Sunday, June 6, 2010

Are You Sure the Editor is the Idiot?

But Why Not?Image by Tex Batmart via Flickr
Advice for Writers: Have your tantrum. In private. Then get to work
I do some freelance editing for publishers. For one in particular, I am a rewrite editor. In this role, I work directly with writers. It's my job to get a manuscript (ms) into publishable shape. When I'm done with the ms, it goes to a copyeditor.

In other words, they don't give me an ms that simply needs a few commas tweaked and some verb tenses changed. The publisher gives me the ms because they've decided it needs substantial work. Anyway, I sent one such marked-up ms to a writer last week.

I spent a lot of time marking it up, because it has a lot of problems. I don’t want to go into much detail, because I don’t want the writer or house to be identifiable. (This is the reason I've not used a pronoun to identify the writer, either. I don't even want gender to be clear.)

And the writer turned it around in about an hour. Yeah, really. Made precisely one fix. My queries and suggestions were essentially blown off. The writer's responses ranged from "I don’t care" to "this is an unimportant detail" to "nobody will notice" to "it doesn’t matter" to  "fix it if you want." To my most significant structural notes: "I disagree." Then the writer sent it back, as if these responses took care of the issue.

As you can imagine, I wasn't thrilled.

The writer clearly thought the publication contract was the finish line. And that I was an annoyance. A buzz-kill. And that if I was ignored, I would go away.

It's probably not a good idea to treat an editor this way, if only because an editor is a human being. But besides the fact that it's not nice, it might not serve your interests to act as if editors are gum on your shoe. Not only because your editor might have a point, and you might miss it, but also because your editor's boss is also an editor. (And she hired your editor, presumably for a reason.)

I don’t spend my time marking up an ms for fun. In fact, this particular publisher pays me on a per-ms basis. So, it's actually in my interest to find as little wrong as possible. If I take the time to make a comment, there's a reason. If I ask a question, there's a reason. The more time I spend on an ms, the less I make on an hourly basis. So, when you're tempted to assume an editor is an idiot or a jerk, think about the economics for a moment.

Is it in the editor's interest to spend as much time as possible driving you crazy for no apparent reason? Maybe, if they're paid by the hour, you say. Okay, sure. Except that the editor has an entire pile of mss on her desk. And a publication schedule to meet. Really, an editor is pretty much about getting it done as quickly and easily as possible and getting the damn thing to press. Maybe you're just going to have to trust me on that.

Anyway, I stared at the writer’s responses for awhile. And I considered how to respond. For a couple of days. Yeah, really. I didn't want to respond out of anger or irritation, so I worked to get my ego out of the way. I considered the economics: Could I just let this all go, save myself the aggravation and time, turn in the ms, get paid? I fantasized editorly revenge: Let the writer put out a crap book. It's the writer's book. I'd wait for the day the writer showed up on a writer's group somewhere, whining about poor sales and dumb critics. Then I'd say: Ha! Maybe you should have listened to your idiot editor.

I brought myself back from fantasyland. The copyeditor follows behind me. It would simply look like I dropped the ball, like I didn't care about the ms. Besides which, I happen to like and respect the person who assigns these mss to me. I'm not going to do crap work for her. And I kept coming back to the writer’s position. Had I been too hard on the ms? Is there a universe in which the writer might be right? Is it true these things don't matter? Um, no.

Only one solution: Get the writer to buy into the project.

I crafted a response. I explained that editing is a conversation. If my suggestions didn't fit the bill, fine. I don't care that the problems are solved in the way I pitched a particular solution (NB: I pitch a solution because it seems more useful than just saying "um, this sucks. fix it.") but that the *problems* must be addressed. I included links to blogs and articles in which other editors and writers addressed some of the big issues, trying to make clear that I'm not on drugs, I'm not the only person who has ever said this, I'm not just making this sh*t up. I challenged the writer to produce the best book possible. I invited the writer to engage in the process.

The writer declined.

The writer sent an email to the house. As did I. Now the writer has a new editor. And my headache is gone. (And, yeah, I’m still getting paid.)

And I was copied on the new editor’s email to the writer today. The new editor is in fact the head of the unit, the person who assigned the ms to me in the first place. And the email said this, essentially:

I am sorry you couldn't work with Karen. I understand that personalities sometimes conflict. I’ve looked over everything she did--her editorial comments--and I agree with all of them. In fact, I am pickier than she is. But I’ll be happy to work with you, just as soon as I get these other mss off my desk. This means your pub date will be pushed back. To be clear, publication with this house is contingent on a satisfactory edit. Writers often think that when an ms is accepted, their work is done. Then the editing phase begins and they find out that writing the book was the easy part. Anyway, I’m looking forward to working with you. I’ll be in touch soon.

Do I need to spell out the moral of this story? Okay, in case anyone missed it: Be sure your editor is the problem before you ask for a new one. Because if your editor isn't the problem, then you haven't solved it, have you? Give it the old college try, first. Check your ego. When your ego refuses to be checked, have yourself a bitchfest. You don't have to like your editor. At all. You can hate her, talk smack about her all you want. You can tell your dog, your spouse, your computer, and any random person who will listen how much your editor sucks. Knock yourself out. The editing process is not fun. Accept that. (Or self-publish.) Then remind yourself that it's not about the editor, it's about the book. You are asking a publisher to invest their money in you and if they were complete morons, they probably wouldn't be in business at all. So have your tantrum, then get your butt back in the chair and work the problems. And get your book published that much sooner.
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