Writers on editors: an evening of eavesdropping (EAC-BC meeting)

What do writers really think of editors? Journalist and editor Jenny Lee moderated a discussion on that topic with authors Margo Bates and Daniel Francis at last week’s EAC-BC meeting. Bates, self-published author of P.S. Don’t Tell Your Mother and The Queen of a Gated Community, is president of the Vancouver branch of the Canadian Authors Association. Francis is a columnist for Geist magazine and a prolific author of two dozen books, including the Encyclopedia of British Columbia and the Connections Canada social studies textbook.

Francis told us that in the 1980s, he’d had one of his books published by a major Toronto-based publisher, who asked him about his next project. Francis pitched the concept for what became Imaginary Indian: the image of the Indian in Canadian culture back to 1850. His Toronto publisher turned it down, concerned about appropriation of voice. “I took the idea to friends in Vancouver,” said Francis, “and in some ways it’s my most successful book.” He learned from the experience that he’d rather work with smaller publishers close to home, many of which were run by people he considered friends. He thought his book with the larger publisher would be the ticket, but it was among his worst-selling titles, and he was particularly dismayed that the editor didn’t seem to have paid much attention to his text. “To me, this is a collaborative process, working with an editor,” said Francis. “I’m aware that I’m no genius and that this is not a work of genius,” but his editor “barely even read the thing.” He found the necessary depth in editing when he worked with his friends at smaller presses. “Friends can be frank,” Francis said.

Bates, whose P.S. Don’t Tell Your Mother has sold more than 7,500 copies, became familiar with how much editors can do when she hired them through her work in public relations. For her own writing, Bates knew she could take care of most of the copy editing and proofreading but wanted an objective but understanding professional who would advise her about structure and subject matter. She looked for someone who would tighten up her book and make it saleable. “I’m not that smart a writer that I can go without help,” she said. “I wouldn’t do anything without an editor.” In fact, she allocated the largest portion of her publishing budget to editing. After speaking with several candidates, Bates selected an editor who understood the social context of her book and help her “tell the story of prejudice in a humorous way.”

Frances Peck mentioned an article she read about a possible future where self-publishers would have editors’ imprints on their books—in other words, editors’ reputations would lend marketability to a book. “Is that a dream?” she asked. “The sooner, the better, as far as I’m concerned,” Bates said. “There’s a lot of crap out there,” she added, referring to story lines, point of view, grammar, spelling and other dimensions of writing that an editor could help authors improve.

What sets good editors apart from the rest? Francis says that he most appreciates those who have good judgment about when to correct something and when to query. Some strategies for querying suggested by the audience include referring often to the reader (“Will your reader understand?”) and referring to the text as something separate from the author (i.e., using “it says on page 26” rather than “you say on page 26”). Bates said that she really appreciated when her editor expressed genuine enthusiasm for her story. Her editor had told her, “I’m rooting for the characters, and so are your fans.”

Lee asked whether the popular strategy of the sandwich—beginning and ending an editorial letter with compliments, with the potentially ego-deflating critique in the middle—was effective. Francis said, “I hope I’m beyond the need for coddling. I guess you have to know who you’re dealing with, when you’re an editor.” Some editors in the room said that the sandwich is a reliable template for corresponding with someone with whom you haven’t yet established trust. We have to be encouraging as well as critical.

Both Bates and Francis urged editors to stop beating around the bush. Francis said, “You get insulted all the time as a textbook writer. You have to grow a pretty thick skin.” That said, Francis wasn’t a big fan of the book’s process of editing by committee and says it’s one reason he stopped writing textbooks. In addition to producing a coherent text, the textbook’s author and editors had to adhere to strict representation guidelines (e.g., the balance of males to females depicted in photographs had to be exactly 1:1).

Lee asked the two authors how they found their editors. Francis said that his publishers always assign his editors, and “I get the editor that I get.” So far his editors have worked out for him, but if he’d had any profound differences, he’d have approached the publisher about it or, in extreme cases, parted ways with the publisher.

Bates said that for self-published authors, the onus is on them to do their research and look at publications an editor has previously worked on. “There will always be inexperienced writers who don’t see the need for editors,” she said, but at meetings of the Federation of BC Writers and the Canadian Authors Association, she always advocates that authors get an editor. Bates suggested that the Editors’ Association of Canada forge closer ties with writers’ organizations so that we could readily educate authors about what editors do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: