Borrowing Your Editor’s Brain Will Rewire Yours — in a Good Way
Robert Gottlieb, one of the most celebrated English-language book editors of the 20th century, once told the Paris Review that “the editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one.”
Gottlieb was referring to readers when he said that, not to writers. With all his writers, from Joseph Heller to Toni Morrison, Gottlieb was decidedly, and sensitively, hands-on.
“Somehow, to be helpful,” he said in that same interview, “an editor has to embody authority yet not become possessive or controlling.”
And therein lies the inherent friction between writer and editor. The editor has a definite say in the words that ultimately land on the printed page — if not also the structure, tone, and even the title of the book.
Yet the printed volume is sent out into the world as the author’s own work, a pure product of the writer’s imagination and toil.
Only the collaborating writer and editor understand the creative tension between them. Gottlieb would prefer, I think, that this tension fall under something like attorney-client privilege.
Nevertheless, a good editor’s impact on a writer is often profound, even transformative.
“[V]ery often when I am writing, I have something like a bird sitting on my right shoulder, a watchful bird looking over my shoulder at what I am doing,” said novelist Cynthia Ozick, a Gottlieb client. “I want that bird’s approval — I have to get it.”
A bird perches on my shoulder now, too. A cockatiel, perhaps. And I can’t imagine writing without her claws poking little holes in my shirt. But she did not magically appear; she required a bit of coaxing first.
The first time you open your manuscript file and scroll through pages riddled with your editor’s comments and strike-throughs, there is no little birdie in sight. You’re a puddle on the floor. Oh, wow. I can’t write. They hate my work. This book must be terrible.
That mindset is your worst enemy. Grant yourself five minutes for self-pity, if you must, then move on.
So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads. — Dr. Seuss
Your editor’s primary job is to help you make a good book better. The editor is not your judge, jury, and executioner. Wouldn’t you rather expose your book’s weaknesses to one person in private rather than a slew of readers and reviewers ready to tear your heart out on Amazon?
“A good editor tries to figure out what the writer was trying to do, and helps him or her do it better, rather than trying to change the book into something else entirely,” said George R.R. Martin in a famously snarky 1979 keynote speech.
The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. –Zadie Smith
Your editor has given you a gift: reading the manuscript through her eyes is your chance to deepen your work, find the beats you missed, and heighten the mystery, drama, or humor. Most writers cannot do all that on their own.
“Before she takes up the nuts and bolts of revision, a writer must face the metaphysical challenge of gaining perspective on her own words,” writes editor Susan Bell in The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself.
I have worked with the same editor, Courtney Harler, on two novels in a row. This means she has read, re-read, edited, and re-edited roughly 160,000 words written by me. As my special reader — for an editor is certainly that — she has discovered hidden meanings I missed in my own work. She has also spotted countless errors, vagaries, inconsistencies, and unconvincing aspects of character and plot. A tiny fraction of my writing foibles include:
· I use words such as thing and that too often and too vaguely. She pushed me to complete each thought with more precise language.
· I tend to repeat words (especially adjectives and adverbs) that dull the reader’s senses. In any given paragraph, for instance, I might write quickly two or three times.
· I sometimes trip over choreography — how characters move physically in space. My editor caught every one of these. For instance, she might say, Wasn’t so-and-so sitting down earlier in this scene, and now she’s standing way over there?
· In one of my novels, my protagonist experiences a profound loss, which I thought I’d navigated pretty well. My editor showed me several places throughout the book where I could revisit the sense of loss, creating a more emotionally believable and sympathetic character.
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings. — Stephen King
Implant the conversation
As I write my fourth novel, I have borrowed my editor’s brain. Or, to switch metaphors, she is the cockatiel perched on my shoulder, not squawking, exactly, but alerting me to bad habits and common pitfalls. (Courtney: “Beginning a sentence with “This is” or “It was” generally leads to weaker sentence structure.”) Trust me, I’ve already changed countless things, thises, and thats.
I also keep an eye out for unconscious repetition and ruthlessly excise superfluous description. (Courtney: “In an honest effort to fully convey a description of a character or setting, writers might begin to pile on the adjectives and adverbs, like fallen leaves in autumn.”) I even pay closer attention to paragraph breaks to denote subtle shifts in action or subject matter (one of Courtney’s tricks).
As I reread my fresh pages, I ask my editor’s brain to highlight where I might use more vivid language, speed things up (oops! things) or slow them down, and that gem of gems — show, don’t tell. Thinking like an editor helps me to write better in real-time without dampening the creative process. It isn’t paralyzing. On the contrary, I feel empowered.
And that, writes Bell, is at least half the battle. “The point is to implant the conversation between editor and writer into the writer’s head; so that, when the time comes, the writer can split into two and treat herself as a good editor would.”
“Each manuscript can teach new lessons and skills,” Courtney says, “for both the writer and the editor.”
In conclusion, if you seriously want to become a better writer, write a lot and read great books, of course. But above all, listen to your editor, who is your most attentive reader, an ally invested in your success. The pain of hearing the truth is worth the gain — because in the end, your readers will think you’re brilliant. And you’ll know who to thank.