An American Editor

March 4, 2019

Lazy Writing, Part 2 — Something to Combat, but Sometimes Appreciate

By Carolyn Haley

For Part 1 of this article, go to https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2019/02/15/thinking-fiction-lazy-writing-part-1-something-to-combat-but-sometimes-appreciate/

Extra padding

Sometimes lazy writing involves using more words than needed. Characters give a sigh or give a wink instead of just sighing or winking. They make their way somewhere instead of walking, driving, climbing, wending, etc. They have a feeling of dread about something instead of dreading it, or haven’t seen someone for a while instead of for hours, days, weeks, months, or years. Readers soon get tired of such lazy usage and yearn for some brevity and specificity.

The same effect occurs with over-creativity, by which I mean referring to a character in too many ways. Joe might be a short guy with black hair who is also a police officer in Chicago. As paragraphs about his action go by, he’s referred to as Joe, the short man, the black-haired fighter, the cop, and the Chicagoan. In trying to avoid repetition, the author ends up confusing the reader by introducing too many variables. This tends to happen in action novels, where a character is lightly sketched at first appearance and never developed to the point of being easily recognizable later. Such variability again makes the reader have to work hard to keep track of who’s who.

Loose ends

The most common lazy writing I encounter is false suspense, although this is a result less of laziness than ignorance. It usually occurs in a first novel, when the author doesn’t yet understand the difference between suspense that generates the “What happens next?” question and suspense that generates the “What’s going on?” question.

I recently challenged a client about why he kept starting new chapters in new places and times without telling us who was talking or where/when they were. That information came several paragraphs or even pages into the chapter. He said he liked dropping readers straight into the action. That’s fine if readers can follow the logic leap. If not, it’s a head-scratcher that is certain to leave readers impatient and confused.

Lazy writing occurs also in matters of verisimilitude. When writers get carried away with the excitement of their story and don’t later verify facts and logistics, it falls on the editor to burst their balloon by pointing out that a scene can’t happen the way it’s described.

Most such bloopers are easy fixes, such as adjusting the scene to account for moonlight (or lack of), or whether it’s possible to maneuver with bodies lying around underfoot, or how a specified gun type might behave, or accounting for vehicles left crashed in the middle of the road when the hero then zooms down said road unimpeded. Sometimes a technical blooper might require a major recast of scene or even storyline; but, thankfully for both writers and editors, bloopers usually are of the “duh” type, such as cigarettes lit but never put out (or smoked in 30 seconds or 30 minutes), or the consequences of a major wound (people who don’t bleed, or continue running around when they’ve had a lung shot out), and the like. Fixing those items doesn’t require revising the whole book.

The subjectivity factor

The laziest of lazy writing, in my passionate opinion, is the cliffhanger, be it the ending of a scene, a chapter, or an entire book. I acknowledge that this can be a matter of taste, and I struggle with determining whether that’s truly the case or if the story is hurting itself by using that device. How to respond to cliffhangers is, perhaps, the most difficult decision I must make as an editor. Do I let it go, or flag it as a criticism or item for discussion? As a recreational reader on my own time, cliffhangers inspire me to simply toss a book over my shoulder, but as a professional editor, I can’t do that.

Cliffhangers strike me as a cheap shot, as manipulative, as author intrusion into a story. They occur most often in series novels, used as an attempt to bribe readers into reading the next book. I consider cliffhanging a lazy technique because, as a reader, I want resolution. I am willing to keep turning pages if the author keeps the suspense and interest mounting, but I don’t need to be compelled to continue by force. I want closure of the individual volume’s story with promise of more to come, not major components left dangling to provoke me into reading the next book.

As with almost everything relating to writing and editing novels, subjectivity is a big factor. My job as an editor is to inform an author about any spot where other readers might bark their shins. It’s up to the author to decide whether those places are things they want to think about and change.

If the author chooses to let an issue stand, I’m fine with that. I care only that they make an informed choice. The marketplace will decide whether it’s the right choice. Most of us know that you can’t please everyone, and the author’s goal is to connect with the audience who wants to read their stuff. My job as an editor is to help them achieve that end.

The editor’s role

It’s a rare editor who doesn’t encounter lazy writing during their career. Those who work with indie authors, especially new ones, encounter it often. Tolerance for editing lazy writing should be considered when deciding what kind of editorial work to do for a living. That tolerance level also an important component of structuring contracts — defining exactly what the editor is going to do to the client’s manuscript is essential to a good working relationship.

If you have the heart and soul of a developmental editor, and you find clients willing to pay the cost, then you can dive into someone’s early work and help them avoid symptoms of lazy writing. This not only gives you job satisfaction, but also helps line and copy editors down the road, who might not be developmentally inclined and have a harder time sorting out the material, defining the boundaries of their work, and helping their clients.

Line and copy editors do sometimes have to deal with un-developmentally-edited texts, because their clients are unwilling or unable to pay for the higher level of edit that would catch and help the author fix instances of lazy writing. In all cases, no matter what level of editing is involved, editors have to define terms and expectations carefully in the work they propose to provide. Copy editors are generally limited to making comments and queries instead of rephrasing, and both editor and author might end up tearing their hair out if the “edited” manuscript is overloaded with changes and queries attacking the text when that’s not part of the agreed-upon scope of work. A client expecting the mechanical focus of copyediting might not be open to the heavy hits on their prose by an editor who recognizes lazy writing and tries to improve it, while a client expecting deep involvement in their prose might feel cheated if all they get are mechanical edits.

