by Batya Shai
In my work as a freelance writer and editor, I have experienced the joys and pitfalls of both professions from the seeming exclusive vantage point of each. My discussions with colleagues who have straddled both sides of the writer-editor divide generally focus on how each party can draw the most benefit from their affiliation. We have agreed that editorial intervention, by definition, potentially ignites friction that depletes the creative energies of both the author and editor. In our search for a way to defuse such a potentially explosive scenario, we have found no better precept to apply to the latter’s role than a doctrine of the legendary twentieth century American editor, Maxwell Perkins — namely, that “The book belongs to the author.” Most publishing professionals – editors included – believe this statement should serve as a guiding principle for editorial work in the twenty-first century as well. The challenge, apparently, is for editors to incorporate this precept within their modus operandi.
I invite you behind the scenes to don a certified editor’s hat for a while: Imagine that you bring considerable experience and a solid reputation to your current project, on which you have been laboring greatly. The manuscript is enlightening, exciting even, but not thoroughly readable. There are flaws in the grammatical structure of many sentences that even a liberal-minded descriptivist could not agree to, much less a prescriptivist like you, and you are working for Perfectionist Publications, Ltd. Although the publisher, Mr. P., drolly alerted you that the author’s genius does not lie in his ability to use the Queen’s English, he could not sufficiently prepare you for the task that now lies before you — at least not on an emotional level. Indeed, your discomfort was largely increased when he warned you about the writer’s ultra-sensitive nature and distaste for even constructive criticism. Alas, you cannot back out of the assignment because the publisher is counting on you; he has told you frankly that no one else would agree to take the job. Mr. P. tries to reassure you by acknowledging that he will “owe you one” – a big one, you think!
You intuitively conclude that the most expedient way to handle this situation would be to simply rewrite a few sections of the text — well, actually more than a few. It is very tempting to do so, but you know you must refrain from recasting the piece in your own image. After all, the first negative commandment of good editing you received while training for your career was that an editor must not allow the author’s voice to become the sacrificial lamb on the altar of expert editorial revision, no matter how essential the changes to his text might be. Not so easy to think about when you are struggling with a piece, and even more difficult to do.
The situation is charged, so it’s a convenient time to switch hats: You are a writer (not the one mentioned above) who is waiting to receive an email containing the first segment of your corrected manuscript from the editor your publisher has designated as a good match for you. Despite your many publishing credentials, you have enough modesty to realize that your work needs an objective and professional review by a qualified editor before it is published; nevertheless you feel agitated until you can examine the hopefully minor revisions that will make a major impact on the readability of your text.
You picture your editor uncapping her figurative red pen (à la scalpel) and setting out to perform delicate surgery, painstakingly avoiding even a tap to the spine or any vital organs of the text that you have — willingly or not — entrusted to her care.
The moment has arrived. With trepidation, you open the editor’s email attachment. You can’t believe what you see — more balloons on the page than you blew up for your granddaughter’s birthday party, only these are courtesy of Track Changes and hardly a cause for celebration, you think. The colors, the comments — you feel like you’re living one of those troubling dreams where you are just about to give your acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, only to suddenly become aware that you are standing shoeless at the podium, and the big toe of your right foot has managed to somehow stick out of a huge hole in your left sock.
You take a deep breath, count backwards from ten, and when you reach zero … you emit the heretofore stifled scream. The nerve of that woman! Who does she think she is? These are the more benign thoughts roiling through your mind. Can you cleanse your system of verbal abuse before examining the revisions that just might contain some valuable suggestions? This is your challenge as a writer who has nurtured a manuscript from its inception as a seminal idea, watered it with perspiration, and — sometimes proudly, other times with mixed feelings — let it go out into the world.
I have culled these depictions of the association between authors and their editors from an informal survey I conducted through an international email forum for publishing professionals and hopefuls, where the respondents gave me permission to paraphrase their complaints against each other. While I am happy to report that most people had overall positive (or at least tolerable) experiences in their author-editor relationships, it is nevertheless disturbing that the situation is too often marred by a lack of cooperation due to emotions ranging from concealed resentment to open enmity on either or both sides. Writers sometimes regard editors as parasites sucking the very lifeblood from their victimized hosts, while editors defend their intervention as an absolute necessity, without which many writers’ work would not reach the printing stage.
When I requested writers and editors to list suggestions for preventing tension in their working relationship (under the title of “What I Wish My Editor / the Writer Would Keep in Mind”), the following points appeared most often:
Writer to Editor:
- If you detest my writing style, don’t take the job; it’s not for you, and you’ll regret it!
- This is my baby; treat her and her worried parent with consideration.
- Query politely when something is unclear; don’t immediately revise.
- Tact is as important as skill (to the writer, at least). If you’re short on diplomacy and patience, you’re in the wrong profession.
Editor to Author:
- Humility is, first and foremost, the greatest gift an author can give himself. You don’t have to agree with every recommendation, but you’ll undoubtedly gain by considering it with an open mind.
- You hired me (or were assigned to me) for an objective opinion. Think of me as a paid reader; whatever interferes with my reading pleasure is likely to jar your general readership as well.
- Creative ideas are your expertise; transmitting those ideas in the best possible format is mine. I realize that you know how to write and you’ve worked through several drafts; now it’s my turn to objectively evaluate your finished product.
It emerges that the most essential factor for successful cooperation between writers and their editors is mutual respect, which often requires a good, though not necessarily seamless, complement of personalities. While it cannot be denied that writers provide editors with their bread and butter, it is also true that editors help writers hone their craft, thereby producing a more marketable product. But when authors and editors agree that their relationship is symbiotic, and realize that they are working towards the same goal – the publication of an eminently readable manuscript – they have achieved a level of success that is independent of the number of books that are ultimately sold.