Under Siege: The Writer-Editor Relationship

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.”

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And not all of us are as brave as Prince Arthur…

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?

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25 thoughts on “Under Siege: The Writer-Editor Relationship

  1. I found your advices on this delicate subject of relationship very interesting, wish all editors will follow them! As usual, great post well written! Read your post viewing the Atlantic ocean (on vacation). So inspiring here at our ocean camp!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think that first point’s a particularly important one. Any time you’re collaborating with someone you’ll both come to the task with some assumptions, in this case about what the editing is meant to achieve. If you can clear that up first and make sure that you’re working on the same assumptions then things will be far more fruitful.

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    1. I agree, Andrew. Understanding other people’s assumptions is critical to the success of any group project in life. The trick is being able to ask the right questions to draw out the assumptions. When you don’t have a lot of experience, it’s hard to know what to look for.

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  3. I’m currently working through my editor’s changes now, and I’m actually enjoying it. It’s nice to be at a point in my writing where I don’t get upset with the recommendations and rather see them as an objective view to improve my work. It also helps that it’s mostly line edits. She didn’t find any plot holes or other developmental issues. Probably my extensive outline helped with that. But I’m incorporating most of her changes. I’m grateful for the objectiveness, something we hope to get from beta readers but for various reasons, isn’t always the case.

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    1. Hi Carrie, I’m curious to know what types of comments you typically get from your beta readers. I’ll bet they’re very different from your editor’s comments! I’m glad that editing has been a positive experience for you. I know I value that outside eye on my own work.

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      1. Beta readers’ comments can be very helpful in terms of what makes sense and what doesn’t. Whether something is realistic or not, etc. An editor does that, too, of course, but he or she often elaborates why and sometimes even offers suggestions.

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      2. That makes sense – the beta readers would be focused on the problems, while the editor would be in a better position to offer concrete solutions. It’s nice to be able to get a good cross-section of useful advice. Best of luck with your revisions, Carrie! 🙂

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  4. Having worked on both sides of the divide, I’d say it’s critical to form a partnership. Editors: It’s the writer’s story, not yours. Don’t try to make it the story you would have written. Writers: No is better equipped to help you write a great story than an editor. Editors “get” your writing better than anyone else could hope to. Sometimes it takes a village…

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Eric! The longer I work, the more I realize that almost everything important takes a village. And that’s a great point about it being the writer’s story. It can be difficult to draw that line between supporting a creation and taking it over.

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  5. Lovely post, Sue, and relevant to so many people. I have to say, from my personal experience, all the editors I’ve worked with thus far have been an absolute breeze. Timely, professional, encouraging and constructive. I’m thinking that it has something to do with the fact that I’m comparing them to my previous line of work when I was on stage and had producers and directors on my back during rehearsals and performances. These guys tore me to shreds. No feelings were spared. But perhaps it turns out I was in the wrong line of business to begin with. 😛
    Cheers, my friend!

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    1. I had no idea you were on the stage, Shelley! That’s a tough profession for sure. I prefer to hang out with editors, who generally wield colourful red pens rather than sarcastic barbs. Glad to hear your experiences with editing have gone well! It makes me feel proud of my profession. 🙂

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    1. Hi, Sonia! It would be nice if they were. 🙂 I think the tough part is explaining what everyone means in plain language. One person’s concept of “editing” or “proofreading” can be very different from another’s.

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    1. That’s okay Melissa, I live in the corporate world so I can take it. 🙂 I find assumptions are tricky because you need to be able to take a step back and understand exactly what you are assuming. The more you communicate, the easier it is to uncover them. I find everyone is so rushed that it’s often hard to get that time. Then it just comes back to bite you later!

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  6. Hello Sue! It’s great to come back to your blog after all this time, hope you’ve been keeping well.
    I’m just in the process of hiring an editor for later in the year (since I’m going indie) so I’ll be going through all that later. I have to say, although I’m a little apprehensive of course, I’m really looking forward to it. The way I look at it, is I’m excited at the thought of having someone help me take my book to the next level and make it as good as it can be! I love the feedback process, I find I get incredibly fired up about my writing after I’ve had some feedback on it.

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    1. Hi Celine, welcome back! I love it when people give me feedback on my writing, too – especially when it’s specific feedback (as opposed to “It’s great! Really!”) If someone knowledgeable cares enough to delve into the details and provide me with some pointers, then it feels like I’m on the right path. True collaboration is a lot of fun. Best of luck in your search for an editor!

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    1. LOL Nicholas! Welcome to my blogworld. Yes, I suspect there is some element of craziness in taking on both roles. 🙂 Luckily when I am writing I tend to get into a zone where I don’t think about editing – otherwise it would be hard to write anything down. And I always prefer for others to edit me, because like any other writer I can’t see all of my mistakes. They are two very different hats – creative and analytical – and I find it fun to do both. (Just not at the same time!)

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