My wife and I started renovating our house this year. It’s an older place, built in the 1880s, and despite having what they call “good bones” we knew going in that a project like this wouldn’t be easy. We had walls to knock down, joists to shore, cabinets, toilets, and several hundred feet of electrical wire to move or install. Now I’m reasonably handy, but at the end of the day, I edit books. I don’t know how to manage construction projects. I found myself in a position familiar to many of my clients: needing someone to take a vision and transform it to a reality. We needed a contractor – someone to help shepherd us through this thing and ensure that our house didn’t fall down.
Writers need not worry about anything so dramatic of course. A bad manuscript might be embarrassing, or worse, completely ignored, but no one is going to wind up on the street for it. Still, editors help writers make the most of their skills and ideas that can, at times, look a lot like renovating a house.
How do you choose the right editor?
When it came time to find one, we discovered that choosing a contractor was hard. There’s a surprising number of them around, and they have some pretty different ideas about what that role means. One of the guys we interviewed thought his best qualification was in the fact that he never did work himself – he had people for that. As we talked to him, it became clear didn’t want to be accountable for the project or our experience with it. We didn’t like that: people should take pride in the work we do with our own hands. If they don’t, then why do it at all?
Editors also have to be hands on. Unlike construction, there aren’t any rules to govern what makes a manuscript good (or habitable), there is only aesthetic. An editor’s accountability has to come from there: the cultivated appreciation of tradition, convention, and rebellion. Editors take one some accountability for the writer’s relationship to their words, and have to find the right balance for every author they work with. They have to be willing to get into the bones of the story and help the writer understand what’s there. They don’t get the luxury of delegation.
Does an editor have to be an expert in your genre?
Another contractor we spoke to didn’t like the house. He had been willing to take the job, but in visits made it clear that the prospect gave him no pleasure. When pressed, we learned that his experience had largely been limited to newer homes, and he found the sheer age of our place to be intimidating. There was a mixture of materials and construction techniques that he struggled to see around. Whether this was a question of energy or experience, I cannot say. In either case, a lack of confidence can stymie projects just as quickly as a lack of competence.
Editors don’t need to specialize by genre to be good, but they have to love the job (and preferably the subject). A good book is made better by an invested editor, not just through correction, but also through the concerted effort to improve. And that means coming from a place of love. If there is no love there, improvement starts to look like work, and you can be sure that opportunities will be lost. Of course, love is complicated. Sometimes it requires us to give things up; a process made easier by an editor that prepares their client from a place of honesty.
We certainly didn’t expect any contractor to come equipped with everything, but we wanted someone who was engaged. The contractor we chose was the first one willing to push back a little on our design ideas. He had concerns about the age of the house, but walked us through them, exploring solutions rather than his fears. He kept our focus on the ways forward, preferring to mitigate scope creep and cost overruns by hitting them hard and up front. He addressed our concerns with patience, grace, and design notes scribbled on bits of drywall.
The editorial relationship needs the same kind of openness. No editor comes to a manuscript with a complete picture of the finished product – every project is different and has a unique set of requirements and possible outcomes. Editors need to learn writers the same way that writers need to learn their way around their editors. When the discussions end and the editing begins, the two parties need to have found a wavelength, a thing of valleys and mountains. You’ll find that as you explore these, patience and grace show up when both parties are willing to bend to the demands of the journey – the editor’s job is to know when to stop and scribble down some design notes.
What is the editor’s job?
So far, things have gone well. Our homes are complicated spaces. When we decide to change them, we upset the order of our lives. Our happy places wind up covered in plastic and paint; we’re unavoidably unsettled. Indeed, this is a significant part of the experience. If someone is going to come in every day for weeks on end, it’s probably easier if they have a touch of humility and respect for the space they’re entering.
The same can be said of our manuscripts. These are also complicated spaces, and when we decide to publish them, we risk upsetting the order of our lives. An editor’s job is in part, to crawl into the dark and unpleasant spaces of our imaginations and help us see how to shore things up. The process can be challenging and unsettling, but it can also be deeply rewarding. Working with an editor can be a chance to figure out exactly what you want to say and to get clear on why you want to say it. If a good contractor helps us to see the home behind the work, a good editor focuses the writer behind the story. If I don’t like the house that comes out of my contractor’s renovation work, the project will fail. The editor helps the author love their work, and that makes it easier to do everything else, from promotion to speaking to writing the next book.
James is a Denver-based editor whose mission is always the same: helping clients get to brilliant. Writing is a deeply personal experience, and James is dedicated to making your work, your idea, your passion reach your audience in the most effective way possible, all while remaining faithful to to your vision and voice. He can be reached via email: email@example.com