Appreciating the lazy …

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate lazy writing. It forces me to concentrate on a story and think hard about the details, get engrossed in the characters, take the author seriously. Addressing the questions that lazy writing triggers and talking with the author about them brings out the best of our relationship, letting us blend the artistic and analytical elements that bring out the best of the work. Ultimately, we all — author, editor, and the story itself — end up more muscular and vibrant. How can that not result in a better book?

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

July 27, 2010

Editors and the Amazon Paradox

In a recent tête-à-tête with a couple of publishing colleagues, the discussion turned (unsurprisingly) toward the business of editing and whether good-paying editing jobs are harder to come by in the Internet age. I asked a question that sort of chilled the conversation: “Don’t you think that by buying books from Amazon you are depressing your editing market?” This is the paradox of Amazon for editors.

As a consumer, Amazon has one great virtue: low(est) pricing on books (actually, it has a second great virtue — unsurpassed customer service — but this virtue isn’t germane to the discussion). But as good as that virtue is from the buying side, it has many negative ramifications. And before you tear into me about how there are no collateral negatives, think Wal-Mart, because that is what Amazon is — the Wal-Mart of books. And unlike Wal-Mart, which doesn’t do its own manufacturing, Amazon is crossing the line and adding publishing (i.e., manufacturing) to its stable of businesses.

Wal-Mart raises hackles because its low pricing pushes local businesses out of business and because suppliers, in an effort to meet Wal-Mart’s pricing and quality requirements, put downward pressure on pay and work conditions. And so we Americans get on our high horse and try to keep Wal-Mart out of our backyard and picket Wal-Mart to improve supplier conditions. We also complain about other high-profile companies who use low-pay, poor-factory-work- conditions suppliers in developing and third world countries. But we don’t complain about Amazon and its wal-martian attempts to influence the supply chain.

Yet for editors and others in publishing, this push by Amazon is leading us to our own Donnybrook. As I have noted in other articles (see, e.g., Viewing the Future of Publishing, eBooks & the Future of Freelance Editors, and Editors in the Offshore World), the pressure on publishers has ripple effects and has been a significant force in depressing the wages of editors (and other publishing professionals). When I first entered publishing 26 years ago, I never thought the day would come when I would be offered editing work at an hourly rate of 50% of the minimum wage, yet that was an offer made to highly skilled, experienced, specialist editors just a few months ago.

So isn’t it paradoxical that the people whose livelihood is based on earnings made in publishing buy their books from the company that is leading the charge to depress pricing? I think so. Reminds me of the autoworker who picketed carrying a sign “Buy American” but then got into his foreign-made car.

The one truism about us Americans is that we are equal opportunity suiciders. We want someone else to make the sacrifice as we turn a blind eye to our own acts that lead to our own economic hara-kiri. I realize that boycotting Amazon/Wal-Mart and shopping at Barnes & Noble/Target doesn’t address the problem. This is really, fundamentally, a philosophical/ethical conundrum. I also realize that there is no truly satisfactory resolution available. So I focus what little boycott energy I have on those who are most visible and leaders in their retail sectors and simply choose not to buy from them.

I grant that my single voice is not worth much in this fight, but it is a matter of principle. I don’t buy from Amazon because I see Amazon as the behemoth who will ultimately, if successful, destroy my livelihood. I think there needs to be a balance, a fair price that is midway between low pricing and pricing sufficient to enable producers to earn a fair wage.

Interestingly, Amazon’s pressures aren’t good for authors either. As the book market’s tipping point pricewise continues downward (Does anyone really think that $9.99 for a New York Times bestseller is as low as it will go?), so does the pressure on authors to lower their prices to be competitive. Look at how many authors are pricing their books between free and $2.99 today. At a 70-30 split, $2.99 seems to be a great price point for an author, but is it really? The net proceeds the authors receive may be better than what they have been receiving from traditional publishers, but that doesn’t equate to a fair return for their labors. A fair return is an animal of a different stripe.

To break free from the competition requires a lot of work on an author’s part. To make a book that gets rave reviews from up and down the reading spectrum takes a significant investment. The work needed to publicize and distribute the book takes a lot of time and effort. The lower the price, the lower the return and the harder it is to devote the time, energy, and money necessary to turn a labor of love into the next Harry Potter.

And we’ve had these discussions before about the editorial quality of many self-published ebooks. No matter how the chase is cut, it always boils down to the author being unable or unwilling to spend several thousand dollars on professional help because the author really can’t see that he/she will sell enough copies to earn back the investment plus a decent profit. Isn’t that what underlies the problem discussed in I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors?

So, I ask again, albeit a bit differently: Although Amazon’s pressure to move pricing downward is great for consumers who love a bargain, isn’t it a mistake for those of us who work in publishing to support Amazon by buying our books from it? I expect most of you will say “no” and tell me how wrong I am, but as an editor whose livelihood depends on publishers and authors continuing to need my services, I see Amazon as wanting to be the Wal-Mart of the publishing world.

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