Authors on Editing
(Written notes from the 07/09/18 meeting by Asha Myers)
Betsy Berger made the pre-meeting announcements, including the following:
- Registration begins soon for PerfectIt workshop on September 15th.
- Request for volunteers for our Red Pencil Committee (please contact email@example.com if interested).
- The annual Guild potluck will be on Sunday, October 7th.
- We’re changing our name! After some four years of deliberation we are becoming the Northwest Editors Guild. The primary reason is to acknowledge the reality that the distinctions between freelance and in-house editing are blurred and people shift rather fluidly between the roles and some people carry both responsibilities. We welcome all editors of the word.
- Shout out to one of our co-founders, Sherri Schultz who is in attendance tonight!
- Anca L. Szilágyi, author of Daughters of the Air
- Jamie Swenson, Assistant Director of Content at University of Washington
- Dave Boling, author of The Lost History of Stars
- Matthew Bennett, Editors Guild Vice President of Member Services, serving as panel moderator
Matthew: The reason we wanted to develop this discussion with our authors is because a lot of freelancing editors work with writers, and when they return the work they don’t get to have a frank conversation about the editing afterwards and that is a missed opportunity for a lot of learning, and it is a missed collaboration.
Question: What kind of editing have you received? What did you find remarkable about the process?
Anca: All of the editorial feedback I’ve had has been in-house: line editing, developmental editing, and copyediting. One thing I found remarkable with my editor at Lanternfish Press, who published my first novel, was that she thought it was mostly developmentally there, but she thought she might have some other ideas once she got into line edits.
Sure enough, I got the line edits. Things like “These are repeated words” and “You can only use chartreuse once in a paragraph.” But then she had developmental comments about Chapters Nine through Eleven, which I had questions about. I was relieved.
The chapters had too much wandering and haziness. My editor asked, “If a psychologist read these pages, how would they diagnose this character?” This was remarkable.
From a writing standpoint, I wouldn’t have wanted to ever answer this question. But as an editor, it was selective and amplified my writing and the character. It made my novel more cohesive. I decided my character was having a stress induced psychosis!
Jamie: I work at the University of Washington and the writing is focused. There are lots of deadlines to get things out the door. I get a lot of line edits…tell me what to fix and I’ll fix it. My voice is not mine; it is the University brand. I work with two editors.
One of my editors is an “editor-editor” and the other one is my “boss-editor”. There is no ego involved; we just want to get the job done. I admire how they can guide me toward realizing what I need to do rather than telling me what I need to do. They present questions in a way that suggest things I’m trying to do that I am not aware of.
Dave: Every kind of editing. Hundreds of editors. Thirty-seven years as a newspaper journalist and sports columnist, editors around the world for my two novels. There were only three I really wanted to get in a fistfight with!
And they deserved it because they were tinkerers and that bothered me. What bothered me was the absence of communication and trying to turn the story into theirs. They didn’t realize the author-editor relationship is about collaboration.
Ego will ruin the project. I want to give editors equity in the project. It is something we are doing together and it is in both of our best interests to make this the best product. If someone gets ego in how they think it should go then it blocks things, and people start drawing lines. It’s like a marriage; it requires communication, respect, and sense of partnership. To enforce that metaphor, I am now married to a editor. We are working on a collaborative novel. It sure is nice to have in an in-house editor! Anything you want to know. I have experience.
Question: Considering the partnership, it’s important to balance your questions with prescriptions. It is one thing for an editor to ask you to do something, but in production… Jamie you encountered demands… you must do it this way. Can you talk to making queries versus making demands?
Jamie: Confirming your writer’s goals is really important, yes by phone but in person if possible. Understand where they are. What I do is very different than novel writing, so I think that my editors take, and are encouraged to take, more license with their edits. But it is important for me to tell them what I need from them. Longform is like six to seven hundred words, but I might be working with a few different units, some who want an interview, others a high-level strategy, then fundraiser, so it feels like “What even is this?” And then I may specifically ask for developmental edits.
Sometimes I can be completely lost in all these different stakeholders’ goals. Other times I will tell them, “Look I need to be done with this on Tuesday. It’s about two hundred words long, can you help me get it done?” I will look at the edits, and sure, if they are odd or change the truth of it then I have to go reverse it, and then I will let them know. It’s a back and forth relationship communication.
Anca: Balancing, making prescriptions, the relationship you build and knowing where you are in the process. They all come together when you decide whether to ask a question or make a prescription. Here’s an example with my novel. I was making some very last-minute changes to the last half of the last sentence of the book—because I really just wanted it to be just right! Because I was doing this, my editor brought back feedback from her intern and copyeditor… that she hadn’t brought up before. “They thought you should cut out the epilogue,” she told me. “It is more emotional by cutting back at Chapter Thirteen.”
