ZACHRY WHEELER

Science Fiction Novelist
Rethinking Content Editors and Critique Groups
Posted on April 8, 2017
Category: Zeedub Inkwell
Zachry Wheeler, Science Fiction Novelist

I’m about to anger a lot of writers and editors, so strap in and enjoy the rage tornado. Are you ready for a horrifying admission? Here goes … I publish novels without using content editors or critique groups (dun dun duuuun). And, my novels are better off without them (gasps, scoffs, and finger pointing). Yes, yes, I know. Please put down the torches and pitchforks and hear me out. I’m not a precious snowflake and I’m not adverse to criticism. I actually have reasons.

In the writing world, this is the equivalent of an auto mechanic saying that they refuse to use wrenches. It’s a jarring declaration, and before anyone gets their undies in a bunch, I have used content editors and critique groups in the past. I’m not new to them, nor am I afraid of them. I actively seek honest feedback. The problem was, I never got any. All I got were tone-destroying edits and ego-stroking critiques. I went to meeting after meeting, hired editor after editor, and ended up with a pile of butchered reworks, none of which improved the manuscript.

I was forced to ask myself a thorny question. Why am I doing this? The answer was, of course, because I thought I had to. Talk to any author or read any article about the publishing process and they will regurgitate the exact same unquestionable wisdom.

Critique groups are invaluable. You MUST join one to improve your writing.

Content editors are worth their weight in gold. You MUST hire one before publishing.

To which I say … bullshit.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are countless editors and groups out there who truly help writers better their craft. I’m not hating on them, just questioning the conventional wisdom. And, full disclosure, I am unrepresented. I do not have access to the sweet pub-house editors, those angelic wordsmiths who can turn clunky manuscripts into polished gems. I’m an indie author, which means that I shell out my own hard-earned money for editing services. I am also aware that you get what you pay for, so I decided to pay a lot because I wanted it done right.

I should also differentiate between content editors and copy editors. The first edits for style, which can be seriously hit or miss. The second edits for structure and grammar, which is worth every cent.  So when I question the value in the post, I am referring to the first.

I went through four professional content editors before I threw in the towel. The root of the problem boiled down to simple bias. They all edited the same content and their preferences were apparent to a fault. The manuscript in question was a final draft of Transient, a sci-fi noir tale. What I got back was anything but. I could see, very plainly, that one editor liked fluffy YA, another liked hard sci-fi, and the other two liked mysteries and thrillers, none of which applied to my story. All four editors mangled the tone with their inherent biases.

I readily admit that I could simply be the victim of bad editors. But, all four were establish pros with good reviews and solid reputations. Four strikes on a hefty investment is enough to sour anyone’s opinion. Thus, I decided to accept the lurking typos and grammatical quirks as a small price to pay for retaining tone. I would get the manuscript in the best possible shape I could, then click that “Publish” button.

Hiring professional editors was a direct result of abiding worthless critiques. I kept hearing that critique groups were magical wonderlands of writing improvement, but I never saw any of that. The ones I attended were all circle jerks of egoism. I always came in as the humble first-timer, and always left shaking my head in bemusement. Nobody seemed interested in helping their fellow writers. All they wanted to do was showcase their own accolades. I’m all for some serious red inking, but not to the point where you argue penchants based on things that have absolutely no bearing on the story. No joke, I actually had someone critique my sci-fi noir novel by citing Shakespeare (facepalm). I was shocked by how useless the experiences turned out to be.

And so, I don’t use content editors or critique groups anymore. I am fortunate in that I have a small group of bookworm pals who understand that I crave harsh feedback. They find the vast majority of typos and plot holes (and take hedonistic pleasure in pointing them out). That works for me and my readers seem to appreciate it. Maybe one day I will find a content editor that I click with (which may necessitate representation), but I’m not actively looking. I did manage to find a fantastic copy editor and I employ her as my last line of typo defense.

In closing, I will offer an olive branch. If you are reading this as a first-time author or someone who receives harsh but honest feedback, then I encourage you to stick with your editors or critique groups. Do not use this post as an excuse to jump ship. You’ll do yourself a grave disservice. I only speak from my own experience, which unveiled a simple truth: the conventional wisdom is not infallible. Use it, learn from it, just don’t let it paralyze you.