Making the Writer/Editor Relationship Work
Let’s talk about the relationship between author and editor. After all, whether you’re traditionally or independently published, the relationship you have with your editor is probably essential in deciding whether or not you have success with your writing. I’m going to look at some of the common misconceptions about what an editor is and does and also highlight the key factors in building a positive, creative, and productive relationship between the writer and the editor.
But first, it may be interesting and useful for you to have a quick insight into my background, as that has undoubtedly influenced the way I view the nature of the relationship between a writer and her editor, the attitude each must have, and what makes that relationship work well.
Comparison with the Actor/Director Relationship
I started out working in theater and television. I worked as an actor, puppeteer, script writer/editor, and latterly as a director. Understanding the relationship between the performer and the director, and experiencing it from both sides of the lines, afforded me invaluable insights when it came to developing positive relationships as a writer with editors. The director/actor relationship very closely parallels that of the relationship between author and editor.
The director’s role is a complex one. She must bring together all the disparate elements of the performance to create a unified, coherent, informing and entertaining whole which will satisfy an audience’s expectations. Her primary medium is the actor. However, the actor is not simply a tool to be used, but a skilled practitioner in her own right.
Good directors seek to collaborate with actors in a mutual journey of discovery, guiding and making suggestions, listening and interpreting in an inclusive, encouraging, and creative way. Good directors are also aware that it is the quality of the final production to which, in the final analysis, everything else must defer.
Good actors are aware that they cannot see themselves, and that a director can reinforce, empower, and refine their performance in a way which is simply impossible without the external perspective. And a good actor also recognizes that it is the final work as a whole which really matters, rather than this or that detail of her own individual performance.
So it is with the relationship between the author and editor. A good editor seeks to uncover a writer’s strengths and play to them, at the same time strengthening her weaknesses, gently pushing her to extend and deepen her skills, correcting error where necessary, listening carefully as well as putting in her own two pennies worth.
The Editor is Not Your Enemy!
I’m always surprised when I hear other writers talking about their editors as if they were the enemy. I’m not sure where the fault lies, with a prima donna writer or an unnecessarily prescriptive editor, but it’s certainly something I believe could and should be avoided in every case. The relationship between the writer and the editor should never be combative. There should be no clash of egos. There should be respect, mutual understanding, and an overriding commitment to put the work itself before and above every other personal consideration.
So what are the key elements of a positive writer/editor relationship?
1) As we’ve just said, the relationship must be based on a mutual respect and a foundation of trust. The writer must be open to acceptance of an editor’s critique and prepared to experiment with the changes an editor suggests. The editor, likewise, must discern between something that really needs changing in the work, something that really doesn’t function at all, and something which she would like to see changed merely as a matter of personal taste.
2) It’s enormously helpful if the writer and the editor at least broadly share a common worldview, enjoy reading at least some of the same authors, and are generally on “the same wavelength.” It’s no bad thing if there are also differences, as a bit of spark between you can do no harm, but there should be a fundamental commonality in your system of values and the way you approach both work and art.
The last thing you need to be doing is rubbing each other up the wrong way for reasons that have nothing at all to do with the work in hand. It’s also true for most writers that in some manner or form their ideology will find its way into their work and it’s a good thing when the editor is on board with that from the outset.
3) Both the writer and the editor must clearly understand, consciously and openly, that it is the work itself which is the focus of everything they do together. Egos really must be left at the door. Personal attachments must be put aside. Whatever is best for the work is the only thing that counts. Having said that, the process should still be an enjoyable one and one in which a certain amount of give and take and a willingness to compromise plays a full and active role.
4) In an ideal situation the editor will be with the writer for the long term. The relationship should deepen and mature with every additional work, with every passing year, as the editor helps to guide and support the writer with a view to an enduring career.
In old school publishing it was common enough for a writer to enjoy a lifelong relationship with the same editor. Things have changed in more recent times and a traditionally published writer who is granted this blessing is quite a rare creature. Publishing houses reorganize themselves, merge, split, change their focus and their staff with incredible velocity these days. Contractual arrangements may not always permit a writer to follow a beloved editor to a new house, and vice versa.
In many ways this aspect of the relationship between author and editor is easier to sustain for the independent author. Although finding and employing a suitable editor can take some time.
5) The relationship between the writer and the editor should certainly be a friendly one. There should be a natural feeling of synchronicity, engagement, and generosity between both parties. The work should always be enjoyable.
The Relationship Between Author and Editor
If it’s ever possible, the writer and editor should take the opportunity to meet in person, face-to-face. It isn’t always an option. Your editor may live on the other side of the world and your communication be limited to email exchanges, but the occasional face-to-face on Skype or a Google hangout is always a good idea. It can also be a real time-saver when working through a particularly knotty editorial problem.
At the same time, it’s very important that the writer and the editor both maintain their professional boundaries. Friendly you certainly should be, but you don’t want to be jumping into bed with your editor, however good-looking he is! Maintaining the slight distance afforded by the strictly professional relationship ensures there is continued clarity and if the editor needs to be tough she can be; and if a writer needs to stand her ground, she may do so without personal hurt or affront.
And that’s pretty much it. As with any relationship, a good writer/editor rapport isn’t built overnight, but takes many years to work out. That’s all time well spent, as without an editor any writer is like a hiker without a map, a pilot without air-traffic control, or whatever other apposite simile you prefer!
I hope that’s been useful and interesting for you. What do you think makes the relationship between author and editor a good one? If you’re a writer or editor, or both, it would be great to hear from you in the comments.
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