I was disturbed by the suggestion. I understood it might be more gutting, but I also thought the chapter was really important. My editor said, just think about it over the weekend, but it can go either way. I said, “There is historic context here that readers won’t look up. I can cut it back, but it needs to stay.”
In terms of balance, keeping a good collaborative effort and knowing when to make suggestions and not is important.
Dave: I think it is important to be generous to the editors. If you have developed that relationship and they aren’t being generous to you, maybe they will open up and be generous with you. When it’s editors of novels, they are the ones who bought your book and said “I want to work on this.” So novel editors tend to be very much on your side, and in some cases they like the book more than you do, which is really nice.
My first novel was bought by Bloomsbury and they loved it, and I had to say, “Settle down! It’s not that good!” I wanted to cut it a bit and find some focus; it was big, an epic, a multi-generational family set during the Spanish Civil War. I said, “I can trim down this early part to get into more of the areas with more narrative drive without setting up so much narrative scene.” But my editor said, “Oh, but I love this character we must keep him!”
I said, “How’s this, I will write a quickly edited and cut version with this character out of it. Take a look at both and you tell me what you want.” I pounded out a copy and cut and pasted, and did surgery and sent it back and they said, “Honestly, I think you need to keep him.” So I did. It went fine. I don’t know that I agree, but it turned out.
In my latest story, it is narrated by a fourteen-year-old girl who is older and looking back at that age in a concentration camp that the British started in South Africa. Twenty-thousand women and children died in this concentration camp during the war and people don’t know this. I felt an obligation to tell this story. My developmental editor and I— we got along fine, until the copyeditor got it. Because when she sent the galley proofs back, every time my young girl (who was of the very devout Dutch Church of Christ, like Old Testament philosophy) every time I had her use the pronoun for God, she used a cap H for “He”. The copyeditor added an “LC” on all of them! But I needed to keep true to the girl. The editors said, “This is our style!”
I said, “But context is important, and if I lowercase it will be false to the character!” My editors were freelancers and stood by it. I talked to my dev editor and he got involved and went with the capitalization, and afterward the copyeditor got back to me and said, “You’re right. You’re right.”
It was communication from someone with a strong arm; I needed to convince her.
Question: What kind of advice would you have for a younger editor versus an editor further along in their career editor? I imagine there are different expectations.
Jamie: Before my current role, I was the editor at the Seattle Symphony, and I don’t really think I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t formally trained; I had a degree in Creative Writing and a Master’s in Literature. My bosses thought that meant I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t. So, when it came to sticking with house style—I would do that, and I got into sticky situations. I was an island. There weren’t other editors only me. I had no one to talk to and ask, “Is this hill worth dying on? Do I need to go to the mat with this, or can I make an exception?” Picking other editors’ brains would have been really great. Watching the editors I work with now hash it out, I realize it isn’t black and white and there are ramifications. Talk to people.
Anca: I’m remembering one younger editor, who was a tinkerer. I had pitched an article to a magazine that produces a lot online. I pitched a piece that was a lyric essay about plums and they accepted it. By the time they got to the edits, the nature of the whole series of my essays had changed, and there was no communication about that.
I think it is important to be in agreement as to what is the goal and purpose of the piece. He was a PhD student at a university, and his edits were extremely prescriptive in a way that made me feel he was making my writing worse. Saying, “What is your argument? What is the topic sentence?” I was very patient because I really wanted to be published, but this took over a year, and finally I was so frustrated I pulled the essay. I sent it to another company and it was published in the form I wanted. This lack of communication about the goal can create problems.
Dave: When I was a young editor without any schooling, I was an out-of-work logger. I went in and answered an ad in a newspaper, and talked my way into a job as a sports writer in Idaho. I got the job because I fixed the guy’s typewriter. I knew nothing. I took the style book home and kept it in the bathroom, and I’d take a bath instead of a shower so I could learn. In journalism, it’s like the MASH units… you do whatever you can to plug up the bleeding on deadlines.
Many times, I’d have to take pictures myself, take calls on wrestling results, layout the section, and edit someone’s copy. In a month, by necessity, you are forced into learning it well and quickly.
What I have learned with desk editors in the newspaper, is it’s very hard. There’s stress and pressure, and you have no idea what pile of crap someone is going to lay on your desk. There are no holes in newspapers. You fill that space. The thing I hated with editors was an absence of passion for the job. I wanted people to say, “Hey, I got it. Let’s get after it.” So many times you knew it would be botched because they had less passion than you did about your product.
