Back when we were kids we used to watch reruns of Gumby on TV. I vaguely remember my brother being a fan of the troublemaking Blockheads and I seem to recall my sister liking the concept of being able to walk into books, but being the simple boy I was, my favorite was Gumby’s dog, Nopey. Who could only say one word: “Nope!” (I mean, what willful child wouldn’t identify with a cute, friendly dog that went around saying “Nope!” to everything???)
Fast forward a few decades…
When we were designing our house, a very smart man looked at our plans, said some complimentary things, then added, “You know, if you angle this wall here, it’ll improve your view over there.” He was right, but I’ll admit that my first response was to channel Nopey because we were in the mindset of “doing it ourselves,” literally starting from a sketch done on a napkin. So I rationalized my reluctance, thinking things like, but then we’ll lose a few square feet in the corner of the room. But the idea was an undeniable improvement—brilliant, actually—and it wasn’t long before we made the change. And virtually every morning since—especially those rare and wonderful mornings when we both have the time to just sit in bed and write—I’ve looked at the view from where we sit and been so thankful we took the suggestion.
If you have an editor working on your book—whether paying you or getting paid by you—you don’t have to take all their suggestions. (If you do, there’s probably something wrong.) But if you say “Nope!” to all of them, there’s also probably something wrong. (Namely, you’re not really looking for an editor, you’re looking for a copyeditor. Or more likely a proofreader, as even a copyeditor will have editorial suggestions regarding voice consistency and story continuity and fundamental fact-checking, etc. Whereas when most people refer to a proof reader, they’re thinking of someone acting as a human F7, just checking the basic mechanics of spelling, grammar, and punctuation.)
Why do I bring this up? Allow me to spin an apocryphal tale…
There was a man who wrote a book. And his book had some really unique and interesting ideas. And when he finished, someone suggested he should have someone with editorial skills take a look at it before he went further. So he went looking for an editor, only he had the above mindset—that editing was scraping a document for mechanical errors. (As we’ve discussed before, thinking an editor does this is akin to thinking a financial advisor simply counts your money for you.) He found his “editor,” a smart young guy who read widely, had a language arts background, and was good at putting his thoughts to paper. And he had the guy read the manuscript, with the instructions that he wanted someone to edit the story, looking for mistakes, etc. And the guy did this, finding the usual typos and wordos, etc. But the guy also had questions, suggestions, and comments. As editors do. Like, “You’ve already explored this argument earlier. Maybe consolidate?” or “I’m unclear—who’s speaking here?" or “This speech is kind of wordy—maybe tighten it a little?” or “I’m having a hard time believing the character would do that—maybe do something to increase his motivation?”
But the man wasn’t interested in the guy’s suggestions regarding his work, so he said “Nope!” He just wanted to make sure everything was legal (spelling/grammar/punctuation-wise) and that was all. He was unfamiliar with the concept of: “The writing is for the writer; the rewriting is for the reader.” So he corrected the objective issues the editor found and globally ignored all the subjective ones.
And no big surprise, when reading the subsequent result one might think (a) wow, there are some really clever, unique ideas here, and (b) this thing could use an editor. (If the reader isn’t also a writer, their version of (b) might be more like: Hmm… I don’t find this book as compelling as I thought I would. I have the vague feeling that it could flow better and be more engaging, but I’m not sure why.) But the result is the same—a manuscript which doesn’t do the thematic concept justice, because the writer was unaware that an informed, outside view will almost always yield fresh and valuable insights. (Or he was arrogant enough to think no one else had ideas which could improve his work, but it’s my tale so I’m giving him the benefit of ignorance over arrogance.) But either way, his unique and interesting ideas died a slow death, largely unread, because he couldn’t see beyond saying “Nope!”
There’s a vital difference between not liking/not taking a specific suggestion and roundly rejecting the idea of editorial suggestions altogether. A lesson I had to learn when I first became a manager (mostly through watching what happened to managers who didn’t learn it) was that I didn’t have to be the guy who came up with all the good ideas. There’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) with being able to say “Hey wait a minute… that’s a better idea than my idea. So let’s stop the presses and do it your way instead!” Because an effective manager should be able to recognize good ideas and use them, regardless of source. And in some sense, besides being your story’s author, you’re also its manager… tasked with making it as strong as possible.
Almost no one likes to be told what to do. (Including me… hence my early love of Nopey.) I get that. But—assuming the editor/beta/critter has at least the social intelligence of a starfish—their suggestions shouldn’t be treated like insults. When someone has an idea (especially one about how to help you make your work better), the first step is to forget the source of it. Next, consider the idea as an idea, with no other preconceptions or baggage. (Imagine you thought of it, if that helps.) Then ask yourself: Is it a good idea? Does it resonate with me? Does it fit the story?
Obviously you should conduct this evaluation with the understanding that not all good ideas are necessarily right for your book. Books have a vibe, a theme, a personality… and an idea that’s contrary to the gestalt of the work may in fact harm more than help, no matter how clever it is. Which is why you, as the author, have the final say over which suggestions to take and which to leave.
Just don’t be like Gumby’s dog—as adorable as he was—and automatically say “Nope!” to everything.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.