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Autumn Forest

An Editor's Guide to Working with Authors, by Barbara Sjoholm

Updated: Jan 28, 2023


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. In just 140 pages, she explains how to communicate with authors, read a manuscript analytically, organize your notes, write an editorial letter, set boundaries, and define your services.

Building a relationship with the author When I was first starting out, the prospect of a phone call or face-to-face conversation with an author would throw me into a tizzy. Sjoholm reminds me, gently, that editing is not about ME, it’s about authors and their work. My ability to analyze a manuscript and make suggestions is valuable, but even more important is having a good relationship with the person behind the manuscript—the writer. As Sjoholm puts it,

In the word “copyediting,” the object is embedded in the verb: you don’t edit an author, you edit copy. But in editing fiction and creative nonfiction, what you edit is not copy. It’s the heart and soul and imagination of a real person. A writer.

​​This means that editors should not march through a manuscript on track changes. Instead, we must listen to what the author is saying, and to what the author wants to say that maybe hasn't quite made it onto the page.

Asking open-ended questions In chapter 2, Sjoholm provides a list of 28 questions that invite conversation—questions like "What is your purpose in writing this book? What is it about? What would you like your readers to come away with?" Her book prompted me to create my own author questionnaires for memoir and narrative nonfiction.

I could ask these questions over the phone or Zoom, but I agree with Sjoholm that it benefits the author to put their responses in writing. If they can summarize in a paragraph or two what their book is about, they've got the basis for a synopsis or back-cover copy.

Organizing your thoughts in an editorial letter The heart of the editorial response, and Sjoholm's handbook, is the editorial letter. Almost half the book is devoted to why and how to write one. She walks editors through topics like how to structure a letter, what big-picture elements to consider, and how to phrase suggestions for revision.

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.

She introduces other tools, too, such as using tables, graphs, spreadsheets, and outlines to map out structural problems and possible solutions. The editorial letter works for me, because I think by writing. And for authors, the advantages are obvious: they can turn to the letter while revising and everything is there; they don’t have to fish through emails for bits of advice.

Cultivating an attitude of "positive neutrality" It's impossible to argue with Sjoholm's golden rule: “Edit your author as you would like to be edited.” But Sjoholm goes further. She encourages editors to practice nonjudgment, which turns on its head the image of the editor wielding a non-negotiable red pen. There are echoes Buddhist wisdom in Sjoholm's view that editors should care deeply about a manuscript without ego attachment to the outcome. In the clinic sessions, editors pushed back. "Authors hire me to tell them what I think. Am I just supposed to be nice?"

I took Barbara's course when I was just switching from academic editing to memoir and creative nonfiction. I didn't fully grasp the idea of positive neutrality, but I did act on Barbara's suggestions: Start the editorial letter with genuine praise. Then describe the structure as it actually is. There is plenty of room in the rest of the letter for analysis and recommendations. Over time, I've also put into practice her idea of "creating professional distance in the service of attentive and thoughtful editing." It sounds like a contradiction to care deeply about a work and let it go. But that's what I do. After all, the story belongs to the author.

I highly recommend this gem of a book.

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