Here’s another example, from just this weekend, of great editing. I was working for ESPN.com on a feature on the Special Olympics. If you had any cynicism about the world around us, this was such an antidote. The stories and the courage and what they have been through. It was so inspiring. I was interviewing a man who is forty with Down’s Syndrome who’d been an athlete since he was eight years old.
He was so articulate and is a spokesperson for the Special Olympics around the world. I tried to describe his smile in the article. I wanted it to be an explosion, like a firework stand… it’s how it made you feel. The editor got back and they had the thought that someone might have been hurt in an explosion, it could be dangerous. Now I liked the image, it worked for me, but the editor stepped in and took it a step further as my first reader. She is your conscience and your auxiliary logic. It turned out so much better… the smile strikes like the finale of a fireworks show! So much better! I picked it up and thanked her. That’s what an editor can do, but that’s the relationship when it works perfectly.
Question: Can you say something about what kind of editing exchanges are most fruitful and how you structure them beyond the face to face interaction?
Anca: For the big picture issues, my novel started with a phone conversation since my editor lived in Philly. Then it was all email until the epilogue question and we had to have a phone call. At important junctures in the process, we’d communicate more.
The best editing experiences have always been when the editors pose questions. Most recently, I wrote a personal essay and brought it to my peer review group and they said it needed more emotion. I took it home and said, “I do not know how to emote.” My editor had the same feedback, but she also had a bunch of questions, which helped identify how to add emotion in. Being expansive is important in communication.
Jamie: I recently wrote a piece on an innovation hub on campus. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen when it comes to these pieces, and so there are: fundraising advancement officers, communication directors involved, etc. and we have to put together a creative brief and make sure everyone approves.
Then I sit down with the two subjects working within the space. This is when it gets interesting— a human piece instead of an info piece. Your readers are more interested in humans than just a puff piece. So I ended up trying to write this piece about the filmmakers and their motivations, how one woman felt excluded in NY, and wanted to come back here and start a more inclusive company that told a wide-range of diverse stories.
I worked with my “boss editor” and told her all my pain points and the pressures I was feeling. “All the people want this puff piece, but deep down—I know this human element is the story.” I tried to make it really clean so she didn’t have to clean it up. I worked on my own, not going to her for help because I didn’t want to burden her. But once I brought it to her, she helped me find a stronger angle, and so I wished I had come to her sooner. She could have identified the same problems and back me up and justified cuts sooner.
Dave: I think the face-to-face would be nice, but it isn’t practical, particularly for novels. And besides, then if you go the publishers, and then you get to know them, and you feel like they are dear friends…I want to say that’s important, but really a professional openness is the most important thing to creating a great product.
I’m sure with my first editor in the US that I bugged him. “Anything else I can do? Huh, huh?“ I was so eager to please. They bought my book! “I love you, what can I do for you!” The friendship is great, but professionalism is key. And now I love Skype. It is wonderful. So much better than the phone. Look someone in the eyes and you can tell a person’s sincerity far easier, and you can do that without being in the same town.
Matt: So Anca, you found being expansive important, and Jamie, you found that getting guidance early was really important; otherwise, you were spinning your wheels?
Jamie: Right, sometimes I think I can write a piece because I’ve done it before! But sometimes editors see the obvious solution that I can’t
Dave: To be expansive as an author is important to. I go back to the electronic pages with notes and the view on the side, and to “accept” or “reject” all those changes just feels so critical. Used to be you did it with your pencil and there’d be an exclamation point, or a smiley face. It really goes a long way when an editor takes the time to say, “I know these are all mark ups but it’s not criticism. I love this.”
Sometimes an author plants something that doesn’t pay off until a hundred pages later, so in the editing process it will feel like an unnecessary diversion. I might have some sort of symbolism. For example in one novel, a woman has a baby, a miscarriage, and since one of the characters doesn’t know it until years later, I had to subtly write the scene in the moment when it happened. The girl was young and she didn’t realize that her mother was miscarrying at the time. My editor didn’t catch it the first time around, so at the end she was like “What is this about? Why is the mom just disappearing into another room? It isn’t relevant?” But it was. So authors should add some expanded notes as well.
Matt: Another good reason why you should always read the manuscript twice! It is important not to come across as picky. I have to remind myself to make positive comments when I am being paid to be analytical… Track Change is a bloodless format.
Question 5: When did you find as a working writer that you trusted your editor?
Anca: After the initial discussion with the editor who acquired my book. I felt good about the book, but I didn’t trust her. Until I got the editorial letter and she explained her rationale, and included some smiley faces and LOLs then I felt better. I felt really good once I had the initial set of edits.
