Help an editor keep their cool
September 16, 2011 4:23 PM   Subscribe

I've been asked to type up and edit a work of fiction for a friend / relative / neighbor, and it's driving me nuts.

How can I adapt my frame of mind so that I am not driven mad by working on a MSS. that I have major issues with. Writer does not have a computer, writer is not on the Internet, so the likelihood is very small that writer is reading AskMe.

Writer is turgid; there are long, static descriptions that read more like "A Tour Guide to _______" than anything else, and that do not serve to advance the plot, which is supposed to be suspenseful.

Writer inserts soft-core porn scenes that make me quite uncomfortable; furthermore, these also do nothing to advance the plot.

Writer's subject falls into a socio-political ballpark that I have problems with.

I'm letting you fill in the blanks; the work could be a suspense fic set in multiple countries, a historical novel, or a work of science fiction, fantasy, or fanfic. I may have been asked to type up a James Bond or Tom Clancy homage, an Ayn Rand historical novel, or a SF novel similar to Heinlein or the Gor novels. To be fair, I don't think and I don't want you to think that Writer's fiction is as far right as that. It isn't deep red (in the sense of red state). But it's definitely reddish. I am blue, and probably indigo.

Should I bail out, when, how without provoking a major unpleasantness? At present I shut off my brain when doing the typing and suggest corrections only when something is objectively wrong; I am not there to pass judgement on Writer's work. I have been quite polite.

I realize professional editors frequently have to work with and edit writers whose work they don't like. I would not like to believe that the editors of Orson Scott Card's novels (OSC has been discussed many times on Mefi) have the same beliefs about gay people as Card, and what if said editor, copy editor, etc. is gay? What mental tricks do editors use to distance themselves from a work and the author?

Of course, professional editors need to help the publishers make money and can refuse a work if it is not good, so perhaps I need advice from beta readers of fanfic. What do you do when a close acquaintance has just added to the chronicles of Mary Sue?
posted by bad grammar to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
So don't do it.

Your time has value. You have better things to do than typing in a damned handwritten manuscript - That goes beyond "friendship".

At most, offer him/her time at your PC to type it in. Offer to read it, but anything beyond that pushes the limit.
posted by pla at 4:28 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had to do this for a dear person. I feel the depth of your pain. That person was extremely creatively talented, actually, but in this particular context: deep hurting.

I was up front at every turn. I would say, "look, this doesn't work because of this, this and this." Sometimes I would just give him a look and he would know I had an issue. I kept typing, because I said I would and he couldn't type as such, but I was perfectly polite and repetitive. I avoided all use of the word "sucks."

I vented like hell to other folks, though. Whoo. This I can suggest, although if you do it online, cover your tracks very well.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:33 PM on September 16, 2011

Just wanted to clarify; you are not interested in backing out of the project, just in how to soldier through it while maintaining your sanity, correct?
posted by stellaluna at 4:46 PM on September 16, 2011

Get out, now. If the writing is that bad, the person writing it is almost certainly not interested in the strength of the work itself; attempts to strengthen it will be met with resistance, anger, and hurt. And hurting someone because of their terrible writing that was never going to get published anyway and is really just a form of hobby/therapy/pipe-daydream for them is a horrible and really gratuitous feeling, trust me.

Is doing horrible work on an MS you hate worth your relationship with this person? Because that's what it will come down to.

Apologise, tell them work has just gotten crazy busy or something, and that by time you get home you just don't have the mental energy to give it the attention it deserves. There are tonnes of manuscript assessment/editing services out there - many are even non-shit. Give your friend the details of your state's writer's centre and tell them to take it from there.

Abort Mission, Pull Out Now.
posted by smoke at 4:47 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Tell them thanks but no thanks: you don't have the time to do a good job.

Alternatively, do a quick check on how much a professional would charge for editing & word processing the manuscript, and smile while you tell them that certainly you'll be happy to do it --- for an amount 10% more than that pro would have charged.
posted by easily confused at 4:47 PM on September 16, 2011

Ah, sorry--missed the "should I bail out" part. I change my answer to yes. Not worth it.
posted by stellaluna at 4:49 PM on September 16, 2011

Writer does not have a computer? Can the writer type? Suggest he/she uses the computers at a local public library.

And, seriously, what kind of benefit are you getting in return? Remember that professional editors are getting a paycheck. They work for a certain type of publisher that likely fits in with their moral and political worldview. They are not the first point of contact for someone's manuscript.

Also, as a creative writer myself, what a *good* writer appreciates most is CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM. If you feel comfortable giving criticism, and can do it in a way that will honestly help the writer improve his/her work, do that.

