I recently attended a seminar at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (WFNS) on the intricacies of the writer/editor relationship. I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a workshop, but as both a writer and an editor I walked away with a better understanding of each individual role, how a writer and an editor can work together to create a better narrative, and how both identities can cohabitate in one body.
The seminar, facilitated by writer/editor/broadcaster Stephanie Domet, mainly consisted of a dialogue between an author, Valerie Compton, and her editor, Bethany Gibson, on the editorial process of Tide Road, a beautiful novel that was recently published by Goose Lane Editions in Fredericton, New Brunswick (I won’t go into any details about Tide Road, but I highly recommend it).
Compton began the conversation by introducing us to the following quote by Steven Heighton in Workbook: Memos & Dispatches on Writing: “The author’s job is to try to produce a work that renders the editor redundant. The editor’s job is to show that the author has failed to do it.” This sentiment suggests that the writer/editor relationship is often adversarial in nature, but Compton and Gibson are adamant that this doesn’t have to be the case; however, they both agree that a good writer/editor relationship must be built on trust. Both the editor and the writer are ultimately there to serve the text, so if trust between a writer and an editor cannot be established then the narrative is unlikely to become the best it can be.
The role of an editor:
The role of an editor is to be a reader; an editor is probably the closest reader an author will ever have, much more so than a friend or partner who will look at the manuscript with biases. As an impartial reader, an editor will see things and be able to say things that a friend or partner may not; however, rather than an editor showing the author the ways in which s/he has failed, as Heighton humourously suggests, Gibson, the fiction editor at Goose Lane Editions, states that a good editor should hold up a metaphorical mirror to show the author what the work is, what the editor sees, and therefore what the reader may see. The editor’s job is to not take the book over, she explains, but to make it better. Consequently, an editor should never demand changes or tell an author what to do. Not only can this damage the writer/editor relationship by offending the author or removing trust, but also if a particular change doesn’t feel right to an author then that change won’t work or make the book better. Editing is subjective so if an author doesn’t feel right making a change, then it may not be right for the manuscript or what the author intends for the reader.
An author’s intent is really what an editor is looking for, and whether or not this intent is evident on the page. If not, that’s when an editor needs to ask questions and make suggestions beyond superficial grammatical errors.
The role of an author:
Compton describes the role of an author as not writing a story, but as giving the reader an experience. In order to give the reader the experience that the author intends, Compton explains that an editor is essential because an author is too close to the manuscript to separate herself enough to see if what she intends actually comes across on the page. In this sense the author is blind, and this is why the editor must mirror the manuscript back to the author. This means, however, that the author has to be open to constructive criticism and editorial suggestions. Taking all of this into account, when Compton was looking for a publisher for Tide Road she wanted to find an editor who was kind and confident, and who didn’t want to take the book over but wanted to help make it better, shape it, and fix it without telling Compton what to do.
Once an author has an editor, however, an author must remember that s/he is still responsible for self-editing. An author will never be required to change everything an editor suggests (note that not accepting an editor’s suggestions is not grounds for a publishing contract to be cancelled). Gibson explains that an editor is a cheerleader and a midwife, but the editor is not the one writing the book. An editor’s suggestions, therefore, should be a guide rather than a prescription.
An author and editor as one
As someone who writes and does freelance copy editing, I know it can be difficult to turn off the writing mindset when editing and the editing mindset when writing. As for the former, Gibson gives a tip for editors who are also writers: Don’t rewrite an author’s work or undermine the author’s voice (the way the author sees the world and articulates it through narrative). Don’t look at each sentence and think, “This isn’t how I would write it.” If you think something needs to be rewritten, then suggest a revision to the author but don’t prescribe. Don’t think, “Is this the best book I can make it?”; rather, ask yourself, “Is this the best book the author can make it.”
With regards to the need for some people to edit as they write, the advice is always the same: Don’t edit while you write — that’s what rewriting is for. There is plenty of time to edit later, but getting the words down onto the page is the first step.
Lastly, before even attempting to find a publisher for a manuscript, both Compton and Gibson suggest massive self-editing in the form of numerous rewrites. They suggest that writers take workshops, switch manuscripts with another writer for feedback, have a freelance editor take a look at it and give suggestions, or even just let it sit for six months and then go back to it with a fresh eye.
Gibson notes that it is getting more and more difficult to publish writing just because a story is good. She explains that most publishers have few to no in-house editors and so are looking for highly polished material. Gibson therefore advises writers not to send a manuscript to a publisher unless it is complete and unless the writer’s intention shows on the page.
I may have been leery about attending “The Writer/Editor Relationship” seminar but, as always, the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia does not disappoint. I learned a lot from this seminar, and if you’re a writer or an editor (or both) I hope that you are able to take some knowledge away from this blog post.
For more information about the workshops that the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia offers, please visit their website.