If you want to be a successful editor, at some point you’ll be working with authors. There’s no getting around it. The ability to manage that creative but often highly complex relationship is one of the essential skills editors need. It’s right up there with being able to wield a red pen or work in Word. Yet working with authors is one of the most challenging aspects of editing practice.
I find this in my own work and am always keen to improve my collaborative skills. So, when I learnt that Barbara Sjoholm’s An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors has just come out on Kindle I snapped it up. An Editor’s Guide draws on 18 years of editing wisdom developed at Seattle-based Author-Editor Clinic, which Sjoholm runs (alongside a very active writing life). The clinic supports practising developmental editors, and guides authors on their writing too. Members of the Author-Editor Clinic also contribute to a blog, The Editor’s POV, which backs up and builds on the approaches Sjoholm advocates in An Editor’s Guide.
A reflective but practical resource
I’m not a fan of Kindle for all editorial resources; I wouldn’t use a dictionary or A-Z type of reference on one, for example. But An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors is great as an ebook, because it’s designed to be read and absorbed, not consulted like a reference. Take it with you on your next long train journey, and spend time with the materials. Its approach is reflective, encouraging editors to think more deeply about how they work with authors. Possibly, a step-by-step guide could get you started. But Sjoholm’s book demonstrates the strengths of taking time to reflect on, understand, and above all practice (and practice, and practice…) ‘the art of editing writers in ways that [are] productive and respectful’. She trusts you to draw what you need from her advice, and above all wants you to bring awareness to your daily work.
So it’s not a straightforward how-to book. But it is practical. There are core documents at the heart of Sjoholm’s approach, each with a clearly defined purpose and each contributing to constructive and well-founded communication. There’s the author questionnaire, graphs and tables (if you like them), and above all, the editor’s detailed letter to the author.
Taking time to read
There are also recommended approaches for editing fiction and creative non-fiction, from the first reading onwards. Here, Sjoholm recommends taking time to just read. It sounds so simple, but it’s deceptively hard to do. Absorb and reflect on what you’re reading, sure. But don’t copy edit. This is fabulous advice if, like me, you tend to rush the first reading to get on with the meaty, hands-on editing part. Or if you are tempted to jump straight into editing punctuation, grammar, and so on. Here’s a taster from the book:
If you read your manuscript as quickly as is comfortable, without taking many notes until you reach the end, you’re more likely to gain a general impression of the manuscript as a whole. [...]
Try to approach the manuscript as freshly as you can, without preconceptions, and try to engage your emotions. [...]
I generally leave the project to simmer for a few days if I can, before picking the pages up again with a more focused plan of attack.
Since I tend to edit pretty quickly, this is like a wise colleague telling me: it’s OK to slow down. Don’t think about the detail yet. Stop the technical, copy-editorial part of your brain, while you absorb what’s happening in the whole scene.
It’s not easy… but it gets easier with practice
Sjoholm writes warmly and well, which makes the book a more pleasant read than many serious editing resources. This is someone who is comfortable in her editing practice and doesn’t need to shout ‘this is the best way to do it!’ At times, the result of her gracious and articulate style is that what she’s saying sounds deceptively easy. I kept pausing to think, ‘Hang on, I’m sure I already do that’ (and then realising, ‘Oh no, I probably don’t). For example, she advocates that editors ‘practice neutral, less personal language’. What she means is simple on paper but tough in practice: don’t use emotive adjectives (like ‘weak’ or ‘poor’), don’t couch your explanations in personal opinion (like ‘I feel that…’, ‘I really don’t like…’). Be engaged but detach yourself from emotion. These are tricky things to do consistently – that’s why Sjoholm also encourages you to be mindful in each project you do.
Critical skills for developmental editors
For me, the critical skill Sjoholm discusses in the book – and this is something that isn’t often touched on – is how important it is that editors learn to self-edit. We know that it’s great when authors can do that, but for an editor? That’s a great thought. Analyse your own language – with red pen in hand – before you send anything to an author. Your self-editing mark-up could include ‘Q’ for queries, ‘O’ for opinions, ‘S’ for suggestions, and ‘I’ for imperatives. Spot all the places where you’ve hidden ideas for major rewrites inside lists of otherwise small-scale queries. Sjoholm recommends editors use the subjunctive (‘if you’d like to…’) not the imperative (‘you must…’). She likes to think about her recommendations from an author’s perspective – how will he or she read them? Good advice.
An Editor’s Guide also reminds me that a major part of editing isn’t about reading or writing at all. It’s about listening. What Sjoholm calls ‘the art of listening to what the author needs, wants, and hopes for from you.’ The editor may not have the power to publish an author, but he or she holds in trust an important part of the author’s dreams for the book. By the way, there’s a great section at the end of the book about how to handle author expectations about their publishing plans.
The most important things, handled lightly
The real strength of An Editor’s Guide is that it gently underlines key concepts and approaches that may work for you in practice. For example, Sjoholm comes back often to the importance of using evidence to back up your thinking, encouraging editors to think about the information they need to back up editorial recommendations. This takes us in interesting directions since evidence can come from all sorts of places (even from emotions – but not directly).
Strategic approaches to communication are subtly introduced, too. I believe that it’s important to explain editorial points of view (see my earlier post in the archive) and I agree with Sjoholm’s view that editors have work to do in educating and guiding authors over time, not just fixing what’s in front of them. So, I like statements like these a lot:
Stopping to explain your reasoning to an author may seem tedious, but it also may pay off—for both of you. [...]
Part of what we do as editors is educate authors about what editors do.
An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors grounds all its practical tips – and I haven’t even mentioned its coverage of onscreen techniques – in the same thoughtful and engaged but rational approach. And above all, Sjoholm carries right through the author–editor relationship a sense of what she calls ‘sincere respect’ for what authors are trying to do when they write. That is what makes for an honest and constructive working partnership. I love that the book draws on something that simple, something that speaks to values rather than skills. And that’s why this book is so much more useful than a how-to guide.
I’ll leave you with one last thought from An Editor’s Guide: ‘As editors we bring our whole selves to the task of reading and responding to another’s creative production.’
Now, that’s a beautiful thing!
Look out for a fresh new post here at PublishEd Adelaide next week. Until then, happy editing and publishing.