Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Working with an Editor

What’s it like to work with an editor?”is a ques­tion I often get from teach­ers, stu­dents, and aspir­ing authors and it’s one that takes some time to ful­ly answer. In the best sit­u­a­tions, an editor’s rela­tion­ship to her author is like a coach’s rela­tion­ship to an ath­lete: know­ing her author’s per­son­al­i­ty, tal­ent, and poten­tial, she encour­ages her strengths, while tact­ful­ly push­ing her toward improv­ing on her weak­ness­es. When the rela­tion­ship is work­ing well, the writer feels sup­port­ed, yet inde­pen­dent, and the edi­tor trusts that the writer is car­ry­ing out her sug­ges­tions, mov­ing the book toward their com­mon goal of mak­ing it the very best it can pos­si­bly be.  

When I began my writ­ing career in 1989, things were a lot dif­fer­ent in our indus­try. Sub­mis­sions were made through the reg­u­lar mail. I wrote my drafts long-hand on legal pads and then typed them into a huge, mono­chrome-screened com­put­er using MS-DOS. I spoke with edi­tors in per­son and by phone about cur­rent and future projects. Pub­lish­ers did all of the pro­mo­tion for my books (self-pro­mo­tion? author mar­ket­ing? What was that?) and I reviewed and approved every book con­tract myself.

Those times are long gone … and with them, some of the pre-dig­i­tal age advan­tages of real­ly know­ing your edi­tor as an indi­vid­ual (and vice ver­sa) and being able to con­cen­trate almost exclu­sive­ly on writ­ing. But some things about the author-edi­tor expe­ri­ence have not changed at all: edi­tors are still, at least the ones that I have worked with, very ded­i­cat­ed to mak­ing good lit­er­a­ture, extreme­ly hard-work­ing, and serve as an author’s #1 col­lab­o­ra­tor through the pro­duc­tion process.

But they are also indi­vid­u­als. Although their roles at the var­i­ous pub­lish­ing hous­es (acquir­ing man­u­scripts, offer­ing guid­ance to the author as he/she shapes the sto­ry, work­ing with the art direc­tor to choose an illus­tra­tor or cov­er artist, shep­herd­ing the book through the pro­duc­tion process, help­ing to plan mar­ket­ing strate­gies) may be sim­i­lar, their exe­cu­tion of that role can be very dif­fer­ent. Even so, the most impor­tant aspect of a suc­cess­ful author-edi­tor rela­tion­ship is com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Let’s say an edi­tor (we’ll call her Susan) has acquired a pic­ture book biog­ra­phy man­u­script I’ve writ­ten. It’s 75% done—which is to say, it’s a full sto­ry that shows good poten­tial, but it needs some rework­ing and some addi­tion­al back mat­ter mate­r­i­al. Susan will go over the draft sev­er­al times, mark­ing it up and mak­ing sug­ges­tions that she feels will improve the final text. She will send it back to me (email these days) and I will read her com­ments and do my best to address the issues she has high­light­ed. Some of these issues might be large ones (“Can we make the lit­tle broth­er more of an active char­ac­ter in the nar­ra­tive?”) and some are small ones (“I think we can delete this whole line—the art will show this.”)

The man­u­script bounces back and forth between us a few, sev­er­al, many times—depending on how much work it needs. The clar­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between edi­tor and author is para­mount: I can­not make the nec­es­sary changes to the sto­ry if I have no idea what the edi­tor is sug­gest­ing. Most edi­tors are very, very good at this; it’s the focus of their train­ing and they take this part seri­ous­ly. Once the man­u­script has been “accept­ed and deliv­ered” (i.e., it’s a final draft that’s ready to go into pro­duc­tion, where it will increas­ing­ly look like a book …), there is usu­al­ly a peri­od where­in there is less com­mu­ni­ca­tion as the text is being illus­trat­ed. Nor­mal­ly, there is lit­tle, if any, com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the author and the illus­tra­tor (a fact that nev­er fails to astound at school vis­its) unless the illus­tra­tor needs help find­ing an orig­i­nal source, pho­to­graph, or has an accu­ra­cy-relat­ed ques­tion.

At this point, a good edi­tor will keep in touch peri­od­i­cal­ly to update an author about his/her book’s progress and to rein­force the rhythm of their rela­tion­ship. Even if it’s just a quick email every few weeks to check in, share any ques­tions from the illus­tra­tor, or just to say “everything’s on track for our pub­li­ca­tion date.” Remem­ber: a good author and a good edi­tor usu­al­ly make an excel­lent book—and like all rela­tion­ships, per­son­al and professional—both part­ners need to invest time and atten­tion to it. If they don’t, then you can bet that author will be more than hap­py to look else­where with her next man­u­script. This is not rock­et sci­ence, obvi­ous­ly, but in my own experience—and espe­cial­ly now that dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion has large­ly dis­placed in-per­son and phone communication—it’s the edi­tor who lets his/her author know that “I have your back”; “I am tak­ing good care of your man­u­script here as we search for just the right artist”; “I’m spend­ing time think­ing about how we can best posi­tion this book for some extra sales”; “I’m in touch with illus­tra­tor John Smith, and all is going real­ly well”; “I saw this new book XYZ and I think we may want to do some­thing sim­i­lar in yours regard­ing side­bars and author’s note”…it’s that kind of edi­tor with whom the author will want to keep work­ing.

Being an edi­tor is a tough job—always has been and always will be. They work long hours, wear many hats, jug­gle more dead­lines and projects than we can imag­ine. Yet all the good ones know that it’s clear and con­sis­tent com­mu­ni­ca­tion that keeps the good authors com­ing back.

Editor reflecting

One Response to Working with an Editor

  1. Joyce Sidman February 10, 2018 at 8:01 am #

    Well said, Jen! It makes me sad that most edi­tors today are being forced to do so many oth­ers things than edit, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of email just makes their bur­den greater. I miss the days of phone calls!

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