Solving confrontations between writers and editors is like negotiating a ceasefire between the rulers of opposing armies. On the one side, we have the writer, who has slaved to build his creation: a towering pinnacle of achievement for all the world to admire. On the other side, we have the editor, who is bringing out the battering ram to smash this magnificent edifice to bits.
Adam Thorpe, author of the Booker Prize-nominated novel Ulverton, has this to say about his editor Robin Robertson: “I have to be armoured to take on Robin’s professional side, and not to feel winded by the idea that I’m just another name on his long list. He’s part of the literary army, I’m alone.”
To avoid having a writer feel like they are under siege, the editor should follow these lessons learned from the art of medieval warfare.
Lesson #1: Establish a Clear Treaty
Writers will react with hostility if they feel that an editor is infringing on their territory. Negotiate the borderlines up front before going forward. Is the writer looking for someone to admire their castle and encourage them in their work? Or is the writer looking for someone who can clean up the dusty words in a passage and point out where a colourful tapestry of description would liven up the room? Maybe they are looking for an artisan who can help demolish a section and rebuild it into something better. You won’t know until you ask. Clear treaties result in happy neighbours.
Lesson #2: Reply to Messages in Good Time
When a writer sends a message to you, be sure to acknowledge it as soon as possible. This will help reassure the writer that you are a trusted ally who will treat them with respect. The longer the writer has to wait, the more they are forced to question: Did the messenger horse go astray on the path, and the message was lost? Or is the editor ignoring the message, and focusing on other kingdoms that they feel are more worthy of notice?
Lesson #3: Break Bread Together
There are good reasons why agreements are hammered out over food. Everyone knows that it’s forbidden to draw a weapon when you are eating in someone’s guest hall. And a tasty meal can go a long way to improving everyone’s mood. The writer can feel isolated while penning a manuscript in a lonely garret. Don’t forget to bring on the cheer while you are toiling through negotiations.
Lesson #4: Don’t Throw the Gauntlet
There are ways to discuss areas that need help, and they don’t involve flinging feedback like insults. When you do this, you are forcing the writer to defend their honour. Remember to compliment the host before discussing areas that are more fraught with peril. And handle these areas with sensitivity – remember how you would feel as a writer if someone was criticizing your work.
And a final lesson for writers…remember the reason why your editor is taking apart the stones of your mighty tower. Together, you can build a stronger fortress that will stand the test of time against your mutual enemy: the critics.
So let that drawbridge down and open yourself up to adventure. You won’t be sorry.
“At that stage when you go back and reread for the first time, it’s kind of horrific. But I don’t want to have everything perfectly made before I take the next step. It seems like moving forward with armed guards. There isn’t an element of danger or risk or that anything possible can happen in the next scene.”
– Michael Ondaatje
Image from the BBC show Merlin.
Quotes sourced from The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell. First quote: p. 210. Second quote: p. 213-14.
For those of you who have been edited, what has been your experience? Did it go smoothly? Or did you feel like you were under siege? Why?