Now, you may not be the writer's target audience, and that may be the entire problem here. But you should have a frank conversation with the writer and let them know that you are extremely uncomfortable working on said manuscript, but giving a solution for how they can still get the work done. A writer should be willing to type up their own manuscript. Perhaps you know of someone who has a point of view closer to the writer's and would be more fitted to do the editing. Most certainly, he/she will get much more out of having his/her target audience give feedback on the MS.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:50 PM on September 16, 2011

I am being paid, and I do want to soldier through it, because quitting isn't worth the emotional unpleasantness that will result. However, I do have a deadline coming up in another (major) project and I am planning to ask for a month's hiatus, and will suggest that writer try to finish so that I can see where it's going.
posted by bad grammar at 4:53 PM on September 16, 2011

First, I would agree that typing up a whole manuscript for free goes above and beyond. Lend them a laptop or something maybe, but don't do it yourself.

As for the editing piece: Rather than trying to polish this particular turd all the way, why not do the first chapter or so, then sit down with the author and work through what you've edited and why. Then maybe give them a chance to edit the rest on their own before you do another pass. Hopefully, they'll learn from the experience and you will have an easier time with future drafts.
posted by tau_ceti at 4:53 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

*wince* I've had to do this too. (For a guy I went to kindergarten with. His screenplay. Which opened with A PORN SCENE. A badly-written one. GAH.)

One way you could lessen the pain for yourself is: generalize. Find a few big, over-all problems and concentrate on just those things when you're giving him your notes. Does he consistently say things like "interjected" "opined" or "espoused" rather than just plain "said"? Do his all his scenes feature a lot of exposition and no action? Does he use the descriptor "zestfully" too many damn times?

Start there, give him those two or three general things -- maybe highlight all the places he's done them, so he can see it's throughout the entire thing -- and then say you're "giving him a chance to work on that and do a second draft". If he actually does fix all of those things, it'll be the rising tide that lifts this boat some, and then you will have recovered enough for more specific critique; if he doesn't fix them and never comes back to you with another draft, then, there you go.

But constructive critique will also be better received; I am taking it as read that you know that "this part here just sucked" isn't good, more like "you use the passive voice a lot, and that tends to make people's writing sound less forceful and assertive in general".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:30 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with tau_ceti. Don't undervalue your time, unless you're being paid extremely well (and hourly). An editor's job is to deepen and enrich, not rewrite. When I beta-read manuscripts for writers and realize they're making many of the same mistakes over and over again, I usually critique the first few chapters, then let the writers know they need to do another pass themselves before I can help them with the rest. I make sure to give them clear descriptions & explanations of exactly what they should be looking for, with multiple examples.
posted by changeling at 5:32 PM on September 16, 2011

When the writer asked you to edit this manuscript, did they explain at all what that meant to them? Editing, as a profession, has a lot of little niches; you may be working from different definitions of what was expected, here. If all they want is a copyediting job, then I think you're doing fine. Smile and nod, correct typos and bad grammar, and keep a gchat window open so you can vent about the real howlers to your friends.

If they want something a little more constructive, that's a bit more difficult, but I think it's still do-able. Stick to small, concrete suggestions. "I wonder if you might want to shorten that bit of description up; it slows down the action at a tense point in the plot." The smaller and more concrete the better.

As for how you stay detached --- well, I mean this thing ain't your ugly baby. You're not being paid by the caring readership of a grateful nation to make sure another shitty novel doesn't get written. The gig is to help this thing be a better version of the thing he wants it to be. If that means saying, "Well, you know, I actually thought the Dear Leader would have been a bit more strident in that speech where he's crushing his enemies, it seems like you're really trying to get at how craven they are, so I feel like you could go ahead and use a phrase like 'bloodsucking leeches'" then that's what it means.

Then go read Meg Worlitzer's The Wife. You'll get a kick out of it.
posted by Diablevert at 5:47 PM on September 16, 2011

I had a hard time typing stuff for my kids because I couldn't not think I am typing=I am writing even though it was not the case. And while I don't put myself in the rarefied group of *good writers*, not being a *bad writer* is pretty central to my identity.

So typing my children's work drove me half out of my mind until I managed to just type it without reading it -- I can't explain how to do this, but it can be done -- with original misspellings, grammar mistakes, whatever, intact, as if it were code. Then, I'd go through and look for egregious things, and correct only those. Then, I'd see if my kid (and later, client) was happy. If so, I'm done. If the writer had concerns about something or asked for specific input, only then do I work on style.

After all, Dan Brown has an editor. Clearly that person is careful to preserve Dan Brown's style, which a lot of people like. Bad writing has an audience, an audience which apparently prefers it to good writing. Your job, I'm thinking, is not to make the piece good, but to make it (a) Typed, and (b) Free of errors. Your acquaintance's opus may be the worse thing that was ever bad; you just have to remember that it is not on you.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 5:57 PM on September 16, 2011

Wait, this damn thing isn't finished yet? Bail. He might keep writing on this for years for all you know.

