Don’t Be Afraid of the Editing Process
By Erin Healy
I’ve been a writer since I was in first grade and an editor by profession for almost twenty years, but I only published my first novel in 2008, so that pretty much makes me a greenhorn. It would be dishonest to say I started writing without thinking I had an edge. With all this storytelling savvy encoded in the wee gray cells, all this experience working with the industry’s best authors, surely I could write a bestseller on my first try.
I know, I know. I might as well have been a Scandinavian brain surgeon with no English-speaking skills writing for a US audience. The very short summary of my humbling initiation to this new career is that I am still on a steep learning curve. The Editor Erin and the Writer Erin don’t even exist in the same hemispheres of my brain. After five novels, though, I’ve succeeded in getting them to shake hands across my corpus callosum. They’re even starting to like each other.
When the shock of discovering that editorial skill does not equal writing skill faded, I was comforted by the fact that editing nevertheless lent me one clear advantage: I don’t have any fear of the editorial process. And I believe that all the dread associated with urban-legend-variety editorial horror stories doesn’t have to be a part of your experience either, even if you’ve never been an editor.
Very few novelists don’t fear the process. Some have unwavering confidence in their creative choices. Some writers are only “edited” by friends. Some have only known editors who don’t have high expectations. Some approach editors as a necessarily evil, like a lecturing doctor; we submit willingly because we feel we must, while we grit our teeth and chant, This is for my own good. This is for my own good.
More often, a novelist sends off a manuscript and then hunkers down to make battle preparations, anticipating the editor’s objections, formulating arguments against the editor’s prejudices, and compiling feedback from an inner circle of readers who loved!!! the first draft.
This defensiveness comes from the belief that the editorial process is essentially a debate about who is right or wrong. I confess there are editors who have nurtured this idea, that I was such an editor once upon a time. As representatives of your financial investor (read: publisher), we get to pull rank and sometimes must. Worse, though, are the professionals who believe it’s their job to set authors straight and aren’t very good at thinking of their role as a partner. But Deuteronomy 2:10 instructs: “Do not plow with an ox and an ass together.” So I say to authors and editors alike: Don’t be an ass. Both of you had better be strong oxen pulling in the same direction.
When I grew up, I set aside my belief in editing-as-debate. An attitude of editing-as-partnership serves me well as an editor and serves me even better as a writer. I need my editors, because it is impossible for me to read my work the way they do, and they are trained to help me write bridges that reach my readers. My novels would be sub-par without them, in spite of all the editorial knowledge I possess.
If you’d like to have a fearless encounter with your editorial partner, try entering the experience with these assumptions:
1. Believe that the editorial process is really about learning how other people read your work, and how to get more people to read your work. Good editors will bring a great body of collective knowledge to this goal. Expect them to! Invite them to! The more information you have, the more informed your decisions will be.
2. Believe you and your editor will have a good relationship. Sure, things can and do go wrong. Not all matches are made in heaven. But many relationships go bad merely because one of the partners expects the worst at the outset. The opposite also tends to be true: respect breeds respect. The more you respect your editor’s contributions, the more you will be respected as a writer.
3. Believe that disagreements are worth having. What good is an editor who doesn’t challenge you to see your work from a surprising perspective? You don’t have to agree with everything your editor says. Neither should you disregard what you don’t like. Participate in the disagreement or risk stagnating. (Editors also grow this way; we’re students too.)
We novelists face enough fear and insecurity just because we’re artists. Why add to the burden we already carry by fearing the very people who want our art to be well-received?
Yesterday I delivered a 7,000-word editorial memo to a new client who’s written her first novel. She has poured blood from her heart into this story. I lost sleep worrying how to say without devastating her just how much work I believe the book needs. I figured she’d hate my opinion, and maybe even me. Instead, she wrote this: “It was overwhelming and I shed a few tears, but then I began to look at it as a new adventure, and a way I can take my writing to the next level.”
She’s a strong ox. She’s going to do just fine.
Erin Healy is an award-winning editor and bestselling co-author of the supernatural suspense novels Kiss (Thomas Nelson | 2009) and Burn (Thomas Nelson | January 2010) with Ted Dekker. Her solo debut, Never Let You Go (Thomas Nelson | May 2010), ushered in a new brand of fiction, building on her work with Dekker, that melds supernatural suspense with female-friendly relational drama.
Healy is the owner of WordWright Editorial Services and specializes in fiction book development. She has worked with popular authors such as Frank Peretti, James Scott Bell, Melody Carlson, Colleen Coble, L. B. Graham, Brandilyn Collins, Rene Gutteridge, Michelle McKinney Hammond, Robin Lee Hatcher, Denise Hildreth, Denise Hunter, Jane Kirkpatrick, Gilbert Morris, Lisa Samson, Randy Singer and Robert Whitlow.
Healy earned her bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in communication studies from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., and began her career as an editor for Christian Parenting Today during the mid-1990s. After advancing from assistant editor, to associate editor, to editor while working for the magazine, she moved on to serve as a book editor for WaterBrook Press.
Healy currently resides in Colorado Springs, Colo., with her husband, Tim, and two children. She is a member of International Thriller Writers and the American Christian Fiction Writers. Visit www.erinhealy.com for more information.