Five Things I’ve Learned About Being an Editor
1. Everybody needs positive reinforcement. I’ve edited first time authors, long-time bestselling authors, politicians, celebrities, doctors, CEOs, lawyers, and judges. I’ve had teenaged authors and authors in their eighties. Not everyone shows it clearly, but everyone needs support. Writing a book is a brave thing to do. It requires putting a part of yourself out there in the hope of making a connection with a lot of people you don’t know and will never meet. Authors need to know there are others who believe in them and what they are doing. (Actually, it’s not just authors….)
2. It’s as important to tell an author what is working as what is not working. It’s very easy when you’re editing a 400-page manuscript to just focus on what needs to be done to make that book stronger. But it’s equally important to share what you love about the book. Not only does this give the author positive support, it can help you determine the author’s strengths, which can in turn inform your editorial advice. If something isn’t working well in one part of a manuscript, try to point to a place in the manuscript where it is working.
3. Editing is active reading, not passive — it requires critical thinking, like studying. It’s not enough to tell an author that something isn’t working. You have to figure out why it isn’t working, what needs to be done to fix it, and communicate how to the author in a manner that’s supportive and helpful. This usually requires an understanding of structure, genre, and techniques. It may involve a brainstorming session with the author where you both suggest ideas, follow them along, dismiss many, and try again. Most of all it requires mutual trust and respect.
4. You have to be emotionally open as an editor. If a book makes me smile, I note it in the margin. If it makes me tear up, I’ll note that as well. I once told an author his novel made me cry five times. He wanted to know exactly where. I told him exactly where. Apparently there was a sixth place I was supposed to cry. We discussed why I didn’t and how to revise it…to make me cry. (My job is weird.) Another author wrote a humorous memoir. I added a smiley face comment (my favorite shorthand) every time he made me laugh. When I called him to talk over the edits, the first thing he said, with a note of pride, was he had counted 27 smiley faces.
5. You will spend 90% of your time doing things other than editing. You might start the day with the intention of editing, but instead find yourself choosing a model for a book cover with the art director, creating a P&L (profit and loss statement) to determine the financial viability of a book you want to acquire, revising the description for the back cover of an upcoming book, negotiating a contract with an agent, brainstorming a better title with an author, and writing a blog post about being an editor.
Christina Boys is Senior Editor at Hachette Nashville