What Being An Editor Taught Me About Being A Better Writer

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Please help us welcome Patricia Bray to the blog today! Patricia began her career writing historical novels set in Regency-era England before making the leap to epic fantasy with the sale of her “Sword of Change” trilogy. In 2003 her novel DEVLIN’S LUCK received the Compton Crook award, presented annually by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society for the best first novel in the field of Science Fiction or Fantasy. She was a guest lecturer at the 2009 Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop, and recently tried her hand at editing with the soon-to-be released anthology AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR. Give it up for Patricia Bray!

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I’ve been lucky enough to work with great editors and I’ve learned a lot from them. But when it came time for me to step into their shoes, I developed a new appreciation for just how tough their jobs are, and what a writer can do to increase her chances that the editor will want to work with her again.

Last year Joshua Palmatier and I sold our first anthology project. Neither of us had any prior experience as editors, but buoyed by abundant optimism and our own experiences as published authors, we figured “How hard can it be?” We’d invite only pros to submit to the project, on the assumption that anyone who was already published would have mastered the basics. But it soon became clear that what was obvious to us wasn’t always obvious to someone else, and in that spirit I’m offering up lessons learned from both our experiences and from discussions with other editors.

Neatness counts
It’s okay to send drafts to your first readers, but the story that you submit to your editor should represent your very best work. No story is ever perfect, but when an editor reads a story that’s full of typos, or mistakes such as the hero’s name randomly changing from Mark to Mike and back again, this gives the impression that you don’t care about your work. The story may be fabulous in every other regard, but the poor impression will linger, as will the memory of how much time was spent cleaning up the mistakes.

Deadlines matter
Yes, there’s a certain amount of padding built into the schedule. If the stories are due on April 1st, that doesn’t mean that the editor will be able to read and respond to all of them the very next day. But as an author you don’t know how tight that schedule is, or what other commitments the editor has on their plate. Don’t assume that you can be late without consequences. On time is good, early is a lovely bonus.

If you suspect there may be a problem meeting the deadline, communication is key. The sooner you let your editor know that there is a problem, the more flexibility she has to deal with it. Consider the case of Authors A and B. Author A let us know three months before the due date that her circumstances had changed and she wasn’t certain if she could deliver her story on time. We had plenty of time to decide on how to handle, and to line up a pinch hitter. Author B didn’t contact us–we contacted her the day after the stories were due and then received a response saying that she hadn’t written anything and was dropping out of the project. All other things being equal, guess which author we would gladly work with again?

Pick Your Battles
Some things are non-negotiable, for example we can’t have two stories with the same title in a collection. In other cases there may be flexibility–when two stories used the same literary device, we explained the problem to the author of the second story and then left it up to her on how she wanted to address.

When you receive revision requests ask yourself a few key questions. Is this a change that makes the story stronger? If this change doesn’t materially impact the story, is it a change that you can live with? If it’s not a change you can live with, what alternate solutions can you suggest that will address the underlying issue? Recognize that sometimes the changes aren’t about your story, but instead are related to something else the publisher has published or is in the process if publishing. Try to understand what is prompting the request, so that you can satisfy the editor’s needs while still being true to your work.

Remember the editor’s goal is to publish the best story possible, and she expects you to work with her to make this happen. An author who fights her editor at every turn will quickly find that she’s worn out her welcome.

In the end, writing a great story is just the first step. Behaving as a professional–and treating your editor as a fellow professional–will give you a competitive edge in this tight marketplace.

Patricia Bray wishes to note that the examples above are generalizations, and that all of the authors who appear in the AFTER HOURS anthology were fantastic to work with. AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR, edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray, will be released by DAW Books in March 2011. Patricia and Joshua had so much fun with the first project that they signed up to do this again, and are currently editing a new anthology.

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www.patriciabray.com

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19 comments to What Being An Editor Taught Me About Being A Better Writer

  • When I started editing, a writer friend said, “So, you’ve gone over to the dark side, eh?” But boy oh boy has it been educational over here – in so many ways. So I will say “Welcome to the dark side, Patricia.” Remember to use your powers for (mostly) good and not evil. 😉

  • I’m the editor of an academic journal on Shakespeare in performance, and can heartily agree that professional writers can be surprisingly unprofessional sometimes! One of my favorites is the failure to adhere to style guidelines including such basics as following US grammar/style/citation conventions (esp. re. punctuation). This makes for hours of extra work (and much bad feeling) at the editorial end. Writers some times assume that their brilliant content will make up for their sloppy form, forgetting that sloppy form actually makes content muddy, imprecise or innacurate. These things matter. Errors that slip through, even if they don’t actually obscure what is being said, undermine the credibility of the author, the publication and the editorial staff.

  • Patricia, Thank you so much for being here! I second evrything you have said, *especially* the part about communication. Editors will work with a writer on most anything, but they can’t work with us if they don’t know the problem.

  • Patricia Bray

    Edmund, thanks! The dark side is a good thing. Dark beer… dark chocolate….

  • Patricia Bray

    A J, a friend of mine is also an academic editor, and she encounters the very same issues.

    It surprises me that even when style guidelines are provided, some authors ignore them entirely. Or, worse yet, assume that their own personal style trumps the conventions that lesser mortals must follow.

