All good editors love working with writers.
To us, writers are special people, compelled to put words together as they look at the world. They can’t stop, must return to whatever is in their heads, what they’re thinking and feeling, making sense of their lives, to explain, to teach, so write they must.
I spend every day with at least one author’s ongoing story in my head, puzzling over the issues and needs of this particular work and figuring out how to help develop the manuscript from rough draft to the point of publication.
For me, it doesn’t get any better. I’ve been an acquisitions and developmental book editor since 1962, and yet it’s fresh and new every time, like a spiritual retreat, a transformative adventure to another world, since each author’s book is different and unique. It’s my personal passion, and I feel privileged and often honored to have a job like this.
A writer’s best friend and secret weapon
Every author is different. But each writer I work with becomes the most important person in my work life as we go back and forth in the intimate and challenging process of producing a successful book that’s ready for prime time.
I’ve found that most writers appreciate working with an objective helping professional. When we can hammer out a solid relationship of trust and mutual commitment, an author can be quite relieved to have a creative partner who subsumes his own feelings and intellect to their own.
What I’ve learned from working with writers
Writers are brave. It takes courage to write, to expose oneself without compromising either the need to express sometimes painful feelings, or the demands of impatient readers who are distracted by a desire for rapid gratification. As a faithful ally in this struggle, a good editor can work shoulder-to-shoulder to defeat unexpected roadblocks, wrong turns, and internal self-censorship.
Writers are often insecure. Even the best and most successful authors I’ve worked with can be troubled at times by self-doubt. They’re not always satisfied with what they’ve done, worrying that they’ve failed to fulfill their deepest intentions, haven’t explained themselves adequately, missed the high water mark of their last or best work. My job is to be both honest about what they need to do but also encouraging, firm in my belief that they can in fact do it.
Writers are sometimes lonely. I know how facing that blank screen or empty page can be terrifying. There’s no one else who can extricate and put down those words, at least until someone like me can read them and offer new choices, changes, cuts, and other constructive suggestions.
Writers can be defensive. Who wants to hear negative criticism? The trick for me has always been to frame my changes and requests in a way that grows organically from the author’s original intentions.
Writers are always stimulating. What original ideas! Such intelligence, humor, romance, mystery, amazing twists and turns of the plot, new research and instruction, prescriptive, inspiring, emotionally satisfying, disturbing – writers can help us understand our lives and create meaning out of random chaos and otherwise inexplicable events. My job has always been to sort through the working drafts of manuscript as a typical reader and make sure it’s clear and understandable, sometimes needing to deconstruct and put back together the pieces from the creative jig saw.
Finding your own editor
Given the attrition in commercial publishing houses, you can search online and choose among professional editors with experience bringing books to publication. It’s great if you can meet in person at first, since trust and personal chemistry are important. It’s not essential, however, and email exchanges or an explorative phone call can also work. I’ve worked with writers from Australia, England, Canada, South Africa, Thailand, Brazil and other points near and far.
The author-editor dynamic is a personal relationship – often close, intense, time limited and usually fun, in my experience. But before choosing your own editor, be sure to check out experience, past books edited and published. Are these authors you’ve heard of? Are their books ones that you personally respect or admire? Have they sold well? Seen any of them on the best-seller lists? That’s the acid test.
You should also ask a prospective developmental editor for references. Many clients of mine have done that and other authors I’ve worked with have obliged, mentioning warts and all.
Choosing a developmental editor can require some initiative and intuitive judgment. Ask authors you might know to recommend their editors. Go to bookstore readings and lectures where writers, agents, and publishers appear. Seek them out at writers conference to ask for references for a good editor. Trust your instincts to evaluate this advice and where it came from – that’s what smart sensitive writers can do.
For more on evaluating prospects and avoiding potential problems, take a look at this earlier post, Choosing a freelance editor: What you need to know