Hi. I’m Jill and I’m an editor. I enable writers. I mainline books like a junkie. I free base text into prose. I’m always jonesing for a good story. Yes, I’m hooked on grammar.
I get a tremendous high when one of my writer’s books gets a starred review in Kirkus, featured in the New York Times or pops up as a question on Jeopardy. What a rush.
Almost eight years ago I invented this job as a free-lance developmental book editor right at the time when publishers downsized editorial staff and expected authors to hire their own editors.
One of the rewards of my job is learning new things from my writers. Did you know on Mars the duration of a solar day is called a “sol” and takes 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35.244 seconds? I didn’t. Who knew that Confederate soldiers burned the town and sacked the banks in St. Albans, Vermont? Not me. Or letters found in an antique shop in Stillwater, Minnesota, were written by a French catholic metalworker the Nazis conscripted to work in a Daimler factory?
Writers come to me looking for a midwife to help them give birth to their books. If they’ve got a compelling story, I’ll help turn a good idea into a great book. But that’s not always possible. The most difficult part of my job is when I have to deliver bad news. No, your manuscript is not ready for publication. Hey, doctors sometimes have to tell a patient their condition is terminal. Tax accountants can’t always get you a refund. And lawyers don’t win every case.
I’m fortunate to have had enough success that I no longer have to take on every prospective client and I’ve learned the importance of asking a few screening questions.
Number one. What is the last book you read?
“Oh, I don’t read books.” Really? Has it ever occurred to you that’s kind of like a chef who has no interest in food.
Question number two. What is the genre?
“Fictional memoir.” Many writers suffer from genre confusion. In fact, just the other day the AT&T technician showed up to fix my internet connection and he tells me he’s writing a book. “A horror love story.” Yes, I’ve had a few of those relationships, but I had to inform him in the literary world that genre doesn’t exist.
And my third screening question. So what’s your book about?
“Well, there’s never been a book like this before.”
There may be a good reason for that!
“My story would make a great movie.”
Great, then make a movie instead of trying to publish a book.
If it takes longer than sixty seconds to tell me what their book is about, they don’t know what the book is about. And if they don’t know what their book is about, how do they expect a reader to know?
In my job I do a lot of fact-checking. Clients never cease to be amazed by my powers of investigation. So what’s my secret? It’s this amazing tool developed out in Silicon Valley called Google. I love googling and sometimes I get paid for it.
But there are a few things that harsh my buzz.
“Oh, can you just read it and tell me if it is any good?” It took me a couple of years to discover this question was code for “hey, are you willing to work for free?” One guy actually told me he was doing me a favor by allowing me to edit his manuscript which he believed destined to become a bestseller. Do you think any reader ever wondered, wow, who edited that book?
Some writers say they want your help, but what they really want are affirmations. “You’re a good enough writer, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, readers will like your book.”
No, I do understand. You pour your heart and soul into a manuscript and you take a big risk when you put it out there for feedback. It’s important to tell a writer what does work well. I’ve seen too many cut their best stuff because amateur editors tried to fix mistakes instead of helping an author do right by their story.
Anyone can claim to be an editor – retired English teacher, a neighbor who self-published, your former college roommate who writes technical manuals – but they often give bad advice. Never end a sentence with a preposition. Sentence fragments are verboten. Don’t begin a sentence with “and” or “but.” But you can. And it’s okay.
Some writers see my track changes….and all they see is RED. But if I pointed out you had spinach between your teeth or your shoe was dragging toilet paper, you’d thank me. But when I provide the service of saving a writer from embarrassment, you’d think I’d substituted talcum powder for their cocaine.
I will bust you on your jargon. Break up those run-on sentences. Point out your purple prose – when your writing is so writerly it gets in the way of the story. Ban the badjectives – great, really, very. And I demand answers. So what? Who cares? Sometimes I have to remind a writer. “Remember? You hired me to help you.”
You’ll never guess the most common mistake writers make. Two spaces after a period. Do you make that mistake? Let me guess. You’re over 50. News flash: since the 80s when computers replaced typewriters, the rule is one space.
I confess, I still make this mistake. It’s a testament to the lasting impact of my high school education. Heh, every writer needs an editor, including me.
Some think using fifty cent words where nickel ones will do makes them sound like an author. Let me tell you, big words don’t make you a better writer.
