4 Truths That Will Change Your Perspective on the Writer/Editor Relationship, by Writer’s Digest Editorial Director Jessica Strawser
“You know how they say, ‘Those who can’t do, teach’? Is it also true, then, that ‘Those who can’t write, edit”?”
A collective gasp sounded in the conference room reserved for our staff meeting. One of my editorial colleagues—a thoughtful, soft-spoken soul—was relaying the question that had all but sent her running red-faced from the podium at a writing conference Q&A session.
The story saddened me, not as much because I was offended by the question (though I know many teachers, the best of whom are often generous and talented doers, who aren’t too fond of the phrasing either) as because it did not bode well for the writer who asked it.
Most editors, of course, are trained first as writers, either journalists or English scholars. They go into editing for a variety of reasons, but often not singularly. In fact, I’d venture that one of the top reasons is to have a steady income while pursuing their writing, though some then fall so in love with editing that they’re quite content to stay there.
The loudest line on my resume might be my job title as editorial director of Writer’s Digest, but look more closely and you’ll see I’ve been writing our feature-length interviews and other stories for years, been published in other venues (including The New York Times’ Modern Love column), and have a debut novel, Almost Missed You, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in March.
I cannot fathom how anyone without writing skill could make a competent editor. But more important, from my vantage point affording me a glimpse into so many corners of this publishing room, I can say with certainty that to see the writer and editor as pitted against one another is self-defeating for either one.
It’s true that the writer-editor relationship doesn’t always go smoothly. While we’re on the same team, we’re playing different positions, and sometimes we fall out of sync. Sometimes one of us doesn’t communicate the signal we thought we did; sometimes someone stumbles and drops the ball.
While my own experience as an editor informs my approach to my writing, as a writer I’m still learning about working with other editors. Having your personal essay red-inked by someone at The New York Times is a different experience than having your roundup of local Irish pubs tidied up by your regional paper. And working with a professional on a novel you’ve labored over for years is another thing entirely.
What I’ve learned as I’ve come into my own as a writer has made me rethink aspects of my editing approach, even 16 years into my career.
This is a good thing. Sometimes, perspective is everything. Here, then, is mine.
- The best editors understand that writing is personal.
Ask a room full of editors and agents for their most well-intentioned advice, and it won’t be long before you hit upon some variation of this: “Publishing is a business. The editor knows the market best. Feedback isn’t personal. Develop a thick skin.”
True enough—but if what we write is any good, that means it has heart. Our heart. That’s what editors and agents say they want, after all. So of course it’s personal.
I know plenty of professional writers who don’t have the thickest of hides—and wouldn’t want to even if they could. What they do have is the ability to sit with their initial response until the sting subsides. What they do have is the understanding that this process will make the writing better, and the gumption to take a deep breath and get back to work.
Different types of writing carry different degrees of heart, of course. But when dealing with something that was clearly a labor of love, editors will get the writer through the requisite sting period a lot more quickly and gently when they approach their feedback with the understanding that the work is personal, and not with the brusqueness that might come with other “business” communications.
Most editors know this, but can sometimes forget its importance. Try to be forgiving when they do. Because …
- The best writers understand that editing is demanding and often thankless.
I’ll venture a guess that the picture most people probably have of your writing life is a little … off. Unless, that is, you really do write from a Parisian café, alternating between espresso and top-shelf liquor while chain-smoking cigarettes.
Just as few writers today live the lifestyle of Truman Capote, few editors are perched in penthouses or enjoying three-martini lunches. If you knew of the job duties that fell to the editorial staff at any given publication or publishing house, you might even be shocked that there isn’t someone else, anyone else, assigned to do any number of seemingly unrelated things.
As publishing has tightened its purse strings lots of things have been deemed expendable. Fortunately, editors as a whole have not (which should tell you something about their value), but people who used to assist them with administrative tasks, marketing, or even taking out the trash in many cases have.
Maybe you’ve heard that before. But have you really heard it? Did you take it into consideration before you fired off that snarky email or complained about this person publicly, by name, on Facebook? Did you adjust your expectations about response times accordingly, or did you just grumble that it wasn’t fair to have to? (For what it’s worth, editors don’t think it’s fair either.)
Consider that an editor’s job is essentially to help a writer present his work only at its very best. Dole out your complaints and your gratitude accordingly.
- There really is a distinct difference between good writing and great writing. And both writers and editors are aiming for great.
Your editor knows this, and you might think you know it too. But the hard-to-voice truth is that you won’t really know it until you write something great.
It feels normal enough to submit something that’s perfectly fine and to get perfectly fine feedback. And there’s nothing terribly unusual about the scenario in which a friend offers to read our new story and we find ourselves asking, months later, “Um, did you ever get around to that, or—?”
The difference only hits you once you’ve sent that same friend a manuscript and gotten middle-of-the-night texts gasping about what happened in Chapter 6 or chiding you for keeping her up too late. When your editor starts sending you gifs of confetti flying and people jumping up and down, you realize what you’ve been missing.
Not everything you write will be great. Lots of sustainable, lifelong, perfectly lucrative careers are sustained on good (particularly if it comes with a side of reliable and nice and professional). But that doesn’t mean you should stop aiming for great. Because great can transform everything.
And sometimes, your editor can help you make something great. But only if you let her.
- Your editor isn’t always right.
Knowing how to work with an editor is not always the same thing as making every single suggested change. And I say this wearing my editorial hat, not just the writerly one.
It might sometimes feel like your editor has the upper hand, but regardless of whether you’re writing for a magazine or shaping up a novel with your name on the spine, this is a collaboration. It’s business, but it’s art, too—in the eye of both the creator and the beholder.
The old admonition to choose your battles is true, but it’s really okay to have a strong opinion about certain elements of your own work. Your editor will even respect you for it if you handle yourself professionally. (Be willing to find common ground rather than just standing yours.)
Remember that your editor is at least in some sense a writer, too. Which means at the end of the day, you’re really not so different after all.
You’re speaking the same language. And you’re working together to make it beautiful.
Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest , North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. Her debut novel, Almost Missed You , is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in March 2017 and has garnered accolades from Chris Bohjalian, Adriana Trigiani, Garth Stein and others.
About Almost Missed You
Violet and Finn were “meant to be,” said everyone, always. They ended up together by the hands of fate aligning things just so. Three years into their marriage, they have a wonderful little boy, and as the three of them embark on their first vacation as a family, Violet can’t help thinking that she can’t believe her luck. Life is good.
So no one is more surprised than she when Finn leaves her at the beach―just packs up the hotel room and disappears. And takes their son with him. Violet is suddenly in her own worst nightmare, and faced with the knowledge that the man she’s shared her life with, she never really knew at all.
Caitlin and Finn have been best friends since way back when, but when Finn shows up on Caitlin’s doorstep with the son he’s wanted for kidnapping, demands that she hide them from the authorities, and threatens to reveal a secret that could destroy her own family if she doesn’t, Caitlin faces an impossible choice.
Told through alternating viewpoints of Violet, Finn and Caitlin, Jessica Strawser’s Almost Missed You is a powerful story of a mother’s love, a husband’s betrayal, connections that maybe should have been missed, secrets that perhaps shouldn’t have been kept, and spaces between what’s meant to be and what might have been.
Sites That Link to this Post
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