The battle of wills between writers and editors: Three tips to make the editing process more valuable

If you read Ruth Reichl’s column about her editor, Susan Kamil, you can get the idea of how a good editor can make all the difference. In reflecting on Kamil after her recent death, Reichl offered a wonderful assessment of her friend, colleague and editor in a way that is both honest and honorific.

I have been both the editor and the edit-ee throughout my life and I have found neither of them are a bowl of cherries. As the person being edited, I find myself vacillating between the desire to be told how awesome I am and the need to be told where I really screwed up. It’s almost a borderline disorder of personality: When someone tells me I’m perfect, I push back by saying, “No, I NEED feedback so I can improve before people who read the published version rip me to shreds.” When someone heaps “helpful suggestions” upon me, I often feel like saying, “OK, screw you and everyone who looks like you.”

Sounds dumb? Yep, but I bet I’m not the only one in that boat.

As an editor, the frustration is just as palpable: I can see what needs to happen so I’m pulling in one direction. However, the writer keeps thinking, “What the hell does this chucklehead know?” Having to edit strong-willed people has on occasion led to some of my worst moments, including once telling a student, “I’ve taken (bowel movements) that I would be more proud of than I would be of this lead.” It was like, “If you would just be reasonable and see it MY WAY, we’d get done with this a lot faster and better.”

Eventually, I found more equilibrium in the relationship. It also helped when I started finding editors who worked with me in a way that made sense to me. (As Harvey Spector says in “Suits,” you don’t want to play the case. You want to play the person.) It has gotten to a point where each book I do, I ask if Jim Kelly (the former journalist, not the football player) is available to be my copy editor. Otherwise, can we wait on this?

For those of you who don’t get the chance to pick your poison… er… editor… and for those editors who still don’t get why the writers suck at this, consider a few helpful hints that might make the relationship make more sense:

  • You’re both right, but in different ways: In most cases, reporters are the experts on their stories. They were in the field, they’ve done the research, they have the interviews and they collected additional information. When it comes to the “who did what to whom” elements of the story, the reporters are the experts on everything, which is why they can feel frustrated when an editor starts putzing around with their copy.
    Conversely, the editors are the experts on what the readers are seeing, what they need to see and where the gaps exist in the stories they are editing. The reporters are hip-deep in the content and thus sometimes have trouble seeing the forest through the trees. The editors come to the content with fresh eyes, a general interest in the topic and limited background on what’s going on. That’s exactly how the readers will see it, so it pays to have the editors poking around and changing stuff.
    Much like every other situation in life, if multiple people are involved in a collective task, the goal is to play to each person’s strength and away from each person’s weakness. Thus, the editor should get some leeway in terms of changing things that get in the way of the readers’ understanding of the content while the reporter should get more control over the general gist of the story.
  • You must be able to explain why: I often tell my students that little kids are amazing because they always want to understand what’s going on around them. This is why a 4-year-old’s favorite question is “Why?” They want to figure out how something works, how come something is the way it is and what reasons you have for doing something. It’s an innate element of their being.
    Eventually we stop asking those questions, either because we start to figure things out on our own or for fear that an adult might push us into traffic out of frustration. That doesn’t mean we still don’t have those questions, but rather, we stop verbalizing them, so instead of getting decent answers to our concerns, we simply have to stew in our own displeasure.
    As a writer or an editor, the goal of every decision you make should be to have a reason for whatever it is you are doing. Then, you need to be able to verbalize it in a clear and concise fashion for anyone who might need to know. For example, if you used a narrative lead on your story instead of a standard inverted-pyramid lead, your editor might ask, “Why does it take me three paragraphs to get to the point of the story?” If you have a good reason, like “I wanted to set up the lead more as a nut graf, because I keep weaving this guy in the opening back into the story as a thread,” your editor might see things the way you do and let it sit. If you have the “I just wanted to mix it up” or the dreaded “I dunno” answer, you’re probably not going to have things work out your way.
    The same thing is true for an editor: If you want to change something, have a reason to do so. Also, it helps to ask the “why” question of the writer before you decide to make that change. It shows an interest in what the writer has done, and it provides you an opportunity to reconsider your change. As noted earlier, you’re both going to have strengths and weaknesses, so play to the strengths and explain why you think your position is stronger. If you have established trust with the writer, the writer should give you some leeway on this. If not, you need to start establishing trust, like, yesterday.
  • The goal is the same: In the end, the thing you both need to understand is that you both want the same thing: the best possible product. In some cases, this can be inordinately frustrating because you can’t fully agree on what that “best possible product” actually is. In addition, you might have different ways to get there.
    This is where trust comes in and you both need to make a decision about the value of this relationship. In one of the most frustrating relationships of my life, my doctoral adviser and I butted heads constantly on the editing of my dissertation. I kept pushing for the “good enough” version of things and she kept pushing for the “best possible” version of things. It took a long time for me to admit she was right, but she was. Her goal was my goal, even when I couldn’t see it: Write a piece that was going to be easy to defend and that would help me complete my degree.
    At the end of the day, if you are both honest with yourselves and care about the outcome, you will have the best interest of your readers in mind. That means you’ll care less about getting your way or making your changes than you will making sure the reader gets a good, strong, clear and valuable story.
    If that’s not the case, and you just want to win, everyone involved is going to lose.

Leave a Reply