5. Professional writing is a group activity.

When you’re being paid to write something, you’re not the lone romantic protagonist doing everything yourself, expressing your true vision, et cetera, et cetera. You’re writing a thing that other people are going to read, and you want to make sure that they’ll be glad they’ve read it. I already told you this: It’s not about you, it’s about your readers.

If people are going to pay for your writing, it has to be worth paying for, and several people who know the business will help make sure it is. (Yes, yes, some publications have cut back their staff quite a bit, but even there it’s not all about your personal vision and nothing else.) The professional publication process is a long string of professional advice. If you’re writing a book, there may be a developmental editor helping you to get it all together; there will be a structural editor helping make sure your arrangement of the flow is solid; there will be a copyeditor making sure that the reading experience is not sloppy or annoying; there will be one or more proofreaders making sure that no last little mechanical errors have slipped in. If you’re writing an article, you’re writing it to a commission and a deadline and a target length – and you damn well better bring it in on topic, on length, and by deadline – and the commissioning editor has a say over what your topic is and the copyeditor makes sure it’s suitable for the publication.

So you don’t get to be the Lone Ranger. You get to be the Buddha: You have to practice detachment. Gladly see your shimmering prose altered or deleted. Learn to cooperate and not be a jerk to other people who are also trying to get the readers something they will be glad they’ve read. They all want to give the best results. They won’t be right about everything, but neither will you. They cut something you really liked? That’s fine – you liked it, and you read it, so it was read by someone who liked it. You’ll write more in the future that lots of people will like. Just keep going. You can produce millions of words in your lifetime; if some of them don’t go, just write more.

Also, take your turn when it’s your turn. Is the book or article with you awaiting your revisions? Get them back by deadline, or do you not want this thing to be published? This is work, you know, not a hobby. Is the book or article with someone else for editing? Keep your damn hands off it. Oh, you just thought of one more change you would like to make, and you’re sure that they won’t mind if you send this revision to them after they’ve already started their edits on it? NO. NO NO NO NO NO! You can make that revision when it’s your turn again and not before. If I’ve done an hour or two or ten on your document, I don’t want to have to redo all that work and I don’t want to have to transfer in your changes.

I’ve worked with a lot of writers, and most of them have been pretty nice, but a few of them have been self-important and demanding. I have observed no correlation between how good the writing is and how difficult the writer is. While that does mean that you might be a great writer even if you’re an asshole, it also means that the editors you’re working with can get writing of equal or better quality from writers who aren’t assholes. And they will. Remember the second rule of writing? Don’t be a jerk. 

Your name may be on the byline, but – I just said this four paragraphs ago – it’s not about you. It’s about your readers. They’re not there for what you want, they’re there for what they want, and you’re a part of a team put together to make sure they get it. And you get the credit. So play nicely with others. It’s not optional.

2 responses to “5. Professional writing is a group activity.

  1. The big question is, are your readers the editors?

  2. Pingback: 12 Days of Gifts for Writers | Sesquiotica

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