There is a glut of books on the market about how to write fiction, but only a handful on editing fiction. There are a gazillion books on how to fix the mechanics of language, but few on the more creative work of structural or developmental editing.
Barbara Sjoholm’s timeless handbook, An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors (Rainforest Press, 2010) fills a void in more ways than one: it’s not just a pragmatic “how to” but a reflection on editing as an art and an attitude.
Sjoholm (pronounced “shoe-holm”) is a Seattle-based novelist, memoirist, mystery writer, translator, publisher, and editor. In 2004 she started the Author-Editor Clinic, a mentoring program for freelance editors that focuses on the developmental editing of book-length manuscripts and on the author-editor relationship.
An Editor’s Guide distills the lectures and notes that Sjoholm amassed as a teacher at the clinic. Here are the most important things I got from this book:
Build a relationship with the author
Since I write better than I speak, the prospect of a phone call or a face-to-face conversation with an author used to throw me into a tizzy. Sjoholm’s handbook reminds me, gently, that editing is not about ME, it’s about authors and their work. My ability to analyze a manuscript is valuable, and my suggestions are important, but what’s even more valuable and important is having a good relationship with the person behind the manuscript—the writer. As Sjoholm puts it,
This means that editors should not march through a manuscript on track changes. Instead, we must call upon all the intelligence, grace, and empathy at our command to understand and respect the author’s vision for the book. If we think we have a better idea, we have to persuade the author to accept it.
Ask open-ended questions
Asking questions helps an editor get to know authors--their goals, writing experience, and expectations for editing. Sjoholm uses a questionnaire and provides sample questions in her handbook. I've since developed my own questionnaire, and I've found that the responses give me a good idea of what authors were thinking or imagining when they created the structure of their book. I often refer back to the questionnaire when writing my editorial letter.
Organize your thoughts in an editorial letter
The heart of the editorial response is what Sjoholm calls the “editorial letter.” Almost half the book (five of the twelve chapters) is devoted to why and how to write an editorial letter. Most helpful are two templates, one for fiction and one for nonfiction.
Sjoholm admits that writing a long editorial letter may be old-fashioned, but she’s sticking with this method, and for good reasons. To write an editorial letter, you have to organize your thoughts, be specific, and be persuasive. You have to back up your gut reactions with reasoned arguments.
This method works for me, because I think by writing. For authors, the advantages are obvious: they can turn to the letter at their leisure in the revision stage and everything is there; they don’t have to fish through emails for tidbits of advice.
Care deeply but let go
Sjoholm encourages editors to cultivate an attitude of “positive neutrality.” Her golden rule: “Edit your author as you would be edited.”
This is not just about being nice to authors, Sjoholm explains. It’s about being receptive to the author’s work, and balancing honesty and empathy. She goes so far as to advise “practicing non-judgment,” which turns on its head the image of the non-negotiable red pen. There are echoes of Eckhart Tolle in Sjoholm’s idea of caring deeply about a manuscript without ego attachment to the outcome.
I found in studying with Barbara that her philosophy works extremely well when the manuscript is pretty good and the developmental edit builds on what is there. But it's harder to be positive and neutral when a manuscript needs a major overhaul. Barbara is largely silent on how to break bad news to an author.
I highly recommend this gem of a book and Barbara's online developmental editing course at the Author-Editor Clinic.
Aren’t they pinched-nosed mousy types with bifocals and buttoned-up blouses? Carol Fisher Saller, author of The Subversive Copy Editor (University of Chicago Press, 2009), thinks not.
A senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, Saller is the voice behind the Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A. She wrote The Subversive Copy Editor in response to two kinds of questions that make up the bulk of her mail: queries seeking confirmation that “I’m right” about something, and cries for help from writers and editors who have “hit a wall.”
She establishes in the introduction that the book is not a primer on the fundamentals of copy editing, but rather a handbook on relationships: "Consider this a “relationship” book, because I’m going to talk about the main relationships in your work life—with the writer, with your colleagues, and with yourself—in ways that you might not have considered before. Ways that might be called subversive."
POLISHING YOUR PROSE, BY STEVEN CAHN AND VICTOR CAHN
Brothers and scholars Steven Cahn (philosophy) and Victor Cahn (English) attempt something new in Polishing Your Prose: How to Turn First Drafts into Finished Work (Columbia University Press, 2013): they structure their book as a narrative, and they show the monologue that goes on inside an editor’s head.
Their book is aimed at writers wanting to improve their prose. “Here’s the situation,” they begin. “In front of you sits a piece of writing you’ve just completed ... How do you take your draft, which you know is better than ‘rough’ but worse than ‘smooth,’ and refine it?”
Cahn and Cahn answer this question in two parts. In the first section, “Strategies,” they present ten techniques for revising sentences. In the second section, “Passages,” they apply the strategies to edit paragraphs.
BETWEEN YOU & ME, BY MARY NORRIS
Should it be “short, balding man” or “short balding man”? “Bad hair day” or “bad-hair day”?
Mary Norris, a copy editor at The New Yorker for over thirty years, relishes these sorts of editorial decisions. “If commas are open to interpretation,” she writes in her literary memoir Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, “hyphens are downright Delphic.”
As an editor, I’m naturally interested in grammar, punctuation, and usage. But Norris’s book is not a practical guide with easy-to-locate advice. What drew me in and kept me reading was her voice: smart, straight-shooting, brassy and irreverent.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” she begins. “I didn’t set out to be a comma queen.”
But she has risen, over her 30 years at The New Yorker, to the august role of “page OK’er.” She is the one who gives the final “okay” to stories before they go to press.
What’s not to like about What Editors Do? This collection of essays traces the role of book editors from acquisition to publication and samples niches like editing genre fiction and working with self-publishing authors.
The twenty-seven contributors represent a “who’s who” of American book publishing: Betsy Lerner, Carol Fisher Saller, Jonathan Karp, Scott Norton, Susan Rabiner, Michael Pietsch, Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, Jane Friedman … the list goes on. Between them, they exemplify the breadth and diversity of the industry.
The editor of this collection, Peter Ginna, has himself worked as a book editor and publisher in New York since 1982.
As Ginna explains in the introduction, What Editors Do is inspired by Gerald Gross’s Editors on Editing, an essay collection first published in 1962. At the time, and for decades after, Gross’s book was the only guide available that was written by editors for editors on their craft. What Editors Do updates this original concept for editors in the age of Amazon.