The Editor’s Gift

I recently covered NY-Metro SCBWI‘s January 2016 Professional Series. I’m always happy to be the “designated writer” when we’re short of people to cover.  I’m usually in attendence anyway, but the truth is that the sessions I’ve gotten the most out of are the sessions that I hadn’t planned on attending.

It’s always the thing that you didn’t expect that stays with you.

Our January presenter was Joanna Volpe, agent and head of New Leaf Literary & Media, who entitled her talk, “There and Back Again,” framing a writer or illustrator’s career as a journey where the agent (or, in the case of New Leaf, the entire agency) acts like the fellowship of the ring in supporting Bilbo’s journey.

I’ve had some questions (i.e., complaints) in the past about some of the editing on these write-ups, feeling that they weren’t either improvements or corrections. After 20 years in tech writing, I can be an argumentative editee, mostly because after working as an editor for the last 12 years, I have an opinion on what that role encompasses.

I have three editorial rules:

  • Things that are wrong must corrected.
  • Things that can be improved are suggested (with an explanation).
  • Tie goes to the writer.

These seem to me to be common-sense, and yet no one else seems to follow them.  A fair amount of editing seems to be of the “how to be more like me” sort.

When you, as the editor, say to the writer, “change this,” it has to make it better.

It’s not all about arguing about changes. I want to do what I’m doing better, too.  So as I wrote this piece, I thought about trying to make it as tight as possible. I thought about transitions. I thought about the quotes. I thought about the story I was telling.

Then I sent it for in-house editing. And son of a gun, it came back with an opening paragraph nicely clarified.

Next, I sent it on to Joanna Volpe, who kindly wrote back in something like 20 minutes because she knew we’d be waiting for it. She fixed a couple of bone-headed errors (the ampersand in New Leaf’s title, for example; exceedingly embarrassing) and clarified her own quotes, going further than I would have felt comfortable. And looked at the whole story: Joanna pointed out that I had only used anecdotes about YA clients and she wanted to ensure that readers understood that she represented illustrators as well as writers (this was probably unconscious bias on my part). I asked her who to include and suggested a way to make it work.

I love what collaboration in the editorial process can do. When it’s not just what one of us saw or decided, but what can happen when two people exchange ideas. Everything Joanna changed made the piece better. And there’s nothing like enthusiasm to make me write better.

I was lucky to have the opportunity to work with Joanna Volpe, even for something as minor as this piece (which I hope you’ll read). Because a good editor brings something you don’t expect and you can’t imagine.

A good agent, too, I suspect.

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