Exchanging self-expression for quality
by Aleyah Goins; illustration by Sarah Ross
I write, therefore I am me, not my editor.
Editors of magazines aren’t gods, but they have to be goddamn holy people to pick and choose who gets published and who does not; I believe that is the closest to divinity anyone could pray for. Editors spend long hours—receiving weak pay— attempting to understand the intent of the writer. But no text will ever perfectly reflect what the author intended. Reading is an act of interpretation; haven’t you ever read a book and discovered the film adaptation of a character had completely different tics or a different hair color than you had imagined? From the writer’s perspective, cutting down a narrative to fit a word limit leaves its bones high and dry. From the editor’s perspective, it is impossible to publish everything. Is there a rubric to help the editors decide what pieces are quality, or some special trait that makes them worthy of the label “quality?”
I had a conversation with my own written words and I asked them if they had quality, to which they replied, “We are words. We do not make decisions.” Therefore, I will let them speak for themselves. These are my words and I will never self-censor, or shortchange myself, in order to find my place in writing. When I write, I write for me, not to impress any audience. Our experiences in life are not always clear, and our writing should reflect that complexity rather than be simplified for the sake of universal comprehension.
I sat still and wrote the words that came with only the shirts on their backs. They had neither agenda nor motive, so I considered them to be full of truth and wisdom. The words not only arrived, but they danced and sang, they waved their nondescript, non-associative flags and told me to be quiet so they could tell their tale. Unlike a magazine, words have no limit. Once I sat still and listened—instead of writing for the incentive of hearing my own voice on paper—the words multiplied like hungry bees feasting on their own honey. I couldn't control them, no more than I could control my own heart beating.
When the words were done doing what they had to, they demanded that I hand over the manuscript to a reader. I said, “No. A reader doesn’t have time for this. Especially a reader on the Block Plan.” When they pleaded again, I repeated, “No. Nobody will read you.” They buzzed excitedly amongst themselves and then replied softly, “If all things that were meant to be said cannot be read, were they ever worth writing?” I laughed at the words’ terrible attempt at the cliché, “If a tree falls in a forest ...”
But suddenly, I knew the answer to their question. All things that beg to be said are worth writing, and therefore should be read. The real question is by whom. Again, my words flew around each other with excitement, but this time with long sympathetic sighs, “We are words. We do not make decisions. That is for you, and the reader. However, you cannot make the readers’ decisions, and they can’t do so for you. Write what should be said and don’t worry if it is too much, or stale as week-old bread.”
The problem with communicating with words is that I am always on their territory. But, after the chat, I realized they were correct. When considering our reader, should we, as writers, worry about upholding a “quality” previously installed by those who are not you? What if you have the power to raise the bar, thus causing an influx of new writers trying to be you? Unfortunately, the monkey wrench that unscrews the bar is not in your hands but in those of your editor.
The editor’s job is to give quality words space in a magazine to speak. But the limited space requires many of the words to be cut. The process of omission requires censorship of essential details. Some might be less important than others, but who decides which to rescue: the writer or the audience? Or neither? My conclusion is that my style of writing is an extension of who I am. It is solely up to the writer to allow her words to speak for themselves with an unwavering standard. A person who communicates what is inside her heart with the purpose of developing strength, instead of censoring how she feels due to the fear of judgment, is a virtuous writer. The reward of virtue: discovering your style.
Editors need the writer's self-expression and insight—never be fooled into thinking that you, as a writer, need to please the publication with self-censorship. Through the process of publishing, I have learned that it is not satisfying to be heard at the sacrifice of self-expression, compared to being unheard but understanding myself. When your style is known and free to act according to itself, only then will the wrench be in your hands. Then, the standard of quality can be as high as you are willing to jump and word limits wash away.