What are you doing to develop your writing craft?
by Andy Meisenheimer
Hi, I’m Andy Meisenheimer. Some of you may remember me from such careers as “Acquisitions Editor at Zondervan” or writing conference appearances such as “Editor Willing to Look at Speculative Fiction”. Now you might know me as a freelance editor and writing coach, working with publishers and writers everywhere.
A few things are different when you’re working freelance—and I don’t just mean that now I have a corner office with a window and and I don’t have to beg an IT department to let me have a Mac instead of a PC. I mean: I used to have authority to speak into a writer’s work because I could also turn around and try to publish them; now I am just a guy with an opinion who might know what he’s talking about.
But one thing hasn’t changed since I joined the outside: Everyone needs an editor.
What an editor does
Once I saw on an author’s blog “everyone faces an editor”—which is like saying “everyone faces exercise” or “everyone faces vitamins and minerals” because everyone needs an editor. Not just a copyeditor, either, to keep you from homophones and missing quotation marks. Everyone needs an editor who will help them take a step back and see the manuscript from the reader’s perspective. The job I do is just as important as it was before, even if I am not a part of the acquisitions process anymore.
In fact, I am more free now than ever to help writers become the best writers they can be, and shape their manuscript into the best manuscript it can be. I’m no longer tied to the certain needs or styles or genres that defined the house I was working for. I won’t ever say “that’s brilliant, but I can’t help you.”
Now I get to help writers develop themselves toward a new publishing future. Today’s publishing world is changing—and it’s becoming harder as a new novelist to break your way into traditional publishing. Editors aren’t looking for writers they can develop, they are looking for writers who have already developed themselves. So the question I have for you today is: what are you doing to develop yourself as a writer?
Maybe you haven’t considered professional editorial feedback—maybe because you aren’t quite sure how something like that works. But it does work; even New York Times bestselling authors have their coaches and editors they continue to work with. To get noticed in the increasingly competitive world of publishing, you have to make sure you’re presenting the best product you can. And many aspiring writers are moving past the peer critique level, the writer’s groups and online forums, and on to professional feedback.
Working with an editor
So how exactly does one work with an editor (or writing coach or manuscript consultant)—especially when you’ve hired this editor to coach you on your own dime? It turns out the dynamics aren’t all that different, as long as both have the same goal: making the manuscript the best manuscript it can be.
The editor’s goal is to help the writer see the effect of their words on the reader. The best editors, in my opinion, are there only to alert the writer—not to solve, or to suggest, or to do the creative work for the writer—but to say “this is off” or “you can do better”. Sometimes I pose a solution or suggest something, but I am always doing it as a form of “editorial surprise”—so that the writer is inspired not necessarily to use my idea but to synthesize the two, discover a new idea, a third way which is often even better than I could have imagined.
My job is to coax the best out of you.
Which can be difficult for the writer to embrace. It’s not easy to look at something you’ve crafted through so much sweat and tears and see it differently. See it for how the reader will see it. But that’s the editor’s job—to kick you in the pants and say “that’s not how it looks from out here!”
One of my authors says that when I point something out as weak, he either cuts it (knowing I’m right) or re-doubles his efforts to make it work. I think that’s a great response to editorial feedback. If your editor says “this isn’t right” then maybe it’s time to really dig in and make that thing work. Ask questions. Find out more details on what exactly it is that your editor feels isn’t quite right. The other day my four-year-old son was riding his bike in circles in the garage when I asked him to stop for a moment. He refused, riding faster and faster, and when I asked him to stop again, he begged to keep riding. Finally I said, “did you forget how to brake?” and he cried, “Yes!” Sometimes when authors press me for details, it helps us both pinpoint the problem more accurately and come up with solutions.
And don’t be afraid to push back—not stubbornly, but with curiosity. I find myself at times saying “you know what, you’re right, forget that note” when my writers, realizing that I’m on their side, counter something I say with their perspective on the topic. Because everyone, even an editor, needs an editor.
Because the editor-writer relationship is so important, make sure you get a chance to sample the work that will be done on your manuscript—kind of like ice cream samples at your local creamery. Except they probably won’t be free. The editorial firm I work with has a $35 introductory critique where one of our editors reads through your first few pages—the pages that have to be good if you want to hook an agent, acquiring editor, or reader—and gives you candid, objective feedback. This way you get a taste of the editorial style of the editor you’d be working with before you make any commitments.
One of our clients recently discovered a strange phenomenon—when asked what she was doing next for her writing career, she said “I’ve hired a freelance editor.” No one could understand why she would do something like that, until she started answering, “I’ve hired a writing coach.” Suddenly: “wow, what’s a writing coach do?” She explained the editorial process on her manuscript and everyone was in awe. When I was growing up, I took piano lessons, and no one was surprised when my parents hired a piano teacher instead of a freelance musical performance consultant.
There may be small differences in titles, but the goal is the same—improving your writing and your manuscript so that you have the best chance of catching the eye of an agent, a publisher, and most importantly, a whole bunch of readers.
Andy Meisenheimer is a freelance editor, writing coach, and manuscript consultant. He is on staff at The Editorial Department, an editorial firm founded in 1980 by Renni Browne, co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. He lives in Michigan with his best friends: namely, his wife, kid, and two dogs.