Thoughts on editing styles

I must admit to not pulling punches when I edit. That attitude comes partly from my experiences with editors whose brutal honesty I have come to respect and appreciate, and partly from their admonition to return the favour when my time came. And, like our Senior Editor Dr. Robert Runte, I have also received comment from colleagues who are surprised I am so blunt, and have been called mean as well. I was once asked to leave a critique group for that very reason, because I was apparently being very mean when I commented on a manuscript. It should be noted I quite gladly left the group. Figured their kitchen operated at cool temperatures, and I like my kitchen hot and cooking with lots of interesting and exciting stuff going on.

It needs to be said never in all my experience have I ever attempted to be mean. That just wouldn’t be right. On the other hand, I will be forthright in my comments, and often I allow my sense of humour to shine through, hoping to add some levity to what can be a discomforting process for both the author and editor. Because I’ve worked all sides of the desk (writer, editor, publisher), I’ve learned a great deal about perspective. I’ve also been very fortunate to have had some excellent and generous mentors throughout the years. So, I’ve come to know there is no place for sycophantic or politically correct praise when trying to create something you truly wish to be excellent, or as close to perfection as you can manage.

If as a writer (or creator of any kind) you are unwilling to receive other perspectives and absorb that criticism without rancor, then you’re probably better off pursuing your art in private for an audience of one. I know that sounds brutal and unfair, perhaps even astonishingly blinkered. But it’s what I’ve come to believe. And I accept that with my own work. And I expect it from others.

You see, as a publisher, I don’t just take on a brilliant manuscript. I take on an author. There’s a difference there sometimes not achievable in a larger house. And as a publisher, and an editor, I don’t want to invest my time, my energy, and my concern with an author unwilling to hear constructive criticism. Equally, I’m also deeply aware this is the author’s story, not mine, so sometimes that means as an editor I have to decide whether my stylistic concerns are the result of personal aesthetic, or whether I need to step aside, broaden my view, and understand what it is the author is attempting to do.

I often use a painting metaphor when referring to that situation, a remembrance from my own youth and a painting instructor I had. Were I to put my hand to someone else’s canvas, that imposes my own creative vision on their work, and that, in my view, is the worst kind of interference, because not only did the artist not really learn anything, but the work ends up being the creation of a collective rather than an individual, and in my view dilute. Instead, I prefer to illustrate my point on my own canvas, show that to the creator, and then let them decide.

In matters, however, of research, structure, plot, pacing, characterization and point of view, I will freely comment and edit. The vision is all the author’s, as is the execution. The details and delivery, however, are areas where I can assist the author to realize that vision, hopefully to its full potential.

Like Robert, most often that editing style has resulted in an excellent experience for both the author and me. On a very few occasions there has been a complete impasse and those authors have gone their own way. Sad. But likely better for all parties. The relationship between author and editor is a very personal one involving a willingness to be vulnerable, along with a deep and profound trust. At least it is for me.

So, as an author I think you need to learn to have a thick hide, a sense of balance. And my job as your editor is to realize I’m dealing with someone’s vision, and to assist you in realizing that vision. You’re the dreamer. I’m the delivery mechanism. Together, some truly amazing work can be achieved.