7 Things I Learned By Working With an Editor

Having recently worked with Helen Hardt at Musa Publishing for the upcoming release of The Crosstown Kid, I thought I’d share some impressions for writers who might not have worked with a professional editor yet.

I don’t know about you, but I was a little nervous prior to the process. I had nightmare 2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) - 20visions of my work being gutted, torn to shreds, clawing its way along with its legs hacked off, a dead, flat, hollow shell with only the barest resemblance to the version that flowed out of my head. Something I would despise and never want to look at again.

Turns out, this was a pretty dumb vision.

Editors, it turns out, are not soulless life-sucking word vampires after all! (Who knew?!) They are people, they care, and they’re pretty darn good at what they do (which is making your story not suck.)

Helen’s edits made the story better in every respect. What’s more, she was a pleasure to work with. Of course, like any collaboration, I suppose it’s luck of the draw. Either luck throws good-hearted, helpful, like-minded people your way, or doucheheads whose personal mission in life is to suck the joy from your working day.

I guess I got lucky. 🙂

So here’s a few things I took away from the experience. Things I wasn’t necessarily expecting about working with an editor, but which I can now can pass along to you…

  1. Editors are busy people…

…and your project isn’t the only thing on their plate. Expect weeks and weeks of hearing nothing whatsoever about your book, followed by a few weeks of frenzied edits with fast and furious deadlines. Be prepared to drop any other projects you might be working on and focus solely on getting your revisions back to your editor.

THIS is your main project, now, while you have your editor’s time and focus.

 

  1. Editors are allies, not adversaries.

I guess I always thought of writers and editors as natural enemies. One wants to create (the size of the packaging be damned) and the other wants to hack and chop that creation until it fits into a column or a word count or a marketable product.

It’s nonsense, of course.

Editors want to reach the same destination as you: taking your story from good to great.

If your story makes it past the rejection pile in the first place, the editor has already caught a glimpse of that destination. Think of them as a guide for getting you the rest of the way. The road isn’t easy—there are lava pits and sheer cliffs and horrible creatures to defeat (created mostly by you butchering your own language, of course)—but the editor knows how to overcome these obstacles, if you will just follow them.

I really felt like Helen understood the tone and feel I was going for. It’s a great feeling when your editor has the same vision for your story that you do.

  1. Editing is a collaboration of equals.

You’re not trying to please the editor. And the editor is not trying to dictate and rewrite your piece. It’s a collaborative effort. Egos have no place; the end product is what matters. The writer needs the editor, and the editor needs the writer. The two can do together what neither can do alone.

This became clear to me once or twice when my editor made a small change which made the tense or the grammar technically correct, but which made the writing sound a little flat, at least to me. Writer to the rescue! I incorporated her change but re-injected it with a little style and poetry. End result: something much better than either of our initial attempts.

Scissors that cut need two blades… or some cliché to that effect. 😛

 

  1. When it comes to inessentials, trust the editor’s knife.

You’re going to have to let some things go. I know it hurts. But listen: you can’t be trusted with those decisions. At this late stage in the game, you’re too invested. You’ve already killed your darlings in your pre-submission revisions. That’s what got the manuscript this file000624909903far. But no matter how ruthless you were, there are still some things that need killing. The nice thing about having an editor: you have a trained assassin in your employ, and they will not hesitate to pull the trigger. You might be horrified by the carnage at first, but the end result is a smoother read for the reader, and that’s who it’s all about, or what the hell are we doing in this racket, anyway?

Same thing with unclear or awkward writing. Something might be sonorous to your ear but to everyone else it squeals like a pig on iceskates. That’s OK. Your editor will gently guide that swine off the ice and send it on its way. My story had an awkward paragraph that I was reluctant to change. Helen very patiently sent it back to me twice, saying, “Try again.” The end result was not only clearer but more colorful than the original. I trusted her and it paid off with a better end product.

Bottom line: at this point in the story’s life, your editor is a more objective reader than you. He or she knows best what will delight or offend your reader’s eyes (and brain).

 

  1. Expect to re-learn your first language.

Editors, in a way, are like teachers who gently (and sometimes not-so-gently) instruct you in the do’s and don’t’s of your own language. I’ve been reading things in English since before I could crawl. I’ve been writing things in English since before I could ride a bike. And I still got schooled on a few things.

It’s a humbling experience, really.

Just think of it this way: as an adult, you would likely never, in a million years, sign up and pay for another grammar class. It just wouldn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean you know everything there is to know about putting words and little squiggly marks on paper in a way that makes sense and follows all the rules. You’d be surprised what you don’t know.

Your editor is happy to give you a few subtle lashes until you learn.

 

  1. Technology makes exchanging revisions a cinch.

This might be a slightly embarrassing revelation but I’ve been using MS Word for what feels like a century and I didn’t even know about “Track Changes” and adding comments to a manuscript. I really was wondering how we would get into the nitty-gritty of minute changes in the manuscript by email. I thought it would be a laborious process of searching for the editor’s changes and having to go through things on my own. Not so. It was as simple as hitting “Next” and jumping from comment to comment and change to change. You either accept the editor’s proposed change right there in the manuscript, or reject it and leave a comment explaining why. You send it back and forth, reading each other’s comments and changes until the manuscript is squeaky clean and ready to be sent off to galleys. Simple!

 

  1. Editing is surprisingly… fun!

This is the one I was least expecting.

FUN??

Listen, I swear I don’t have a masochistic bone in my body. I don’t hold flaming lighters up to my skin, or do anything with whips or things that stretch or bind or pierce or… (cough) insert. I don’t even have a single tattoo.

But I swear this process really was fun.

Maybe it’s the feeling of seeing a familiar piece of work in a new light, through someone else’s eyes. Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush of meeting your deadlines, knowing that you can work under a crunch. Maybe it’s the feeling that finally, the work is getting good enough to be read by actual strangers, and not just your Grandma or your significant other. (Not that those aren’t important readers!)

I don’t know. I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy it that much, but I did.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to a feeling of Progress. Before we started Helen said: “You’ve written a good story; now let’s make it even better!” And here’s the thing: I could see it happening. Her process was working. The manuscript was getting better and better with each pass. That’s an enjoyable feeling.

 

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How about you? Have you worked with a professional editor before? What was your experience like? Do you currently have something in the submission drum that you are dreading going to the editing phase? Did this help alleviate your dread at all? Let’s hear from the experienced and inexperienced alike. Maybe your experience was not as pleasant as mine, and you’d like to share a horror story with us. Great, leave a comment below! We can all learn from it!

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