Thursday, March 19, 2009

Working With An Editor

Whether you write articles or books, screenplays or news reports, if you are lucky, you will one day work with an editor. If you never work with editors, it means that nobody is buying your work. Failure to sell is a bad thing. Working with an editor is a good thing. No matter how frustrated you feel about the editor’s attitude toward your masterpiece, if the editor is talking, you are wise to listen, because the editor is the gateway through which your work transitions from your heart to the eyes of the public.
If you want the chance to work with an editor, you must get out of the slush pile and onto the desk. This means that your book manuscript or your proposal for a book or an article must at a minimum comply with the editor’s submission guidelines. Always read the submission guidelines before you submit. After you complete your first draft, read those guidelines again, and tweak anything that must change in order to comply. Refer to the guidelines as often as necessary to assure that every document in your submission package complies with the submission guidelines for the publisher. It is easy to feel annoyed that publishers are not all alike, but varieties of publishers and editors provide broad opportunities for many different kinds of writers.
The easiest way to irritate an editor who does select your work is to refuse every suggestion for revision or (dare I whisper it?) improvement. Any honest writer knows that we all have room for improvement. An editor may see opportunity for improvement in any number of directions, and the wise writer will thank her lucky stars if she gets a chance to make those improvements. When an editor sees promise in both the writer and the concept of a piece, there is hope that editor and writer can work together to produce a book or an article that will attract readers and delightfully surprise them with something even better than they expected.
A good way to prepare for working with an editor is to participate in a critique with other writers. There are several online sites where you can do this in forums. You might explore and . There are also many online groups for writers where there is informal or formal opportunity to help each other by means of constructive critique. Of course, the time-honored method of joining a face-to-face group that regularly engages in critique is hard to beat. In such venues, you will mature as a writer and develop specific techniques for dealing with pesky problems such as spelling and grammar as well as more subtle areas like syntax and diction. You may even get insight into content problems such as point of view, logical argument, or plot development. You will learn to value the professional growth that emerges when two (or more) creative minds tackle a problem.
Of course, the big payoff is the letter that says, “We want to buy your work,” or something like that. In the elation of receiving an acceptance letter, it is easy to miss details. However, a second reading may reveal that the editor wants some changes. Perhaps, instead of the 1000-word article you proposed, full of tips and tricks for job search in a depressed economy, the editor would like for you to reduce the count below 800 words. It is tempting to rail against the poor taste and ignorance of someone who fails to show proper respect for your compliance with the word count published in the guidelines. However, if you insist on your standards, you will need to make your case to someone else. No matter what the guidelines say, this publisher at this time needs 800 words. (Do remember the difference between guidelines and requirements.) The first time an editor made such a request of me, I was irritated. However, after I found 200 words I could do without, I discovered that the piece had a tighter, more coherent feel. I was more pleased with my work, and my bank account was happy, too.
In general, magazines prefer a query that contains a proposal to a completed article. The same is true for non-fiction books. You may propose one article or a series, or you may propose a book series. If your proposal is intriguing and your style is captivating, you may actually hear from the acquisitions editor. When you open the letter, you shout “Yes!” and do the happy dance. Then you read the letter again.
If any author has ever had a manuscript or a proposal accepted without any revisions, I have not had the pleasure of hearing about it. Writers want to receive acceptance letters, but most of them discover in the letter that some changes are required. How dare they! Your proposal is a solid concept. Your manuscript is crafted like a Rembrandt painting. What change could possibly improve it?
Perhaps you have proposed a series of articles and the editor wants you to compress your wonderful series into a single comprehensive piece. Maybe you proposed book on camping vacations, but the editor needs one focused tightly on camping in the Northwest. Alternatively, the editor loves your coverage of camping, but reader surveys indicate a growing interest in hiking venues. When your editor asks for change, be prepared to respond with a “can do” attitude. I once wrote an article about navigating a sailboat in the fog in which I focused on our personal development and growing self-confidence. The editor who expressed interest in the article asked if I could concentrate on the sailing skills and safety strategies required due to our lack of radar. This change in focus was a better fit for the magazine. Imagine that you have written a masterful article about negotiating, built around your experience helping your fifteen-year-old daughter live within a budget. Your editor may recognize a real bonanza in your tips and tricks for creating a fashion statement from items in discount stores and thrift shops, and that may be the article you actually sell. If you demonstrate that you are writing to serve the needs of the publisher and its readership rather than your own ego, you can build a relationship that may serve you well in your writing career.
Never forget that the editor is just as committed to your success as you are. Both of you have a lot to lose if your book or your article bombs. Your interaction with the editor of a magazine may be brief and intermittent, but very important nonetheless. If you sell a book project, then you will work with an editor for several months. In the books I read, authors often compliment their editors for their help in making the book better and making the author look good. They probably did not feel that way in the middle of the project.
One afternoon I boarded an airplane. When I found my seat, I noticed that my neighbor had a thick pile of papers on her lap and a cell phone to her ear. As she talked, she rummaged through the papers and scribbled notes. I could hear everything she was saying, of course. I heard some anxiety in her voice as she held up one page and said, “Take out the argument? Last week you told me I needed an argument to build the scene!” She was silent. “Then how will I get her to slam the door? She needs to slam the door to clinch the drama.” More silence. “I like the sound of a door slamming. I don’t want to invent some other device.” Papers rustled as she rummaged through them. “Well, thank goodness. I’m glad you liked that.” Suddenly she looked agitated. She moved her finger across the page as if she needed help reading. Suddenly she stabbed at a word. “I can’t believe I missed that! I know I checked the spelling, but there it is. Aaaggghhh!” She drew a large, black circle on the page. More silence. “Yes, but if I spend too much time describing that cave, the reader will forget why we are there. I thought it was more important to get him through the bottleneck.” A pause. “Hmm. Cold, wet, dark. Thank you for your confidence, but I can’t imagine how to increase the imagery while keeping the verbiage lean.” Eventually the conversation ended. I brazenly introduced myself and learned what I had suspected. This writer was working on her novel with her editor, streaking toward a deadline to run the galley proofs.
If you pay attention to this interchange (or at least the half I could hear), you will see that the dialogue shows two creative minds at work. The writer and the editor both want this book to succeed, and they have somewhat different ideas about what it will take. The writer who feels that this work is a finely polished jewel may not want to chip at it anywhere. The editor, with years of experience identifying books that sell, wants to chip anywhere and everywhere that will make that jewel shine more brightly. Every time I read a book that completely engulfs me, I know that it is the result of exactly this kind of creative friction, a dialectic from which emerges something better than either person could have done alone.
If you know that you were created to be a writer, know also that some people were created to be editors. Readers are deeply indebted to both. Your books and articles will connect with readers and build your relationship with readers only if you learn how to work successfully with editors.
© 2009 Katherine Harms

1 comment:

Christina Adams said...

This is very helpful advice. It can be intimidating to send off a manuscript to an editor knowing that it will come back with more ink than it might have taken to write it in the first place. Sometimes it seems like there is an invisible war between writers and editors and I needed to be reminded that both sides are working toward the same goal.