I’m currently spending a day a week working as the editor for Cuckoo Review – an online publication, run by New Writing North, which comprises of arts reviews written by young people in the north of England. It’s easily the most I’ve ever enjoyed work I was actually being paid for, and it’s given me quite a lot to think about (not to mention blog post fodder!).
My job is to edit the reviews, give feedback to writers, and publish them online. I’m not talking the J. Jonah Jameson style of editing, where you crumple up reviews and chuck them out of windows, shout a lot and smoke cigars – the purpose of Cuckoo Review is for the young writers to gain experience of professional writing, to encourage them and help them develop.
But that part – the ‘gain experience of professional writing’ part – has got me thinking. Because it’s one thing to sit in your bedroom and tap away at the keyboard – and it’s quite another to hand it to someone whose sole job is to rip it apart and put it back together again, to make it fit for publication.
(Massive tangent incoming… bear with it.)
There’s a bit in Joss Whedon’s Firefly when a fairly psychopathic bounty hunter explains to a doctor that if he’s going to work on gunshot wounds, he ought to be shot – so he knows what it feels like.
Now, not to align myself with fictional psychopaths, but I have – on occasion – found myself thinking similar thoughts. As someone who’s in and out of hospital more than I’d like, I have often found myself wondering whether this nurse or doctor actually knows what it’s like to take this medication, or go through that procedure that they have no hesitation in suggesting to their patients. (Slight disclaimer here: I have thought this in an idle, passing way – not in the shooty Firefly way.) But (the relevance is coming…wait for it…) I also think there’s some definite crossover here with editing.
One of the things that I think makes me particularly suited to being an editor is that, boy oh boy, have I been on the receiving end. I’ve been reduced to tears by feedback received on my MA. My own mum once nonchalantly mentioned to me that she thought the main character of – what was at the time – my 300,000+ word fictional world was ‘a horrible person’. When I sent the book I’m currently submitting to my old dissertation supervisor, she managed to tell me that it basically needed re-writing from scratch in a way that made me feel positive and motivated as I left the meeting – though to be fair:
I am no stranger to harsh editing. So I bust a gut with every review sent to me, trying to respond in a way that is constructive but kind. In spite of which, I’ve had one or two responses from the young people that have made it clear they’ve felt defensive over my edits, and this gives me pause. Because on the one hand I’m mortified that I’ve displeased them – my whole purpose with Cuckoo Review is to help them, not annoy them. But on the other, perhaps a touch harsh, hand, a part of me thinks…well, that’s life. Self-editing is an essential part of making your work good enough; and the editing of others is, if anything, moreso.
As a teenager I once swapped my recently completed first novel with a friend, to read and critique each other’s work. My friend gave me plenty to think about for my own story (which was, in my poor friend’s defence, pretty abysmal), but when I went through the novel I had been given in return, I found every one of my suggestions countered; every question dismissed. At the time if frustrated me, frankly because I was a bit arrogant when it came to writing, but also because I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well then why did you ask me to read it?’.
Because if a piece of writing is published, you are asking people to read it. And at least some of them are going to have questions, problems and critiques. So even before reaching the realm of submissions (which I realise I have made look devastatingly tempting to you all), I think it’s wise to listen to every edit given to you. I’ve always tried to listen. Some feedback I’ve dismissed quite rightly; some I really should have listened to – but most of it, even when I haven’t liked it, I’ve taken on board. Because that’s life.
Becky is the Editorial Intern for Cuckoo Review, part of New Writing North’s Cuckoo Young Writers programme. She runs a blog, The Rejection Box, chronicling her ongoing quest to get her first novel published.