Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Interviewing an Editor

Would it be unheard of for an author to request a writing sample from an editor, so that they could gain a better understanding as to who they are, personally? I know you could reference other books they have edited (to see their editing style), but if you were concerned they might not be sensitive to the material and wanted a glimpse into their "artistic voice," would it be unreasonable to request something they had written (magazine article, short story, etc.)? On a similar note, what are the strangest requests you've known an author to make before they begin working with an editor?

I have to admit, this is the strangest request I’ve ever had from an author, and I’m not sure how you would go about doing this because, for one thing, by asking this question you are assuming that all editors write. The timing on this question is actually quite interesting, because just the other day I was having lunch with an editor and we were talking about a colleague who had left the business to become a writer. As part of the conversation we were talking about the incorrect assumption that a lot of writers make that all agents and editors are frustrated writers. This particular editor found that laughable since she said she had absolutely no desire to be a writer. What she really loved doing was editing.

The other assumption you’re making is that if the editor does write, the voice she writes in has anything to do with her editing, and I can’t imagine that’s the case. Good editors know and understand that each writer has her own unique voice, and falling in love with that voice was the first step to falling in love with the book. Editing does not involve or should not involve editing an author’s voice. Editing means helping the author create the best book possible by enhancing and building upon what’s already there.

I’m not sure there’s any way to really find out what an editor does to a book, especially since a good editor won’t leave a mark. Sure, you can read the books the editor has edited, but all that does is show the final product, and you can never be sure what exactly the editor did to make that happen. The best thing you can do is talk to other authors who have worked with the editor you’re talking about, but even then you’re getting personal opinions and experiences, and so much more plays into that than just editing.

Frankly, the only time I’ve ever had authors really debate one editor over the other is in an auction situation where all things are equal—the money is the same, etc. In that case we will have in-depth talks about my experiences as well as the experiences of other authors at the house as well as with the editor. I’ll also set up phone conversations between the author and the editor so the author can get a personal feeling from the editor about her vision for the author’s career and her book, because in all honesty, this is the best way to find out what an editor might do for you.

It’s very rare that an author has the opportunity to interview and choose the editor she’ll work with, and even if she does, editors quit and move jobs all the time. I can’t even begin to count the number of authors I have who have lost an editor and been reassigned someone new. This is one reason I stress finding the right agent so strongly. With the right agent you know you can choose the person you want and need on your team, and if editing is an issue or concern, then hopefully you’ve chosen an agent who can help you through that part of the process as well.



Anonymous said...

I wonder if the underlying question is not about what the editor writes, but how an editor edits? I've had two, and one has been much more hands-on about the editing process--and made the book better. However, I can see that a less-skilled editor would want to leave his or her mark on a book without improving it.

I've talked with other writers, and in their experience the range of editing runs from "yeah, sure, it's fine the way it is" to a total overhaul of both form and content. I think that's what a writer needs to know.

Mark Terry said...

An interesting question, though. I don't necessarily think that ALL editors are frustrated writers, but some are.

As both writer and editor the skills are complementary, but not necessarily the same. When one of my editors lost her job I asked her if she'd ever considered writing a novel and she said her brain didn't work that way. My brain works both ways and I've found editing a variety of things can be a lucrative way to add income to my freelance business, but I vastly--VASTLY--prefer being a writer to being an editor.

On the other hand, most book reviewers I've encountered ARE frustrated writers. Including me when I was one.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic.

I won't say which agent, because I'm paraphasing the quote but a well known agent said that, "if he had to chose between a really good editor and one that was really, really passionate about the book," he'd always go with the passionate one.

The idea, I guess, is that an editor that has passion for a book will fight for it to do well, and while the other editor might make the book "better", it'll still be left to sink or swim on its own.

Personally, I've read a few books edited by an editor that was considering my MS, and was relieved she passed on it. Her books were cluttered with terrible (non-existent) transitions, character arcs that went nowhere, storylines that were dropped into an abyss halfway through. Stuff that could've been SO easily fixed if she'd only mentioned it to the author. Sure, it is the author's responsiblility, but if an editor can't catch that, she's not a very good editor.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Call me crazy, but what the....? Asking for a writing sample from an editor? No matter what they've written, it'd probably not have much to do with the work they'd do for you. Unless, the sample was filled w/unacceptable mistakes, etc., I don't see how this would help. If you want to "Gain a better understanding of who they are personally" then call them up and share a little "coffee tawk." That would be far more useful than reading a writing sample.

Sara J. Henry said...

As a freelance editor, I'm happy to edit a few pages of a manuscript so both the writer and I will know if we want to work together. Ditto if a publisher wants to see how I work - but of course the publisher doesn't give the author any choice in the matter.

But a writing sample wouldn't make much sense.

Stacia said...

