The Pros and Cons of Collaborative Editing

 

Pro #1 – Four eyes are better than two
In the editing and rewriting stages of a novel, there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to working with a collaborative partner. In many ways, two heads are better than one. More specifically, four eyes are better than two. One of the key qualities of a good editor is attention to detail and two (or more) people are going to see more than just one person. Multiple editors are more likely to spot continuity mistakes, factual errors and faults in the story arc.
Pro #2 – Individuals are dumber than crowds
But editing is about more than just finding faults and errors. Editing is about shaping the story and making it the best it can possibly be. Here is where multiple editors and the wisdom of the crowd become a definite plus. The truth is, individuals are much more likely to make errors of judgement than groups of people. Chances are, you have made mistakes in your life, big and small, that you wouldn’t have made if you had consulted with a friend or colleague for just one minute. It’s as true for writing as it is for life. If only I had a collaborator to discuss things with before I launched into writing that 90,000 word one-armed lesbian spy novel (I wish I was making this up; I’m not). Good collaborators are a stupidity safety valve, blowing off every time we stray into stupid territory.
Pro #3 – Hand-holding
Collaborator editors also functions as the reverse, a sort of “you’re playing it too safe” safety valve. Individuals not only make mistakes but also worry too much about making mistakes. We are bound by notions of social and moral conformity. We’re embarrassed to step out of line. We fear that if we open ourselves up to others then we’ll be ridiculed for it. Would I ever sing karaoke if I didn’t have friends to cheer me on? Would I have made that tricky descent of Mount Snowdon without the support and guidance of those around me? Of course not.
Again, writing is like life in that we, as individuals, shy away from things that make us uncomfortable. There are certain stories we might steer clear of if left to our own devices. This might be because they are not stories in a conventional sense, or perhaps they tackle social taboos. Or it may simply be that, alone, we do not have the guts to take our story one step further; to make the suspense unbearable, to make the horrifying terrifying, to go from funny to hilarious. I know for a fact that, on my own, I would never have written a novel that featured cannibalism, sex dolls and comedy fellatio in quite the way it did in mine and Heide’s Clovenhoof. A good co-writer/editor will hold your hand as you walk into the darker corners of the world.
Pro #4 – Reader Accessibility
Whether it’s reining each other in or egging each other on, collaborative writers/editors should be working to create the best possible story. Part of that is editing for reader accessibility. Good books should be accessible to most readers. I am a big believer that if I don’t ‘get’ a book I’m reading, then it’s the author’s fault, not mine. An author might retort that, if I don’t get it, then I wasn’t the intended readership and that’s fine but there’s nothing big, clever or funny about writing something that’s deliberately obscure, confusing or elitist.
When collaborators come to the writing project from different angles (different experiences, different cultures, different preferred genres, etc) then they can act as each other’s ‘average’ reader. If a techno-thriller novel is being jointly-written by an IT specialist and a politics graduate, then they can comment meaningfully on the amount of techno-babble or political detail that the other is putting into the narrative.
Con #1 – Dumbing down
Although collaboration is a great way of slicing through the esoteric and increasing the accessibility of your text, there is a danger in dumbing down your narrative for the sake of your audience. Writers need to respect their readers’ intelligence. Collaborators need to be particularly careful about this.
Collaboration, so often about writing about shared experiences and common ideas, can lead to writing about nothing but those experiences and ideas we all have. Like a pair of donkeys tied together by a length of rope, collaborators may find they do not travel far in any one particular direction and simply mill about in familiar territory. An increase in reader accessibility may also just be appealing to the lowest common denominator. ‘Designed by committee’ has never been a mark of praise.
Con #2 – Who are you editing for?
Another problem with collaborative editing is that the editorial partnership can become too inward looking.  What do I mean by this? Well, have you ever met one of those couples, so very much in love, who are totally wrapped up in one another and call each other ‘snookums’ and ‘cuddly bear’ and wear matching tracksuits and constantly laugh at private jokes that make no sense to you. Even if you haven’t, you can imagine them. That kind of couple are blessed in needing no one but each other but are cursed by cutting themselves off from the outside world.
If you are editing alone, you will probably have the imagined opinions of others at the front of your mind. You are editing for an imagined external readership. You are constantly reflecting on what objective opinion might be. But if you are editing collaboratively then there is the chance that the ‘other’ opinion you are considering is that of your fellow editor. You might start to edit for the approval of the other editor, feeding off one another and turning your novel into a private joke that no one else gets.
At several points in their writing, all story-tellers must ask themselves who are they writing for. Is it for themselves? Is it for a specific audience? The best answer is, of course, “both”. If you’re writing something totally self-indulgent then don’t expect anyone else to read it. If you’re writing purely for the market and getting no joy from it then what’s the point of that? If you don’t like what you’re writing, stop writing and go out and do something that pays more (which is pretty much anything).
As a collaborative editor, you must ask who you are editing for. Yourself? The public? Your collaborator? Again, the best answer is “all three.” You have to like the story you’re editing. You presumably are editing it so that others out there will also want to read it too. Thirdly, you need to work in such a way that your collaborator is getting the same good vibes as well.

 

Posted in 2012, Writing