Here’s an example from a song I learned as a kid at summer camp. “Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I want to go to bed. I had a little drink about an hour ago and it went right to my head.” Now compare that to this: “Indicate the way to my habitual abode. My energy reserves are depleted and I require adequate rest, I consumed an alcoholic beverage 60 minutes prior, and it advanced directly to my cerebellum.”
Big words suck all the life out of your writing. I rescue writers from the zombie apocalypse with verb-driven sentences that are concrete and structured. I want your sentences to live, not join the living dead.
God, grant me the serenity to change the text without altering the author’s meaning,
The courage to tell a writer the truth,
And the wisdom to know when to put my comment in the form of a question.
Amen.[Thanks to Storycatchers where I told this story at the Deja Vu Martini Lounge in Appleton on April 24.]
16 thoughts on “Tweak: Confessions of an Editor”
I loved reading this, Jill. It brought back memories both warm and heart-wrenching. Oh, those track changes, and the questions you would ask that made me want to curl up and hide in embarrassment. And the wanting, begging, you to do all the hard work that comes after the manuscript. And then the awe of combing others’ works in a writing group. You must be so proud of the books you’ve helped launch. Great new photo. Which reminds me, you’ll be advising your writers to change their author photos and bios around this time of the year. Yes, some of the things you taught me have actually sunk in and made a difference. Thank you.
Hi Robin. Thanks for reading this. Hoped it would bring a smile to your face. Yes, I’m extremely proud of the authors who have let me work with them to make their books great. It has been a privilege to work with so many talented writers, including you.
Good stuff, Jill!
Thank you very much, I greatly enjoyed reading your piece.
Great to hear, Eva. Thanks for reading it.
A spoonful of humor helps the criticism go down…. This is great advice, Jill, and is so well written. I love how your personality shines through. When I read it, I could see you winking at us.
It was fun to read your innermost thoughts on the role of an editor. I’m really glad you reinvented yourself as a book developer. It wasn’t just your skill as an editor but also your whole approach to making and publishing books that helped me to produce a book that I’m proud of. And Jane says, she knew she liked you as soon as she met you, and now she knows why.
Aw shucks! Thanks Linda. I’m proud of you and the new Field Guide to Tracking Mammals in the Northeast. Looking forward to seeing its release July 4 from Countryman Press (W.W. Norton). And I knew I liked Jane as soon as I met her, too. I’m looking forward to celebrating with you on July 16 at the Cornell Botanic Gardens for your book launch party!
I love your confessions as an editor, and laughed heartily over your example of how big words suck the life out writing!!! You write so well and with such humor. Thank you!
most sincerely, Annie
“The courage to tell a writer the truth”
One of my most cherished memories of you as, bar none, one of the greatest communications mentors I have ever had–thank you.
Thanks for the high compliment! After all these years, it’s nice to be remembered fondly.
Reading your newsletters has been both informative and entertaining. I love your style of writing. You write the truth in a fun and compassionate way.
Thanks for reading, Brenda.
I googled “confessions of an editor,” and your piece came up. A plea for advice–
My sister handed over her two-years-in-the-making manuscript, ‘not sure why. I think she is looking for editorial comment, but I fear losing the already delicate relationship we have. I think the story is “good,” and but how far do I go? Is this a mad skill a wanne-be editor picks up over time–learning how far to nudge each individual?
Start by asking your sister what kind of feedback she is looking for. If she’s written a memoir, then maybe she is giving you the opportunity to respond to how you’ve been represented in her writing before it is published. If she’s written fiction, then unless you’re a fiction editor she seeks your feedback as a beta-reader. If she’s written a book of nonfiction, then bring your subject expertise to her manuscript. If your sister is looking for editorial comment, then she needs to hire an editor. Every author needs an editor. As for learning how far to nudge an individual writer, that does come with experience but also by the ability to discern whether a writer is capable of taking constructive criticism. It sounds as though your sister might be looking for affirmation rather than editorial advice. That could strengthen rather than weaken your delicate relationship. You don’t need to put on an editor’s cap to affirm she’s written a good story.
Thank you very much for your time and insight. I sent her some library resources, and encouraged her to find a publisher. I know her (fiction) story needs editing, but I gotta dance away from that task. Maybe. Most likely. I don’t know. Aaaaaagh.