Why Editors Need to be Writers

I get the impression that editors are sometimes viewed the way teachers are: if you can’t do, you teach. If you can’t write, you edit. And that, in both cases, is a disappointing perspective. I am not an editor because I’m not a good enough writer. I’m an editor because my talent lies in seeing strengths and weaknesses in another writer’s work.

I do, however, write because I enjoy it. But I also write because I think it’s an important exercise to keep in shape for my writers. Editors are more like coaches than teachers. They should be able to do some of what their writers do, but their helpfulness as a guide does not wane in the waxing light of the talent they’re molding.

Editors should be writers as well because they need to know – and be reminded of – what it feels like to:

  • Write the perfect sentence going down the highway at 70 mph and subsequently risk life and limb to find paper and pen in the glove box to get it down.
  • Spend your day writing mediocre copy that’s never acknowledged one way or the other then come home to a blank page you can’t fill because your writing soul was slowly sucked away at work.
  • Be fascinated by people’s quirks or turns of phrases because you’ll work them into a story or even build whole characters around those foibles.
  • Be rejected by dozens of strangers without comment.
  • Explain to people why you keep hand-written journals and notes instead of using a computer for everything.
  • Encounter things in the real world and automatically think about how your fictional characters would respond.

These are just some of the experiences that make editors relate, and therefore communicate, better with their prose-penning counterparts. The relationship ought to be a partnership, and editorial empathy allows it to be.

I think part of the reason editors across the publishing spectrum have a reputation for imposing, obnoxious egos is they forget the experiences of writers – the struggles, the small successes, the self-doubt, the writing walls that leave you on your rhetorical ass for days.

Editors work in the realm of exercising judgment. But to execute that judgment with respect and significance means much more than ripping a manuscript to shreds as you mock it. Your own bleeding page, left all but dead by the pen of another, is just the thing to cut that ego down.

An Editor’s New Year’s Resolutions

  1. I resolve to stop making my writers wait so damn long to get pagesback. I have work from months ago that I haven’t looked at yet and it’s going to either move on without me (sad for me) or be given up on (sad for the writer).
  2. I resolve to buy more blue pens. It’s about small steps, right? I like to edit in the calming color of blue so that it stands out against the black ink without bringing up memories of slaughtered elementary school essays. When I go to edit, I struggle to find blue pens in my purse even though it’s a freaking Mary Poppins’s bag. Solution: buy more.
  3. I resolve to blog consistently. Notice how I conveniently ignored that six week gap in writing with my last blog entry? Well, I got in a car accident and that just threw my consistency out the window while I tried to clean that up. But I resolve now to get back in my editorial groove.
  4. I resolve to journal more consistently. Okay this is definitely on the personal side of these resolutions, but the reality is when I get my thoughts out in my own writing, it’s less like to get projected onto someone else’s. Plus, it just makes me happier. Happy editors are better than irritable ones, right?
  5. I resolve to seek out new writers that want to work with me. I want to expand my experience by working with different kinds of writers and different kinds of writing. Specifically (maybe it’s sexist), I’d like to work with a woman since all my regular writers are men.

In typical fashion, I’ll belatedly raise my glass of the finest champagne a barely-more-than-minimum-wage salary can afford and toast to a better year. Don’t worry, I didn’t spill on any pages.

We’ve Got Spirit, How ‘Bout… Well, crap.

When I was little, I thought that cheerleaders were the people who didn’t make the team. Now, I've become one of them.

One of my writers called me last week for some encouragement about the direction of his novel. When you work almost single-mindedly on one project for more than six months, you can begin to question your creative vision.

So instead of being a coach or trainer, I put on my editorial short skirt and shook those pom poms. And let me tell you, I really hate pom poms.

Sometimes, your writers don’t need your grammatical two cents. They don’t need plot revision or character development suggestions.

They just need to be reassured that theirs is a project worth your time.

Maybe this is a little easier to accomplish for me since lots of my editing is done pro-bono. Typically, people don’t do things they don’t like for free if they have the option not to. So that alone helps my case for credibility.

Still, as an editor, it would be unfair to say I never doubt the end result of a work. Let’s be honest – even with solid writers, that first draft can be rough!

The trick is getting two people to mutually believe in a work enough to push each other through those moments of doubt. Part of that is really hoping you don’t have synchronized moments of doubt.

For the editor, a lot of giving encouragement happens on the page, but having actual spoken conversations with your writer is important as well. Use your words!

Hopefully your writer is open enough to initiate the discussion when one needs to be had. But not everyone is so ready to admit her problems out loud.

If you’re starting to see repeat problems in a manuscript – for example, lazy verbs – bring it up with your writer. It doesn’t have to be phrased as a criticism (“Really, buddy, could you work in one more helping verb?!”), but focus on where they’ve done it right and express your desire for more of that.

Often, a writer’s sense of overall doubt emerges from a specific problem in the text – a fact they may or not be aware of. If they express general frustration, get them to pinpoint what’s bothering them by working backwards to find the spark of the issue.

If they know what the problem is, brainstorm like a beast on how to solve it. Simply talking through an issue can be encouraging because it’s like writer’s therapy. The goal is to help them find the best resolution for themselves and their work.

Plus, creative collaboration is a really rewarding part of being involved in the writing process! (Being a cheerleader makes me use more exclamation points than normal).

Cheerleaders don’t shout cheers about what their team does wrong or where they’re weak. They completely focus on current confidence and future potential.

That isn’t always what editors should be doing; in fact, it’s probably not going to help your writer grow over time. It’s important to bring out the coach’s whistle and exercise some tough love. But sometimes, cheerleading is what’s needed most.

Besides, if they leave the field, where does that really leave you? On the sidelines holding those stupid pom poms wearing itchy bloomers.