Editors come in all forms. Blessed family, friends, and fellow writers who agree to read the first draft(s) of your new work; suffering through self-indulgent stream of consciousness, poorly developed characters, and questionable plot tangents so you can get your work ready for a professional editor, for example. Or the crew Quentin Tarantino thanked in his Django Unchained Golden Globes acceptance speech who endure read-alouds by the screenwriter/director without permission to offer feedback. “When I read it to you, I hear it through your ears, and it let’s me know I’m on the right track,” Tarantino said.
Indeed, one of the hardest things to come by as a writer is a dedicated reader/sounding board for your work when it’s in the rough and raw stage. Someone or a group of someones whose opinion you trust, who won’t be afraid to hurt your feelings or smash your altars. A good writing group helps, but sometimes when you’re in creative flow aka selfish writer mode, a quid pro quo reading exchange can take you out of your head when you need to be there most.
I know I could not have gotten my book in a ready state without the help of my early reader-editors (my sister, and writers K.C. Washington and Kseniya Melnik). I remember tearing up when I got the copy edits back from Simon and Schuster, so grateful for the meticulous attention to detail that forced me to go back and tighten up. And I will never forget the day the editor who acquired my book (Malaika Adero) gave me a hug. After years of rejection by agents, I was terrified she would rescind her offer, realize I wasn’t worthy; so when I saw Malaika at an event, I extended my hand. She moved past it and pulled me in for a gentle hug. That meant everything to me. Then and now. I have the same love for the many editors who make me better in the journalistic and copy writing work I do.
When it comes to professional editors, their role couldn’t be more important. In this digital age where feeding the beast and getting there first trumps carefully considered and constructed copy, an editor who makes you take the time to get your work truly ready is a gem of priceless value.
Yesterday, two articles came out extolling editors, and the connection — a cross between connubial, parental, and comradely — the good ones have with their writers. In the Wall Street Journal, author Janice Steinberg admitted, “I sometimes fall in love with a phrase as language, even if it fudges the truth. I wasn’t allowed to get away with that.” Her editor Kendra Harpster gave her 18 (single-spaced) pages of feedback, along with two years to further develop and refine her idea.
Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. McIntyre explained the writer-editor dance like this:
[E]ven in an operation like a newspaper, where a handful of remaining editors deals with scores of reporters, where a reporter after finishing one article must hurry on to the next, and where the copy editor may handle the work of a couple of dozen writers in a day’s shift, a degree of intimacy remains.
If no man is a hero to his valet, no writer escapes the eye of her editor. We on the desk see the rough product. We know, and applaud, the writers with an eye for the apt metaphor, the skill to select and present the telling detail, the clear and succinct voice. We also see the writers who are careless or sloppy with factual details, who produce slack and rambling prose, who can no more resist a cliche than a drunk can stay away from the bar.
We know their strengths, we know their weaknesses, and they have few secrets from us, at least in their writing.
That means that we have to develop the tact that marks a good marriage or a close friendship, the trust that enables us to speak the painful truth about the work to the writer. It is the kind of intimacy that enabled Ezra Pound to be blunt with T.S. Eliot as he excised whole chunks of The Waste Land.
McIntyre adds, “your editor should be like the friend who advises you that you have toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe, just before you walk up to the dais to receive your award. Better to suffer a moment of private discomfort than endure public embarrassment.”