  • Patricia Bray

    Faith, exactly. I can’t tell you how many times editors have stressed the importance of communication. They know that life happens and there are some events you just can’t plan for, but ignoring the problem or waiting to the last minute to tell the editor about it will just make everything worse.

  • Hi Patricia and welcome to MW! I’ve yet to take the plunge into editing (though I’ve been approached about an upcoming project, so that might change next year). I’ve always found posts like this (or con panels on the topic) valuable as a writer. When I was just starting out, I went to Philcon and saw Gordon, Gardner, Schmidt, and a few others on an editing panel. As they griped about the various submissions they’ve endured, I made a list of the what not to do. Most of it, I found to be common sense — if you act professionally, you get treated professionally. It amazes me, though, that in an age when all information is available with a couple keystrokes, still people mess this stuff up (or think they’re above it all).

  • Patricia> Great points. I gave up a while ago on thinking that professionals would all behave professionally. :) But it is good to hear what we should and shouldn’t do, or what does and doesn’t matter as much.

    AJ> I’ll quibble just a touch, as someone who submits to professional journals. (Though not about sending clean, well edited, correct manuscripts). If you (generic, any-journal you) ask for Chicago, great. MLA? Great. If you don’t post guidelines, then I’ll give you what I’ve got. If you post a series of random wierdnes that is ill explained and makes no sense, then I don’t feel bad about sending it in Chicago or MLA. I’ve seen some heinous guidelines out there–they were confusingly written (in English studies journals!) and seemed a bit overwrought. Usually, I don’t submit at all, which probably suits the editors just fine, because the only reason I can see for their choices is that they are trying to weed out folks.

    I do see it some with guidlelines for fiction editors and agents, but not much. Most of those guidelines are pretty straightforward and clear. They’re also brief, and so I can handle following them.

  • Patricia Bray

    Stuart, I find myself wondering if these writers never knew the rules? Or if they’ve gotten sloppy over time, and figure that once they joined the ranks of the published that the details didn’t matter as much?

    Like you, when I was starting out I did my best to learn about the business. And after hearing editors speak, I quickly realized that given two stories that are equal in every other regard, the editor will pick the one by the author who presented herself as a professional, rather than the author who is sending signals that says “I will be difficult to work with.”

  • Patricia, great to see you here! For the rest of you: I have a story in AFTER HOURS (written as D.B. Jackson), and it is far, far better for the editorial work that Patricia and Joshua did. They helped me focus my narrative, deepen my characters, and tighten my prose, as all good editors will. Thanks for the these guidelines, Patricia. Very helpful stuff.

  • Pea,
    I don’t disagree with that. But I’m thinking particularly not of how a manuscript looks when it first comes in, but when the final version comes in after it has been accepted and annotated by our readers, after the author has received (and ignored) the style guide sent specifically to them as part of the edit process!

  • Patricia Bray

    David,

    *blushes*

    You were great to work with, and we’re thrilled to have your story in the collection.

  • Patricia,

    Thanks for this list. The line that really stood out for me was, “Behaving as a professional–and treating your editor as a fellow professional–will give you a competitive edge in this tight marketplace.” On one hand, this seems fairly obvious now … but then, it didn’t always. Growing up in this craft involves letting go of a lot of emotions and bad habits, as is learning when and how is the best way to express oneself.

  • Sarah

    Thanks, Patricia! I read this post with a wicked grin because I intend to quote it to my students next class. Having written “follow the directions in the prompt” and “Cite your sources!” and “you must follow MLA guidelines!” for the umpteenth time, it’s nice to have an professional explain why such things actually matter. Maybe if they realize that such things could earn them a boss’ black mark or cost them a sale they’ll pay attention.

  • Unicorn

    Oh dear, there goes my To Be Read pile, now climbing through the clouds. Sigh. Your books sound so interesting, Patricia, as does the anthology. Thank you for the post – I’m still terribly ignorant about the business side of writing and every bit helps. This was really informative.
    Unicorn

  • *Waves*

    Welcome to another great hangout. Joshua was here a while back. Like LJ, there are lots of great peeps here.

    I can’t wait to get my hands on Tales from the Ur-Bar. Not just because you and Joshua are the editors, but because I like the concept of the anthology.

    One serious question. Given that you and Joshua edited the stories with the authors, was there also an edit done by the publisher before it was sent to copyediting? Or does DAW put their name on it in trust that you’ve done your job? Okay, two questions, but the last one was leetle.

    Cheers,
    -NGD

  • Patricia Bray

    Moira, glad it was helpful.

    Sarah, *grins* I’ve always wanted to be an object lesson.

    Unicorn, I’m always glad to add to the TBR pile. Mine is an entire bookcase….

    NGD– Joshua and I are the editors. We edited the stories, copyedited them, and are now working with the authors to correct the galley proofs. There’s no publisher double-checking our work, Tekno/DAW trust us to do a good job.

  • Patricia,
    Thanks for the insight. Look forward to the anthology.
    Cheers,
    NGD

  • Patricia Bray

    @NGD

    And, of course, you’ll be invited to the booklaunch/barcrawl in NYC in March 😀