Am I allowed to say that one of my favourite sessions at this year’s SfEP conference was… my own? Well, looks like I’m saying it anyway, arrogant arse that I am.
Although, in my defence, the session wasn’t about me and what I had to say. I was just there to lead a panel of fiction authors talking about their experiences of being edited. This is my kind of session – I didn’t have to stand there and have people actually listen to me. Instead they got to listen to the wonderful panellists – Joanna and Emlyn Rees, KJ Charles, and Alison Ingelby. They’re all fantastic writers and jolly nice human beings to boot, so you should go and read their books.
Between them, they’ve been edited dozens of times, so these authors know whereof they speak. The session was lively, interesting, and full of humour and passion. And if there’s one thing that I hope the editors present took away from it it’s this: at the other end of your edits is a human being who’s done a hell of a lot of work, and you’d better bloody remember that.
Writing is hard. Ten minutes on Writing Twitter will show you author after author talking about the long and painful process of trying to get that story out of your head and onto a page. Novels are labours of love. And sometimes hate. Authors (and I know, because I keep attempting to be one) put a lot of themselves into their work, and sending that off to someone whose job is to find every single flaw in it is not an easy thing to do.
And editors are going to find flaws. As Jo Rees pointed out during the panel, a lot of writing is about making decisions. Every word that gets onto the page is a decision to take the story in that direction or this, to evoke this mood or that, to have a character become one thing or another. Thousands upon thousands of decisions. And the author is not going to get every single one of those decisions right. (Which isn’t surprising. I make the wrong decision about what to have for breakfast most days.) It’s an editor’s job to point out the less optimal decisions (about the manuscripts we work on, not my breakfast) and suggest solutions, but I think there can be a tendency among editors to feel a little bit pleased with ourselves when we do. There’s nothing wrong with professional pride, but we must always take care that it never tips over into thinking we are better than the author for spotting something they didn’t.
The authors on the panel told us horror stories about terrible editing. Harsh comments. Imposing style choices with no respect for the author’s voice. Ignoring the author’s expressed preferences. I think these all boil down to the same thing – editors thinking they know best. Sometimes our training, skills and experience mean that actually we do know what the right answer is – that’s why we’re being paid to find those problems and solve them. But to think solely in terms of fixing the author’s mistakes is to turn the author–editor relationship into an adversarial one, when really, we should be a team. Editors should never lose sight of what we’re there to do, which is to help and support the author in telling their story. And the best way to do that is with kindness and respect.
Respect the months and probably years that the author has spent thinking and planning and writing and deleting and rewriting and worrying and thinking some more and rewriting again. Respect the emotional investment the author has put into what you’re now taking your red pen to. Even if the manuscript’s full of problems, getting those words onto the page is no mean feat.
Compliment the things the author’s done well (and there will always be something). Empower them to reject the changes they don’t feel comfortable with. And understand that you always have a choice about how you communicate with your author. If you aren’t adept enough with words to write a query in a way that isn’t cruel and cutting, then quite frankly you have no business being an editor. Tread softly, because you tread on their dreams.
Thank you once again to the wonderful author panel, the delegates who attended and asked such great questions, and anyone who can tell me what I should have for breakfast.