Jamie: I went to Yellowstone for a week and wrote a story about that. Your story tends to be 2000 words when it needs to be 800, but there were problems with this particular project. My editor had been hired maybe two months before that, so I got back and it was like, “Here you go; help me.” We were still trying to get a creative dev for the website, and she worked with me to get a sense of where design met creative, so I appreciated her not just looking at the words, but also going beyond to the bigger context of the piece, and we chatted with the designer to think about how long and how short it could be in places, so we could decide before we made cuts.
Dave: Some you trust, some you don’t. I once had a dev editor that sent me notes with probably twenty-five misspellings, including my name. And that put me on edge and I was a little wary. I talked to the agent and said, “Look, I’m gonna be cool, I don’t need to alienate her, but be careful.”
She reminded me I would have a copyeditor later and not to worry. And I’m glad I wasn’t nasty or got critical because the copyeditor pushed it and took care of all the issues, and it was a moot point. It was a good thing to swallow my criticism knowing we could fix it in the end.
Question: Would you like to take a stab at your editing manifesto? Or enlighten us with anecdotes?
Dave: Manifesto sounds like the Unabomber, and I don’t think he would have dealt with editors very well! “Ted, you gotta cut this stuff. It’s way too long.”
For me we’ve covered it: Be a decent human being to each other. And know that your welfare and the editor’s welfare is a shared concern. And there are others, I know you won’t believe this, but there are authors with some egos! Come on. Don’t touch my work! Once Sports Illustrated sent William Faulkner to cover the Kentucky Derby, and he sent one gigantic block of copy without any punctuation back just to make the editor do the job. And it turned out to be a great piece! The words are important, and if someone can help you make it better, then that is working toward you goal.
Jamie: I second that. Be kind and gentle to work with. You are there to be direct, but kind. That’s what I would prefer the most. Every writer and editor is different, keep in mind that your style may be different. We all have different styles and want different things, so have an idea-exchange at the beginning.
Anca: Watching tone, being able to ask neutral questions, which I learned in my MFA. Ask questions that you are generally curious about, and not just veiled opinions where you should just say what you think. Don’t be condescending when they are just starting out and have a lot of work to do, but coach them instead.
Matt: Anca you mentioned editing giving you a nosebleed when we chatted earlier?
Anca: That was one of the best editing experiences ever. I was getting to the end of my line editing, and I had to really focus in mentally and emotionally with the characters; and at the end, I was sweating and crying, and blood was dripping down my nose and I thought, “Wow. I think her work is done!”
Dave: One more comment. I am pretty convinced—because I know everyone in journalism had a manuscript somewhere they were working on—and I suspect editors do too. When I do presentations, I like to stress that I never wrote a word of fiction until I was fifty-three years old. I had no idea how to tell a story. I read a lot and I had some facility with the language, but when I realized the newspaper business was going to die out from under me, I thought—What is my escape route?
I started working on a novel. And a year later, it was sold around the world. If I can do it, you can do it. Keep working at it. So many people write an early version and think, “This doesn’t look like a book. It isn’t up to standards.” Well nobody’s is! So much is in the rewrite.
Taking out what you did wrong and leaving the things you did right, and all of a sudden it looks like a book. So many people give up because they feel like they are wasting their time. But don’t give up. What are the chances of a sports journalist turning into a novelist? For editors who want to get on to the other side of it, that is some encouragement.
Question: For those of you who write fiction, do you go to writers conference and if so what do you get out of going? Is it beneficial?
Anca: I do and depending on the conference I get different things out of it. Often, I get information about different aspects of publishing and fiction writing and networking. Others, it’s about craft and developing relationship with writers, and learning from master teachers.
Dave: I’ve never gone to one of those. I’m a little ignorant. People talk about writing, but it’s such an individual process. I almost don’t trust what someone is going to tell me. My wife goes as an editor, and she says you can bounce ideas off others, and that seems to be a key part.
Question: When you’re working with a dev editor, I am one…I get concerned because I get so excited about a manuscript, and I sometimes wonder if I give too much input and I wonder if you prefer us to edit before we work together if you want all of it and you decide how to sort. I am afraid of overwhelming my writers with my enthusiasm. Can an editor share too much?
Anca: Well, I share that concern as a teacher of writing. I try to hold back and manage the cognitive load. This week we’ll look at character, and next week scenes. I guess I don’t mind. It depends on the tone. Enthusiastic reader response is probably fine, but at the beginning just ask, “How would you like to receive the feedback. Do you want it all at once or move down through concerns?”
