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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | editor

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


Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

We are honored to interview the highly respected Richard Jackson, who is on to his next career as a writer. His most recently published book is all ears, all eyes, a lush and irresistible read-aloud book, illustrated by Katherine Tillitson (Simon & Schuster). We thought we’d take the opportunity to talk with him about the progression from his editorial career to his writing career and the four books he has written.

Editorial Career

Will you please tell us a bit about your editorial experience?

After Army service, I graduated from NYC in 1962 with a Master’s degree in education. I worked first at Doubleday, not with children’s books, then at Macmillan and David White.

In 1968, you co-founded Bradbury Press. You moved to Orchard Books in 1986 and then began the nonfiction publishing imprint DK Ink in 1996. Three years later, in 1999, you had your own imprint at Simon & Schuster with the venerated Atheneum Books. Has this journey taken you around unexpected bends in the road?

I’ve never been subjected to a job interview.

As you were gaining experience, which editors do you feel taught you the most?

Frances Keene and then Susan Hirschman at Macmillan.

Do you think most picture book editors are equal parts visual and verbal?

Most likely. For me, as writer, as editor, the words are of first importance.

What did your authors teach you?


While you were an editor, did you always have a yen to write your own books?

No. But retirement—in so much as I am retired; I still work on a few books annually by old publishing friends—suddenly stretched rather blandly before me. I began tinkering with words, with play, with wordplay…

You’re working with an editor now, a colleague. What do you look for from your editor?

Efficiency. A sense of humor. Taste. Candor—i.e., a willingness to see the possibilities of something not yet final.

Considering the Books You’ve Written

Have a Look, Says Book

interior spread for Have a Look, Says Book by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Kevin Hawkes

Have a Look, Says Book

Have a Look, Says Book
illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Caitlyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schuster, 2016

Kevin Hawkes illustrated this book that is playfully focused on adjectives. The text rhymes but not in a way that feels read-aloud confining. How do you work on the poetry in a picture book?

In my head, often while driving.

Storytime librarians are focusing more than ever on teaching. This book offers an opportunity to talk about the pleasure of books, the love of words. Have you always been fond of words?

A verbal child was I. As opposed to athletic.

What sparked the idea for this book?

The simple but enormous word “touch” has at least two meanings… There are many see, hear books, a few smell and taste books—hardly any about touch. Watching children and grandchildren touch the pages and pictures of a book, I thought…let’s see if I can honor that young-kid impulse: to point out, to make contact with a finger, to search a book for a tactile dimension equal to seeing and hearing.

In Plain Sight

interior spread for In Plain Sight, by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Jerry Pinkney

In Plain SightIn Plain Sight
illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Neal Porter Books
Roaring Brook Press, 2016

The story in this book is universal, a grandfather and granddaughter who enjoy each other’s company. Grandpa, who lives in a bedroom in Sophie’s house, always has something for them to do together, to find something he’s hidden In Plain Sight.

What inspired this universal story of love?

Well, I was the Grandpa, I think. Sophie, a sister who died at four. She always announced her presence with “Here I ahm.” In my imagination, the game element was as important as anything, so it was based upon a game my father played on us, his children, on Christmas night—find objects hidden in unlikely places, such as a dollar bill wrapped around a book’s spine in a bookcase—very tricky!

It’s so important for children who have older generations living with them to see themselves in books, to understand that families extend themselves when needed.

Was it your idea to have Grandpa supported by a wheelchair?

Jerry’s, I think. As was Grandpa’s athletic and military past, as was the cat.

This manuscript was interpreted by the much-admired author and illustrator, Jerry Pinkney. How was he brought into this project?

Neal Porter’s idea, at Roaring Brook. They had not worked together before. I asked Neal, quite casually, I remember, if this family might be black (they weren’t while I was following the conversation which accounts for the story here). Jerry widened and deepened every image; note Sophie’s school clothes, for instance. Or the illustration on the binding of the book—not a repeat of the jacket, but something new and on its own; that’s Grandpa’s nature, don’t you think; there’s always a little more to give.

all ears, all eyes

interior spread, all ears, all eyes, by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Katherine Tillotson

all ears, all eyesall ears, all eyes
illustrated by Katherine Tillotson
Caitlyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schuster, 2017

Your text for this book is so evocative of being outdoors at night, particularly in a forested or wild area. Why did you want to share that experience with readers and listeners?

The setting is a bit of woods, across a brook near our house in the country north of New York City. Real country, if you can believe. One night a yodeling fox awoke me and my wife. Moon and mostly darkness. Stillness, except for Mr. Fox. Magical. We got the children up (they are part of my dedication for this book) and, barefoot, we went outside, across the grass, up to the brook’s bank. We listened and without entering the woods, let the woods enter us. I hoped to write a poem to that night, that fox, that family experience.

When you wrote the text for all ears, all eyes, did you have an illustrator in mind? Why?

Yes indeed, the text was for Katherine Tillotson always, once the opening words sprang from my memory. She suggested the project somehow, and inspired it all along, from a very early rendition of a lurking owl. Next came Caitlyn Dlouhy and Ann Bobco (Atheneum’s brilliant art director), and the four of us played for months and months. Until quite close to the “end,” I was fussing with rhymes and line breaks. Such fun.

Many people who want to write books for children have been told that they’ll never work directly with their illustrator. Did you include instructions for how the text might be illustrated? As an editor, does your mind work that way?

I give a little guidance when the artist will need it—the main boy wears glasses, for example. And I break the text into page and page turn units. In my head I’m imaging a movie. But the illustrator is the cameraman (or woman), and often comes up with totally surprising and often just-right new views.

Don’t miss reading our interview with Katherine Tillotson about this book.

interior spread from This Beautiful Day, by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Suzy Lee

This Beautiful DayThis Beautiful Day
illustrated by Suzy Lee
Caitlyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schuster, 2017

In August of this year, we’ll be treated to another book you wrote, this one filled with humor and whimsy. It begins with a boring, rainy day, but the attitude of the three children and their mother brings out the sun.

With your considerable experience as an editor, do you reflexively envision your text on the page?

Reflexively? I think not. I do imagine page turns—and often, as suggested above, an illustrator will have a better idea and I’ll be tickled.

When you were an editor, did you look forward to the surprise of the illustrator’s rough sketches, their interpretation of the author’s story?

Father Time and the Day BoxesYou bet! I once published a picture book, George Ella Lyon’s and Robert Parker’s Father Time and the Day Boxes (o.p), using the sketches, which were perfect as they were. Had I imagined them as Bob presented them? No way. It’s ideal to be surprising and just right from the get-go.

Now that it’s your manuscript being interpreted, how does that experience differ?

Not much different. I hadn’t imagined a rainy beginning to this day, so was taken aback at first; eventually, I have come to see the wisdom of giving the narrative this “hinge” in mood. What you suggest (that sun is attitude induced) is irresistible—and completely Suzy’s idea.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Richard Jackson!

I’ve admired the books he’s edited, some of the finest in the children’s literature canon, so it’s a pleasure to hear from him as he walks his next path as a writer. 

Boy Reading

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