Also, no, never offer to type up an MS for free; there are people who do that for money and that's where this person should have gone.

They are using you, and I would be surprised if they are paying you anything close to the market rates you would get as a professional editor. There is no literary merit in this're not going to use this as an example of your editing, I assume? So what exactly are you getting out of it?

Make up an excuse (other projects that pay better) as to why you can't continue, give them the contact info for a few places that will type it up/edit it for him, and get out.

It may be unpleasant, but look at it this way; it's already unpleasant, it's a grind, it's a waste of your productivity. If you bail, you may have to face angry Uncle Bob at Thanksgiving, but you will no longer have to read his damn manuscript.

Oh hey let me give you my family editing request story.

My brother had an idea for a book. It sounded ok (hunting tips and tricks, something he knows something about) and he wanted me to edit it for him. Brother is a notorious cheapskate. And not only did he want me to edit, turns out he hadn't written a damn thing, he wanted met to ghostwrite it for him, with his name on the cover, then edit, then help him get it published.

After staring at him in disbelief, I snapped, "Fine. I charge 50.00 an hour, and I figure that's at least a years' worth of work at 40 hours a week. Come up with the cash and we'll talk."

He never brought it up again.
posted by emjaybee at 6:32 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

My opinion is that you've told a friend you would do it, so just suck it up and do it. Type what's written, editing only for spelling and grammar. Turn off your brain if necessary. Just do it.

Next time they ask you to do something similar, politely decline. If asked why, say that it wound up taking more of your time than you had imagined it would, and you don't have that amount of time to spend.
posted by Flunkie at 6:37 PM on September 16, 2011

I would separate the editing from the typing.

Tell him that he should get it typed then you can have a look at editing - then point out a few issues you have in the typed draft and tell the author that these are structural, and to start again.
posted by the noob at 6:40 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Farm it out via Mechanical Turk. Somebody in Bangalore will do it for 40 bucks.
posted by LarryC at 6:52 PM on September 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

I did something like this once, for a friend's patent application, believe it or not. English was not his first language, so his use of "the" was nearly random (ie, more often wrong than right).

Still, I had agreed to do it, so I soldiered through. Next time, like Flunkie says, I'd decline. It's not worth harming yourself or your relationship over something like this.
posted by SPrintF at 6:56 PM on September 16, 2011

I am being paid, and I do want to soldier through it, because quitting isn't worth the emotional unpleasantness that will result.

Fine then. You are a service provider. Providing your services to a person whom you disagree with does not mean that you are endorsing their point of view.

A bartender to pours of drink for someone who turns out to be an alcoholic is not, in effect, endorsing alcoholism.

A lawyer who represents a murderer is not supporting murder.

Separate the tasks. Type it up, ignoring the content but fixing spelling and punctuation. You've already said that you can shut your brain off while typing. This is good.

If you can get away with not editing it, don't edit it. Ultimately, as my highschool drama teacher once told me, "you can't turn shit into strawberry jam". It's not worth the heartache to tell your friend that his/her work is offensive crap, or to try and fix it. There's nothing worse then trying to fix something that is inherently broken. Beg off the editing, citing other priorities. Don't offer to do this again.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:16 PM on September 16, 2011

I think it depends exactly how close you are to this person.

If it's more of a neighbor/acquaintance/casual friend, of course you can renege on the deal. Give back the money you've been paid (or make sure to clarify that you don't expect to be paid, if you haven't been). Say, "I'm sorry, but your work is really not my cup of tea, which makes it very difficult for me to do it justice." Perhaps suggest someone you know with similar skills who might enjoy this sort of story enough to do right by it.

If it's, like, your dad? Yeah, you pretty much have to just do it. Even if you go crazy in the process.
posted by Sara C. at 10:05 PM on September 16, 2011

In general, my view is that if I've agreed to do something, I do it unless it grows into something vastly bigger and/or uglier than I was told it would be.

At the risk of being indelicate, perhaps edit with more of an open mind? I've read and thoroughly enjoyed plenty of critically acclaimed, suspenseful books with a decent measure of stuff that didn't advance the plot.
posted by ambient2 at 11:53 PM on September 16, 2011

Get a cheap used laptop or netbook, set it up with dropbox (or similar) so the document gets backed up and synced to your computer, and give it to your friend/whatever.

Show him/her that he/she can type, and you can do editing and give suggestions as that process continues. You could spend an hour on it every day or two, charge waay less and maintain your sanity while being just as effective an editor as you would have been if you had to type it yourself.

