How To Be a Good Editor

Ever wanted to be an editor? No? That’s probably wise.

But just in case all your other options suddenly fall through (ie: the bowling alley installs an automatic pinsetter, the crash test dummy program stops accepting applications from humans, the professional dog walker eliminates her “Assistant Dog Walker In Charge Solely of Scooping Poop” position), here are some tips on how to be a good one. (If, perchance, you would rather be a bad editor, just do the opposite of what I suggest. And good luck with that.)

Be selective. Edit the books you love; work with writers you like. This makes the job of editing embarrassingly enjoyable and reduces the likelihood that you’ll be cursing your career choice before you even get to page 27. Some good reasons to say no: scheduling conflicts; lack of familiarity with the genre (to avoid having to say this, read widely); discomfort with the author him- or herself (the relationship is a bad fit); you can’t see how you could help (the book has too far to go, or is already so good your contribution would be minimal). Note: It’s easy to be selective when the bills are being paid.

Read between the lines. Most writers suffer from low self-esteem and fear the Red Pen. But generalities aside, every author is an individual with specific needs and expectations. Ask lots of questions before you agree to work on the writer’s book and listen carefully to their answers. Some want to be assured they aren’t pursuing an impossible dream. Others believe they’re just one step away from achieving it. Knowing the author before you even look at the manuscript helps you to anticipate the sorts of challenges you may uncover in the editing process.

Immerse yourself in the story. Read it through as if you just bought the book from your soon-to-be-shuttered Borders bookstore. (Sorry Borders. I still love you. I did earn a paycheck or two from you a few years back.) Don’t open to page one and begin editing, be a reader first. Spend time in the world and with the characters. The big issues will reveal themselves as you read. The smaller ones will simmer in the back of your head and pop up just in time for the Red Pen once you get down to the business of editing.

Let go of your own writer voice. If the writer already has a strong voice, this isn’t difficult. Once you’ve immersed yourself in the story, you’ll become intimately familiar with it and editing in that voice will be second nature. But if a writer doesn’t have a strong voice – as is the case with most inexperienced writers – this can be a challenge. You may be tempted to edit using your own writer’s voice. Don’t. Instead, make it your goal to help the author discover his or her original voice. Find the seeds of that voice (word choice, tone, rhythm, etc.) and water them. This is the best thing you can do for a writer. (Yes, I just used a gardening metaphor. I’m allowed one gardening metaphor a year. This was it.)

Respect the story. You have two masters when you’re an editor. (Three if you’re being contracted by a publishing house to do the edit.) The most obvious master is the writer. She’s the person paying you, so it’s important to respect her desires and concerns. But a happy writer with a bad story really isn’t a happy writer at all. Let the story guide your editorial notes. Communicate those notes in a way that doesn’t disrespect the writer’s hard work, but don’t shy away from saying the hard things when the story and the writer disagree.

Say encouraging things. Editing isn’t all about noting what’s wrong. It’s also about revealing and encouraging a writer’s strengths. If you find a particularly brilliant sentence or description, say so. You can even use exclamation points in your comment. However, be honest. Don’t make up things to praise. That just feeds false hope. If you have a hard time finding nice things to say, you can always say (with absolute sincerity): “You wrote a book. You have done something many people only aspire to. Good for you!” (Note use of exclamation point.)

Don’t edit with a jackhammer. If you find bad habits, point them out. Be direct, but avoid hammering a point more than necessary. Show the writer why the habit is bad, offer suggestions on how to solve it, then let the writer make the appropriate application to the rest of the occurrences. This gives the writer a chance to practice a better habit.

Exude confidence, but never arrogance. You’re an editor because you know books. You know characters and plots and how to show instead of tell. You have a sixth sense about what works and what sucks. So edit with confidence. However, you’re not God. Not even close. Have a good reason for every editing note and every change you make or suggest, but don’t presume your suggestions are the only ones that work.

Invite discussion. The writer will initially be intimidated or discouraged by your notes. (Even those who say “I love being edited!” experience some measure of one or both of these feelings.) We’re trained at a young age to fear the Red Pen. You’re not here to tell the writer she’s an idiot or a fool or a failure. You’re here to help the writer discover more of the writer inside. You’re not here to dictate, but to encourage and shape and direct. Talk with the writer. Explain your choices. Listen to her disagreements, concerns, fears. Then together, learn.

A good editor is a writer’s best friend – the kind of best friend who tells you when you have spinach in your teeth. Or adverbs.




