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The High Cost of “Too Nice”: An Editor’s Rant

25 Feb

Recently I read an interview with an editor and founder of an independent press, who seeks to give new authors their first chance at publication.

Admirable goal.

We probably all remember this teenage dilemma: we need a job to buy a car, but without the car we can’t get the job. It’s a relief and an encouragement when someone gives the rookie a chance.

However, once that hand has been extended, must it always hold up the rookie? When does the new guy stand on his own two feet and meet the same standards the veterans are expected to meet?

image from life123.com

image from life123.com

I advocate setting the bar high. It gives not only a measure of ability, but a goal to meet. Not just meet, but sail over, leaving air between the bar and the body as the athlete exceeds the minimum and excels.

But doesn’t a high standard discourage those who can’t meet it?

Perhaps.

Some will look up at that bar, slump their shoulders, and turn away. Some will stare up in longing, thinking it’d be nice to reach that bar, but there are other priorities, too. And some will realize they’ll likely fail to reach it but train anyway, starting with small jumps, increasing their skill to meet greater challenges.

Is everyone who admires the goal, or takes a run at it, accepted to the team?

Returning to the interview: the editor revealed he has difficulty telling authors no, especially if they have solid projects. Now, “solid project” wasn’t defined, but I have edited many manuscripts for publication that shouldn’t have received contracts until major work (the basics) had been done. Premises might have been good, but execution was a mess: plot holes, illogical behaviors and characters, forced or inane dialogue, wonky sentences, and more. My job is to help prepare manuscripts for publication, but what I often end up being is a book doctor. Some authors even expect a bit of ghostwriting on the side.

The bar isn’t being met.

It’s not even being set.

The editor stated in the interview that, because he’s too nice, he delays rejections as long as possible.

As I see it, an editor’s job is not only to encourage writers, but to challenge them, to draw from them better and better work. It it isn’t to be so “nice” that they don’t feel the sting of failure, or that they never confront reality: “You’re good, kid, but you’re not there yet. Do it over.”

The cost of “too nice” is lazy, naive, or ill-equipped writers, as well as disappointed, annoyed readers whose online and word-of-mouth reviews will cost book sales. More importantly, readers will have little or no respect for authors who produce below-the-bar work.

And what of the publisher’s reputation? Or the editor’s?

Some books will never appear on my editing resume. The author and the publisher declared them good enough, and I let them go, but I have a reputation to keep, so those will not be books I trot out as examples of my abilities as an editor.

That’s another cost of “too nice”: a frustrated staff who pours time, effort, and skill into projects that may yield little result in the end.

It’s not about whether or not a writer likes me—”you’re nice” or “you’re mean”. It’s not about me. It’s not about the writer, either. It’s about whether or not his work excels.

Setting the bar aside, consider this illustration instead: a gate and its guardian. Not all who desire it may gain entrance. Not because they are unworthy or are somehow lesser beings, but because what they’re offering isn’t ready yet.

Why should the guardian prepare the gift? Is it his job to create the story, acquire the skills necessary to craft and polish it?

Perfection is not required—it’s not possible—but the writer must shoulder the burden of the work. He must realize that the guardian also has a task: not to quash the writer’s creativity, nor to write the book for him, but to hold him to a standard that must be reached before the gift is ready to pass through the gate and into the world.

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