Jamie: I remember with a previous editor… I remember getting too much and feeling overloaded. In this particular case, I got a lot of different ways of saying the same thing. Now this was a co-worker, my boss editor, not someone I hired. I just got everything and I couldn’t take it in. I wished she had reviewed the cumulative effect of everything and edited herself.
Dave: I love your passion. Will you work on my next novel? That enthusiasm—I want you to be my first reader. As authors we may work a year or two on a book, so there are no surprises in it for us. Is this funny, poignant, impactful? We lose track of that. What I really love from a dev editor are the things an author loses over time…pace, proportion, voice. We don’t realize we may have gone too long without action, or too much of one character and not enough of another. That’s the proportion I lose sight of, and voice is very hard to sustain over the two and three years of writing! A reader may spend three-days or a week, and they can tell when the voice kind of wanders or doesn’t ring true, and that is hard for an author to find on their own because they know the book so well.
Question: Do you recall the first time you were edited and how much did it hurt?
Anca: Well, it wasn’t an edit, but it was the kind of comment that sticks with you. In fiction, you say you only remember the things that are terrible. My history teacher once wrote on a paper, “Not your best work.” Nothing else! One time I worked with an inexperienced editor or writer. I don’t write horror, but my piece fit with her horror anthology. She made changes that I didn’t think were very good, but I trusted that she knew the genre and left it at that. Editors that ask questions that bring out the vividness of the world that you are building has been helpful to me for a long time.
Dave: Starting out with no experience as a sports writer, I’ve read sports and stories and so I tried to make it look like what I thought it should look like. The sports editors suggested I add more color to the story and so I did, but then the managing editor came in and said, “That was wretched excess!” I was too enthusiastic, so you learn. But if you go, “OMG. My feelings are hurt,” then you are not going to make it as a writer.
Jamie: No specific incident. But I remember early on hating writing, but I kept taking the classes. I always thought something was good, but I never would know if it was going to get an A, or a request for a rewrite. It was like rolling the die. I had no awareness of the potential then or not. So, I recently took a poetry class (and I am not a poet), and I went through that process again because I thought what I wrote was decent, but really only one out of five poems were decent, so it was a flashback to when I was first writing essays.
Question: After publication have you gotten responses from readers that let you know you really hit it?
Dave: It’s the coolest thing in the world. As much as I enjoy emails about my sports columns, to have someone call or email that a part of my book helped them understand their life better—that is amazing. One woman had a number of losses in her family. Because she could not get past the pain, she was not spreading the love around to the rest of her family. She was sacrificing everything she had by focusing on the losses. In my novel, a character learned you can’t sacrifice the emotion, but must re-apportion to those remaining. This woman told me, “I should have known that, but I didn’t see it in myself until I read your novel.” It gives you chills to know something I wrote helped someone’s life.
Anca: It’s always wonderful to hear from readers. With my epilogue drama, people told me I really stuck the landing with the ending! I read some reviews of the book where a critic was baffled by my character choices, but other readers came and said, “No, I feel completely seen by her characters. I’ve had the same psychosis.” So, I made complex characters and some people are confused by them and some are seen by them.
Question: Is it helpful or overstepping for an editor to provide a sample sentence?
Dave: I like when they say, “Break up these quotes. Streamline. Do this.” I don’t want someone taking over the words. I want someone to direct me, but throwing in sections… no. I like the suggestion. I say, I trust your judgment and you trust me to do what you think.
Jamie: I agree. Sometimes I appreciate suggestions. You could consider opening with something general and not too prescriptive.
Anca: I think if you worry you are being unclear, then an example is helpful. Hedging it nicely is good. But going into Track Changes—that is unacceptable.
Question: How extensive are the in-house developmental edits after your novel is purchased?
Dave: Varies. All kinds of ways.
Jamie: Same, varies. Some things I need completely reworked. It can be very extensive.
Anca: I haven’t had huge developmental edits yet, but I can imagine scenarios. If I signed with an agent, they might have edits, and then an editor might have more. Many before a publishing house.
Question: Anything developmental editors can do to be more helpful?
Dave: I’ve been pretty happy. When people buy your book, you tend to be big fans and open to their suggestions. They think they can make money, and so it’s usually a good relationship, and you’re both attached.
Jamie: I like the enthusiasm. Really seeing what the writer is trying to do, and reading it twice if necessary or more and getting it. The writing might not be completely achieving, but if you can get some of it and draw that out—that is helpful
Anca: I agree, and I do that with my students. Write statements of meaning. So expressing your understanding, having aspirations of the piece, and that leads into the suggestions. Show you are invested and what you understand.