A Handbook Worth Having at Hand

Editor's Guide cover

There is a glut of books on the market about how to write fiction, but only a handful on editing fiction. There are a gazillion books on how to fix the mechanics of language, but few on the more creative work of structural editing.

Barbara Sjoholm’s handbook, An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors (Rainforest Press, 2010, 140 pages) fills a void in more ways than one: it’s not just a pragmatic “how to,” but a reflection on editing as an art and an attitude.

Sjoholm (pronounced “shoe-holm”) is a Seattle-based novelist, memoirist, and mystery writer. She is also a translator and editor, and co-founder of Seal Press. In 2004 she started the Author-Editor Clinic, a mentoring program for freelance editors that focuses on the structural editing of book-length manuscripts and the author-editor relationship.

An Editor’s Guide distills the lectures and notes that Sjoholm amassed as a teacher at the clinic. Here are the most important things I got from this book:

  • courage to communicate more closely with the author
  • questions to ask the author before editing begins
  • a template for an editorial letter
  • a “non-judgmental” philosophy of editing

Courage to communicate

In scholarly publishing, I communicate with authors from across Canada largely by email. The prospect of a phone call, let alone a face-to-face talk, throws me into a tizzy because I’m more articulate in writing than I am in conversation. For me, writing is speech perfected.

Sjoholm’s handbook reminds me that editing is not about ME, it’s about authors and their work. My ability to analyze a manuscript is valuable, and my suggestions are important, but what’s even more valuable and important is communicating well with the person behind the text—the writer. As Sjoholm puts it,

In the word “copyediting,” the object is embedded in the verb: you don’t edit an author, you edit copy. But in editing fiction and creative nonfiction, what you edit is not copy. It’s the heart and soul and imagination of a real person. A writer.

This means that I must not march through a manuscript on track changes. Instead, I must call upon all the intelligence, grace, and empathy at my command to understand and respect the author’s vision for the book. I must pay attention to the language that I use to suggest revisions, and back up my ideas.

Open-ended questions

I was surprised by how much communicating goes on, or should, before editing begins. Sjoholm includes an “author questionnaire” that I will use from now on, if not formally, at least in conversation with the author. The questionnaire gauges the author’s goals, writing experience, and expectations for editing.

Armed with this information, an editor then reads the manuscript twice, followed by more open-ended questions about “what the author was imagining when she created the structure of her project.”

The editorial letter

The heart of the editorial response is what Sjoholm calls the “editorial letter.”

Almost half the book (five out of twelve chapters) is devoted to why and how to write an editorial letter.  Most helpful are two templates, one for fiction and one for non-fiction.

Sjoholm admits that writing a long editorial letter may be old-fashioned, but she’s sticking with this method, and for good reasons. To write an editorial letter, you have to organize your thoughts, be specific, and be persuasive. You have to back up your gut reactions with reasoned arguments.

This method works for me, because I think by writing. For authors, the advantages are obvious: they can turn to the letter at their leisure in the revision stage and everything is there; they don’t have to fish through emails for tidbits of advice.

Care deeply but let go

Sjoholm encourages editors to cultivate an attitude of “positive neutrality.” Her golden rule: “Edit your author as you would be edited” (p. 104).

This is not just about being nice to authors, Sjoholm explains. It’s about being receptive to the author’s work, and balancing honesty and empathy. She goes so far as to advise “practicing non-judgment,” which turns on its head the image of the non-negotiable red pen. There are echoes of Eckhart Tolle in Sjoholm’s idea of caring deeply about a manuscript without ego attachment to the outcome.

Where the book falls short

An Editor’s Guide focuses on how to write an editorial letter and communicate tactfully with authors. But Sjoholm doesn’t discuss what to do when the editorial assessment does not match the author’s expectations. She mentions that authors often think their manuscripts need only a light “polish” before publication. How does an editor break the news that the book needs major revision? Sjoholm is silent on this subject. She also avoids the question of how much to charge.

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