In an AOL author chat many years ago, the moderator asked me, “What kind of writer are you?” I said, “A good one.” No doubt he meant, What genre do you work in?, but that’s a question I’ve never been interested in answering. I write good novels. I aim to write great novels. Sometimes the publisher calls these novels science fiction, or lesbian fiction, or crime fiction, or historical fiction. I call them good books.
As a writer, I am ambitious. I’ve never been shy about that. (See my rant on the subject, You’ve been warned.) But I hadn’t consciously considered my ambitions as an editor (though I have thought about why I edit), until a writer asked me the other day, “What kind of editor are you?” I said, “A good one.” But that’s not the whole truth. Here’s what I would say today:
As an editor, I am extremely ambitious–for you. It is not enough for me to help you polish your sentences, punch up your plot, and hone your characters. It’s not enough to strike out your adverbs and adjectives. Not enough to point out your clichés and remind you to be specific. I will do all those things, of course–it’s where we must begin–but they are only stepping stones to my real goal.
I want to help you change the world.
To do that, I’ll help you write the best story of your life. I will look at your draft and I will ask you questions; I’ll help you find out what you really want to say. Most writers begin by stepping around their story. I will help you drive straight for its heart. I will help you find the right words, the right scenes, the right settings and characters, the right POV, the right tense, the right trouble. I will stand sternly at the entrance to the road labeled The Easy Way Out and urge you back to the true path.
I will not shrug and let you get away with less than your best. I will keep you working until the wide way to the centre of your story opens before you. You will walk that way to the very best thing you’ve ever written (so far). When people read it, they will be changed.
That’s what great writing does. That’s the point. Oh, it entertains us, yes, it delights and amuses us, but it changes us, just a little. It widens our perspective, just a degree or two, increases our understanding, sharpens our vision. If your work changes one tiny thing in one reader, you change the way that person approaches the world. That changes the world.
Hundreds of readers have told me my work has changed their lives. A handful have told me my work saved their lives. One told me my work eased someone’s death. That’s why I write. That’s why I teach and edit: so you can change the world, too.
Do you want to change the world? If you don’t, what do you want to achieve with your writing?