Perhaps the querent was talking about editors people hire to work on their books before submission? It's confusing either way but I guess it makes some sense if you view it that way.

Debbie said...

Mark Terry said...

On the other hand, most book reviewers I've encountered ARE frustrated writers.

*laugh* I grant you said "most"... I didn't become an official book reviewer until after I was published. I find critiquing published books a very good way to improve my own writing, so that's partly how I got into it.

Anyway, if my fiction books ever went to auction and I had a choice of editors, finding an editor whose critiques make immediate sense to me (i.e. same communication style) would be more important to me than a huge advance.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question, excellent answer, Jessica.

Anonymous said...

I've seen this question come up a lot in instances of what I call "pre-editing" -- where a writer hires a freelance editor to edit the manuscript before sending it on submission -- and not just a guiding critique/comments, but line editing.

As far as I'm concerned, I want the editor at the publishing house to edit my book, not someone who's separate from the production process.

I've been lucky with the give-and-take relationships with editors in the books; it's been hit and miss with magazine editors, but that's a whole different ballgame, because they're trying to match you in to the tone of the magazine.

Just my two cents.

moonrat said...

hahahahaha. i'm TOTALLY a frustrated writer.

Anonymous said...

It's possible that, as Sara implied, the questioner is talking about freelance editors whom he or she is thinking of hiring before submitting the manuscript to an agent or publisher.

If that's the case, yes, ask a prospective editor to do a very short (5 manuscript pages or less) sample edit of your manuscript so that you can get a sense of how the editor would work with you. Many freelance editors, including Sara and me, will provide a sample edit at no charge. But I don't have any colleagues who would provide a writing sample.

Anonymous said...

If I were in the position of having to choose between editors for a particular book, what would help very much would be an editorial letter (or call) from each of the editors involved. I know this would be time-consuming--a lot of thought goes into those-- but I'd still love it, if I hadn't worked with those editors before.

A great editor, for me, will 1) tell me what I'm doing well, 2) tell me what isn't working, and 3) pose some questions that will get me thinking about what's lacking, and what I might do to fix it.

I can tell it's going to be a great editor for my work if my response is one of recognition; aha, she's put her finger on it!-- and a growing excitement to get back to the page, because something just sparked in me, and I know the result is going to be a better book.

But if there isn't that spark, if there's no electric current of understanding about the work and what it needs, then it's not going to be the best partnership, no matter how advantageous the deal points.

Anonymous said...

The problem w/ editors is there's often a lot of ego involved, esp magazine editors who try to rewrite your ms. in their voice.
Like writing, editing is very subjective.

I've worked on both sides of the desk and it's not fun seeing your by-line over an article that was butchered by an overzealous editor. UGH!

If you can get sample pages in advance, GO for it!

Anonymous said...

Wow, your choice of editors? I'm relieved to have a single publishing house interested. A choice of editors would probably overwhelm me at this point! lol

Sarahlynn said...

Huh. I get wanting to "know" an editor a bit more before starting to work with her, I guess.

But as you said, creative voice might have NOTHING to do with editing style. And writers should know this.

I was at a critique session last night, listening to an author read a long, descriptive scene. I took notes and gave him some feedback that he thought was valuable.

Then it was my turn, and I read a couple of shorter, funny scenes in a completely different style of writing. And someone else in the group turned my earlier critiques right back on my own work. And she was right!

It's a lot different to recognize something in someone else's work than in your own. And while - of course! - practicing critiquing others can improve your ability to critique yourself, there's always value in having others read your work.

The story already exists in your head, and it's very helpful for someone who doesn't already know what's going to happen to see it with fresh eyes and determine what made it to the page and what's colored by the author's own understanding and intent.

Anonymous said...

You know, I really thought the person was asking for the writing sample, or the list of books they'd edited, in order to discern what the editor might be interested in or enjoy. Would that be a worthwhile goal for an author, or a waste of time?

Helen DeWitt said...

When an editor makes an offer for a book the money is the only thing you can be sure of. It's silly, because every time a book is published it is edited; both the original MS and the editorial comments exist. So in an ideal world a writer could go to the agency, or subscribe to a service, and look at editorial comments on other books before agreeing to work with an editor. If an agency kept all this material available for consultation, it would be possible to eliminate bad fits early on and focus on editors with whom an author wanted to work.

The editor who worked on Marilynne Robinson's first book said she saw her job as asking stupid questions: she had a meeting with Robinson and asked lots of stupid questions, and Robinson defended what she had done in the book against all these stupid questions, and the book was allowed to be published pretty much as it stood. Robinson then wrote no new work of fiction for something like 20 years. If Robinson had been able to see samples of the editor's comments on other books, and also been able to see other editors comments on other books, she might have taken the book to someone who asked intelligent questions and written other wonderful books in the next two decades.