Writer vs. Editor: The Showdown Within—By Malcolm Fraser

The relationship between writer and editor is complicated, fraught, an emotional and ethical minefield ready to detonate and splatter the room with shattered egos at any moment.  I would know—I witness this brutal conflict from both sides on a regular basis. (And right now, my editor side is telling my writer side to chill the hell out with the over-the-top imagery.)

I’ve been a writer since I could speak; I started making up stories, and unlike most kids I just never stopped. My dad is a writer, and his father was too—I guess it’s the family business. And since high school, when there were yearbooks and school newspapers that needed staff, I’ve also been an editor. If I’m being honest, I think my attraction to editing is probably a manifestation of OCD, or just uptightness—I just really don’t like mistakes, and I always feel a compulsion to fix them. Everything else is just finessing details.

The first time I worked as a professional writer was in 1999. Conrad Black had founded the National Post and was raining money on an old-fashioned newspaper war with The Globe and Mail. One of his projects was rebooting the moribund Saturday Night magazine as a weekly insert in the Post. Adam Sternbergh, today a novelist based in New York City, was hired to edit the front section, which he envisioned as a collection of eccentric tidbits. He approached me to contribute after a mutual friend showed him one of my zines. I would pitch him ideas, and he would always pick the weirdest ones, like a found poem made of notes I’d seen inside a parking lot attendant’s booth. The pay was good—without getting into numbers, let’s just say that a single-line gag (about how Toronto’s Anarchist Free School was not, in fact, free of anarchists) paid me more than twice what I’m getting for this entire article. As I write this, nearly every sentence reads like a snapshot of a bygone era; at the time, I figured my career would just grow from there—little did I know!

(Right now, my inner editor is asking whether all this detail is important; my inner writer insists that it adds context and colour to the story.)

Just as the era was, in retrospect, impossibly freewheeling and prosperous by the standards of our current Darwinian capitalist dystopia, Adam was the kind of editor you’d dream of having, but rarely actually end up with. His notes would always lead with praise, then get into constructive, actually helpful suggestions for how I could flesh out my ideas to make them better. I try to follow his example, though I don’t always succeed.

As an editor, I want to respect the writer’s voice, but sometimes you have to do some heavier lifting. You might be surprised at the state of the raw copy that comes in from some professional writers, even some you might have heard of. As much as I like to encourage good technique, the truth is that if you have a strong voice and a solid area of expertise, that can be much more valuable in a career than writing chops per se—as long as you are okay with trusting your editor to clean up your mess.

Some editors will just change your copy without asking. Needless to say, as a writer that always bugs me, except on the odd occasion when I can’t deny that it has improved on the original. For example, when I first moved to Montreal, I did some writing for a fashion magazine that was essentially just the vanity project of some rich douchebros. My editor, frustrated with his publishers’ demands for low-quality content, had assigned me a piece about how TV is really great, or something (the details are a little fuzzy in retrospect). He ended up rewriting it to the point where it was much more his piece than mine, but secretly I had to admit that what he wrote was funnier.

A few years later, I was working as an editor at the alt-weekly Montreal Mirror. A writer submitted her review very close to the deadline, and I rewrote some of her copy at the last minute. She was not happy and went over my head to complain to the editor-in-chief (pro tip: this is a risky move), who gently advised me to take it easy with my on-the-fly rewrites. I was extremely irritated and bitched about it to a few close people. When I told my dad, after a pause he said, “Yeah, I used to spend as much time writing angry letters to my editor as I did writing the article.” It was only then that I began to perceive that I might have been in the wrong. I regret my actions now, but I console myself that if my most heinous editorial sin was a misguided rewrite of a Jim Carrey comedy review for a now-shuttered paper, it could be worse.

So I always try to look at things from both sides, the writer’s perspective as well as the editor’s. I have to, because I never know which side I might end up on. Last year, I found myself assigning and editing an article by my former editor at the long-gone fashion magazine. And one of the writers I hired at the Mirror is editing this very piece that you’re reading right now. I hope she’s not too hard on me. It’ll be in on time (pretty much) and at the right word count (more or less). After all, I am a writer: a neurotic ball of insecurity, sensitivity, and need. Just the kind of writer my inner editor can’t stand, really. But that is a story for another time (specifically, the next time I can afford therapy).

Credit: Daniel Lafleche

Malcolm Fraser is a writer, musician, and filmmaker based in Montreal. His book Wooden Stars: Innocent Gears was published by Invisible Publishing in 2013. Malcolm is currently Associate Editor with Montreal Review of Books.

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