Finding Stories

I don’t know where you find your stories, but I find mine everywhere. All I need is a little prompt – an object, a smell, a look from a stranger. Some of my favorite stories are inspired by listening to the words people don’t say.

Here, I’ll show you what I mean. I’m sitting in a Panera restaurant. I have a window seat. It’s just after the lunch rush. I’m going to look around and eavesdrop and see what stories appear. I’m sure I could find a hundred, given time, but I’ll limit myself to the first five that appear. And so you can see how my brain works (don’t look too closely), I’ll put the inspiration for the story idea in brackets. Keep in mind these are just seeds of bigger ideas (or possibly suited only for a short story), but you gotta start somewhere, right?

Waiting – Barry is a busboy at a busy chain restaurant in a Chicago suburb. Most customers ignore him or offer fake, polite smiles that Barry recognizes as the kind someone offers a person they think is mentally handicapped. He’s not. He’s just quiet. He’s also rich. He inherited seven million dollars two years ago, but he hasn’t touched a penny of it. He’s waiting to fall in love first. He wants to be loved for who he is, not for his money. On a particularly rainy Wednesday, a woman who is clearly annoyed by the young man she is enduring lunch with smiles at him with a different kind of smile. The kind that sets his heart to beating fast. She looks vaguely familiar, but he tells himself this is because she’s eaten there before. He’s wrong.

[A busboy was Hoovering, and hovering, near my table.]

Barriers – When Jerry Kincaid is stuck in I-40 traffic on the August afternoon following the worst day of his life (his girlfriend left him for a state trooper), his attention is drawn to the orange safety barriers – the ones they fill with sand or water or something to keep drivers from killing themselves should they drift off the highway into the median. He reads the manufacturing information and notices the model name is appended with “Mark 3.” A strange curiosity compels him to find out what happened to the “Mark 1” and “Mark 2” models. The next day, on the way to the manufacturing plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, he falls asleep at the wheel and drifts into the median. A year later, the “Mark 4” is introduced.

[There’s sidewalk construction going on across the way, complete with orange safety cones.]

Every Thursday for a Lifetime – Father Karcher has lived a long and mostly uncomplicated life. He’s weathered more than his portion of the global disdain for the sins of his ilk with quiet humility, nodding and sighing and even tearing up at just the right moments to absorb the anger meant for evil men who have damaged so many young lives. But despite his own bitterness toward the wrong-minded priests, he never points an accusing finger. “God’s fingers are better suited,” he says if anyone asks. Every Thursday he sits in the small coffee shop at the very same table, sipping hot Passion tea (an inside joke, but not the one his parishoners might expect, particularly around Easter) and waiting, hoping, longing for a few moments of shared secret silence with the dark-haired woman who’s been coming every week for years.

[An aging priest sat alone at a corner table. He looked wistful.]

A Trail of Crumbs – She almost always can be smelled before she is seen – the middle-aged woman with the clothes that are much too big and the dog that is much too small (they didn’t even see him the first three times, hidden as he was in her suitcase purse). She comes at the end of the day, just before the doors close, and asks for whatever bread they’re planning on throwing away. Kelly is the only manager who breaks the rules and gives her some. Just a loaf or two. One evening, when Kelly is feeling paradoxically depressed and adventurous, she follows the woman. After a few dozen twists and turns through unmarked doors and down unlit stairwells, she finds herself in an underground city. It is a world unto itself. Not the stronghold of criminals and ne’er-do-wells, nor the trash-riddled sewer of sad lives and sadder stories she expected to find, but a bright and beautiful community that always smells like a summer rain; a place where the only currency is love.

[Saw stacks of bread behind the counter. Wondered where it all ended up.]

Listening – Matt and Joanne have been struggling lately. He calls it the “eleven year itch” and she calls it “that damn golf channel.” Following a particularly nasty disagreement on the relative merits of marital counseling, they agree on a more unique approach to sorting through their mess. They decide to interview long-married couples in search of practical wisdom. Secretly, they’re each hoping to find evidence to support the opposite result – they don’t think the marriage is salvageable. At first, they get their wish – these long-married couples don’t seem the least bit happy. But as they delve deeper and deeper into the strange (and sometimes disturbing) love lives of strangers, they find themselves growing closer instead.

[A young couple was sharing a table with a much older couple. There was something in the way the young couple was sitting (as far apart as the booth seat allowed) that prompted the story idea.]

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Q: Where do you find your stories?