Usually it’s because they have a conception, a personal vision, something they want to say—and the best way they can say it is through the crafting of stories. Most writers tend to write in both short and long formats (i.e. short stories AND novels). In fact, these days if you don’t write in both formats you’re missing a large segment of the audience.
Why do editors edit?
Every publication needs a good editor with a strong sense of what is “good writing” and what isn’t. But there’s more to it than that. More often than not, editors publish stories that meet their specific “editorial vision.” This explains why writers often get rejections that read like this: “Good story, good writing, but it does not fit our needs at this time.” The subtext is: “You’re good, but not MY publication’s definition of good.”
There is often a vast discrepancy between a writer’s vision and that of the editor who is considering his/her story for publication. Editors are loathe to publish a story that does not fit their personal “editorial vision” for their magazine/web site/anthology. Of course editors are entitled to this specific concept—after all, it’s their job to serve the publication. If THEY don’t know what they’re looking for, nobody does.
Some writers will tailor their writing to fit a specific venue’s editorial vision. To do so (i.e. to give the editor what the editor wants) is the fastest and surest way to get published. Writers need sales, and altering one’s personal vision to correspond more closely with that of a specific editor/publication is part of the game.
Yet, what about the writers and the stories that DON’T fit into anyone’s vision but their own? What happens when editors are overly beholden to their own specific vision—which by the way is usually 90% defined by personal taste? The editor, today more than ever, is likely to also be the publisher. Hence the entire look, feel, and mentality of the publication stems from the editor’s personal taste and sense of aesthetics. In fact, half of an editor’s job is to “weed out” those submissions that do NOT fit his/her vision (or the vision of the particular venue for which he/she is editing). We get it.
But what about the WRITER’s vision?
Which is more important: Writing to “fill a slot” or writing to explore one’s own literary fascinations and sense of personal aesthetics? Should a writer only write stories that will “sell” because they meet somebody else’s sense of what is good/proper/interesting? Well, if the writer’s foremost concern is SELLING STORIES, the answer is YES. You’d better write what the Editors want, because they’re the ones cutting you a check when they accept your story. But nobody is making a living from writing short stories these days. It ain’t the 1930s anymore.
So the question arises: What should a writer’s foremost concern be? Fulfilling the demands of a market (commercial concerns) or following his/her own inner vision to its ultimate conclusion (artistic concerns)?
Perhaps an even more important question is: How many wonderful stories are READERS missing because those stories didn’t meet someone’s “editorial vision”? The readers, let’s not forget, don’t pick the stories. The editors do. The editor serves as a filter, only letting in the stuff that meets his/her pre-set ideas of what is good/worthy. In fact, this is what editors get paid to do (among other duties).
Something about this seems backwards to me. Editors should be looking for writers who have something to say—writers who aren’t interested in jumping through editorial hoops, but who are far more interested in PURSUING THEIR OWN CREATIVE VISION and creating something unique, original, and separate from whatever else is out there.
Writers today have to make a choice: Write exactly what you WANT to write, or write what this-or-that editor will respond to (and therefore publish). Of course, today writers have the option of self-publishing, which doesn’t have the stigma that it used to. However, if you’re seeking to get paid for your work and get it out to as many readers as possible, you really need to get it into an established venue (magazine/anthology/website). Which means finding a compromise between your artistic vision and the editor’s editorial vision.
Instead of setting up a set of parameters that writers MUST meet, editors should be casting a wide net, looking for diverse voices and sensibilities, opening their doors and minds to creative visions that don’t simply fill a well-designed niche. Nobody wants to read the same kinds of stories over and over. Yet editors often end up BUYING the same kinds of stories over and over.
Traditional wisdom has been: “Read our publication and get familiar with it so you know what we are looking for.” In reality it should be the other way around: Writers should be pursuing their muses WHEREVER IT TAKES them and in WHATEVER STYLE THEY FEEL BEST SUITS THEIR STORIES. A writer’s vision can vary from story to story. A publications’ “editorial vision” rarely changes, but instead becomes a monolithic hurdle that writers must learn to climb or jump over to avoid being crushed.
In short: Editors shouldn’t be telling writers what to write.
But they often do.
I’m sure many editors reading this post will say “Hey, man, feel free to take your creative vision elsewhere if you don’t want to write what we publish.” And many writers are doing that, and will continue to do so. Sometimes you HAVE to.
But where are the editors who put the writer’s vision first? Do they even exist in today’s market? Have they ever?
All of this doesn’t apply to famous writers with massive followings (your Stephen Kings, George R.R. Martins, J.K. Rowlings, etc.). Those writers can write ANYTHING they want, and ANY editor will be glad to have it—regardless of how well it fits with the magazine’s “editorial vision.” Why? Because those writers’ work SELLS. It’s a proven commodity.
So how did those mega-writers get where they are? Was it by trying to please every editor’s unique vision for what fiction should or should not be? Or was it by blazing new trails with their work, ignoring what people were telling them to write, and instead following their own dreams? I propose that it’s always the latter that makes a writer stand out from the pack and break through into mega-popularity.
When a writer’s personal vision comes through so clean and clear that thousands or even millions of people respond to it, that writer becomes his own “editorial vision.” Other writers start imitating it—not because they are trying to steal that person’s readership, but because they are inspired as hell by these super-successful writers and their work: Creative accomplishments that set out not to fulfill some editor’s personal taste, but to please the writer’s own sense of aesthetic quality. We see this across the board in the Arts, whether it be music, film-making, painting, or fiction writing.
The point is: Writers need to pursue their own visions. If you can find an editor who shares your vision, or who appreciates yours enough to incorporate it into his/her own vision, then so much the better. This is how non-famous writers find a “home” for their fiction—not a temporary roadside hotel, but a palatial estate where every story finds a readership. Every writer I know has venues where their work is welcome, and other venues where they can’t get published at all. It’s all part of the game when Art becomes a Commodity.
Editorial vision is necessary because it gives editors and publications a mission statement. But too often editorial vision becomes exclusionary, and too many writers are kept out of the garden by these well-meaning gatekeepers.
Editorial vision, when it becomes a barrier to new voices, can be a handicap. It should be a tool, a set of guidelines for what defines a publication, not a one-size-fits-all checklist with no room for growth, metamorphosis, or challenges.
The greatest of artists (including writers) are always those who don’t fit into ANYONE ELSE’S vision but their own. They are the ones who pursue their private Holy Grails, blaze new trails, and do something that pleases themselves first and foremost. If you can’t please yourself, then what’s the point?
If you’re an editor, the question is: “Are my editorial sensibilities too narrow? Am I taking chances on new voices and fresh ideas, or am I stifling the creativity of others so that it fits my own personal vision?”
Should fiction be crafted to fit a pre-conceived notion of what is acceptable? Or should it be kicking down doors, knocking over mailboxes, and subverting the principles of what has come before in a never-ending quest for the new, the fresh, and the original?
Writers New and Old: Are you going to follow your dream or let someone else define it for you?
Whatever you decide, you’ve got to live with it.
Go forth and CREATE.
Follow that muse wherever it takes you.
“Good writing is like water. It seeps through the cracks
in the barriers placed in front of it.”
– Darrell Schweitzer
“I did it for the pure joy of the thing.
And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
– Stephen King
“So write your story as it needs to be written.
Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can.
I’m not sure that there are any other rules.
Not ones that matter.”
– Neil Gaiman