories which a particular editor or group of editors like personally, and stories which are good in themselves. And the problem arises for writers when the feedback given by editors is based on personal opinion as opposed to an assessment of objective value, without making it clear which is which.
In the imaginary comments above, for instance, unless the editors make it clear that their rejection of a piece is based purely on personal taste, writers can be left with the impression that their work is of less worth — that, in other words, their fiction is weak in itself, rather than just failing to delight a particular individual or set of individuals.
If it’s made clear to the writer that a piece isn’t going to be accepted simply because it didn’t appeal to an individual editor, that writer is able to walk away with a certain amount of confidence and knowledge. The above comments, for example, could have been rephrased along these lines:
‘Your story is well-written; it’s simply a matter of personal taste that we didn’t like the way the heroine died at the end so we’re rejecting the piece on that basis’ or ‘Great story, but we are of the opinion that the hero should have accepted his destiny and gone on to triumph, so we’re not printing it based purely on our own views.’
Result? The writer can send the piece elsewhere without feeling that it is a ‘failed story’, just that it didn’t appeal to those particular editors.
Underlying this is a crucial point, which some readers may find hard to grasp: a piece of fiction can have strengths (and weaknesses) quite apart from its appeal (or lack of appeal) to individual readers.
This may be a new idea for some. It’s possible that many editors — in fact, many readers as a whole — only judge the worth or value of a piece of fiction based on their personal likes and dislikes. It may even be true that some editors, lacking an objective grasp of what makes a story effective, have only their personal opinions and tastes to fall back on when judging whether or not to publish a piece of work. Not that there’s much wrong with that — it’s merely a limitation which can be understood and worked with if need be.
But what you, as a writer, really need from an editor, I would suggest, is feedback not based on personal likings but on an objective understanding of what makes fiction effective or ineffective. That kind of feedback is like gold: you can glean from it what it is about your fiction that works for readers and learn to develop the aspects which don’t, so that your work as a whole gets stronger and stronger.
‘But surely all feedback is based on opinion?’ some may object.
No, it’s not.
I have published hundreds of short stories over the last few years. Many of them I personally liked because they were attuned to my own preferences, but many more — probably most — fell outside my own individual tastes. I would not normally have reached for them from a bookshelf, as a reader; but as an editor, I could tell that they possessed qualities which meant that they would appeal to readers in some way, regardless of those readers’ personal penchants.
When editing, in other words, I put aside my ‘reader’ hat and wear my ‘editor’ hat — I choose stories based on a set of objective criteria, not on my own opinions.
Works of fiction have underlying factors upon which they succeed or fail as stories.
You might like horror stories, for example — but that doesn’t mean that every horror story you read is any good. You might have a taste for Westerns — but not every Western you read works as a story. You will all have examples from your own experience of stories which fell well within your favourite genre and even your most preferred writing style, but which crumbled dismally as stories. They failed because their authors either did not know about or didn’t succeed in applying the underlying ‘laws’ of storytelling. Perhaps it was something to do with character, perhaps with plot, perhaps with structure — but somehow, even though on the surface they looked appealing enough, they collapsed and were disappointing.
Something about them didn’t ‘work’ even though you may have tried really hard to like them.
What you really need to know from an editor is not whether or not he or she ‘liked’ a particular piece, but what was objectively working in that piece and what was not.
A worse scenario for a writer is to fall into the hands of an editor whose entire basis of operation is personal opinion.
Perhaps you have had this experience: an editor is ‘working with you’ but you have the impression that he or she is all the time overtly or covertly attempting to mould your work into something else, something you never intended it to be — effectively, that editor, you feel, is ‘re-writing’ your story.
Now, you may be fortunate enough to be working with an editor who grasps the objective fundamentals of storytelling. In that case, your experience will be like this: as work goes on, you will feel that your story is more and more taking the shape that you had originally wished it would take — elements are being spotted in it, factors coming to light, connections being made, until the whole thing stands fully-fledged before you like a statue carved from raw marble into a beautiful figure. That editor has helped you to see what you always felt was there all along; that editor is someone who understands how fiction works. Never once would that editor ‘step on your writing toes’; never would that editor try to twist something to fit a different pattern or outcome than the one you had intended. In fact, in all likelihood, that editor left your work very much alone and only polished it slightly or fixed technicalities so that your voice came through more clearly.
Opinionated editors, on the other hand, if they take on your work, are more likely to try to change it to suit their own preferences. They may do so unconsciously, or they may do so knowingly — either way, ‘editing’, with them, can be a tortuous experience.
So the message is try to avoid editors whose approach is based only on opinion. Find instead someone who knows what he or she is talking about — that person will be more likely to know what you are taking about too.