I'm not a writer, or an editor, but I think the editor should be able to maintain a relatively impartial big-picture view of the work and if you've typed it in yourself, changing it as you go, you're going to form an unwanted emotional connection to it (indeed, it seems that you have!) which will cloud your judgement.
posted by dickasso at 12:30 AM on September 17, 2011

At present I shut off my brain when doing the typing and suggest corrections only when something is objectively wrong

This sounds like the most direct and effective strategy, and one I've used myself. Since that's not working for you, I suspect the money's not good enough. If this guy were paying you a million dollars for this job, I'm guessing you'd make peace with the fact that the writing sucks and just get down to it. 'Cause really, you're just pressing keys and applying established rules of language, right?

Given your relationship to the author, to me it seems you have two choices: ask for more money (to take the edge off the task at hand), or learn to cope with the task at the same rate. If you can't get more money, can you find something to pacify your brain while you type/edit (audiobook of something good, podcast, TV, music)? Can you find a way to be entertained by the awfulness (I used to watch Full House and pro wrestling entirely for this reason)? Can you just tell yourself, "Thank God I have the good taste to avoid writing shit like this, but it's one more line on my resume?"
posted by Rykey at 4:56 AM on September 17, 2011

This is a major reason I quit trying to organize a writer's group - people bringing in sacks of shit and wanting me to be their unpaid editor. At least they put their sacks of shit into Word for me. This is worse.

I gather you are not getting paid, and your references to putting this on a resume or the like are tongue-in-cheek.

I think you are suffering from something I used to suffer from as a music teacher. Hell, I still struggle with it, but I get paid while I do it. The feeling that if you turned this aside, it could turn out to be Something. That you could be the editor that turned down The Sun Also Rises in our generation. Chances are better that you could win the lottery while being run over by a Jet Ski in Kansas in December, so put that out of your mind.

I would suggest one of three options:

- simply hand it back to him. "I'm sorry, but this is taking more time than I realized, and x has come up (where x is any other time commitment, real or imagined, that can be said shortly and sweetly and will not take or involve a long explanation. Resist the urge to be whimsical, and keep it within hooting distance of reality. You're in school. Or there's a project at work. Or you're getting married. Or divorced. Anything. As long as it's shorter than this sentence.).

- involve him in an agonizing bout of editing, making it plain that you expect to involve him in creative decisions that will leave his story an unrecognizable, steaming mess of things he won't like (either because it's objectively better, or, what the hell, because it's really worse). Bonus points for throwing in progressive ideology that will make him squick (for the record, I'm probably much redder than you, but I'm all for practicality. I would give the same advice in reverse were the tables turned). Introduce a very Obama-like black president into the narrative. Hell, even Tom Clancy has a sympathetic gay character or two. Change the sex into lesbian BDSM (no, wait, on second thought, that could be risky). Better still, keep handing him back proofs he doesn't recognize because you have streamlined and corrected his sentences within an inch of their lives. Don't falter when he starts asking why you've not only corrected the sentences, you've changed what they're about. If you start dancing to his tune, you're dead.

- INTRODUCE HIM TO YOUR FEE SCHEDULE FOR DOING THIS KIND OF WORK. If you don't have one, I'm sure you can find one on the internet.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:42 AM on September 17, 2011

I'm a translator and have, on a couple of occasions, had to translate stuff that I found offensive. One of my colleagues once said "everybody has a right to get his message out there," which may be a tidy self-justification, but it made me feel a little better about taking the work.

Anyhow, I think you're doing this the right way: limit your editing to matters of mechanics. The one thing I might do differently in your situation is to let the client know "look, I've got some very different ideas than you do about pacing and exposition. I could give you some f'rinstances if you're interested, but I'm not going to tinker with your works' voice."
posted by adamrice at 6:44 AM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

On more careful read, I see that you're being paid and that this isn't some project for funsies, implying that you do this as at least part of your living. Ah. Sorry about that. Forget the whimsy, as that would backfire.

My less creative, more left-brained answer is that if he hasn't finished the damn thing yet, you are well within your rights "as a merchant" to tell him you're doing this other, more urgent thing, at least while he's still scribbling.

And collect early and often for hours spent. This sounds like an exercise in delayed financial gratification otherwise.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:46 AM on September 17, 2011

Type it out, straight. Send it to an editor like me (other editors exist) who can offer a professional editing service.

Oh, and what we do - a separate file open, type in rants and examples, destroy afterwards. I work with a lot of English as a second language people so I do try hard not to laugh, but I do note down the odd funny. With those, I can at least think, "I couldn't do this in French".

But my main point: amateur writers do not like their baby messed with. They will maybe MAYBE accept it from an external professional. Never from a friend. I have worked for friends but I make the parameters very clear at the outset that I will treat this like a professional and ignore the friendship.

Good luck!
posted by LyzzyBee at 2:33 PM on September 23, 2011

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