The Write Stuff--Part 9: Editors and Editing
"To write is human, to edit is divine." When Stephen King wrote that, he was commenting facetiously on editorial privilege. I don't know any editors who would describe their jobs as divine. Managing writers is hard; we're often moody, occasionally paranoid, unrelentingly opinionated, and dismissive of criticism. I wouldn't want to manage me.
We can become better writers--or at least more commercially viable--by embracing the symbiosis between authors and editors. The following scenarios portray that relationship.
You e-mail your article about Moscow's BLS trauma practices, titled "Russian Dressings," to Trauma Drama Magazine two weeks before deadline. That gives you and your editor extra time to make changes. Your piece is forwarded to Trauma Drama's review board, a diverse group of EMS personalities who take turns evaluating submissions for accuracy, clarity, propriety and value.
You hear nothing from the magazine for four weeks. Concerned that your manuscript has been misplaced, you contact your editor, who reassures you that your work is being reviewed and you'll receive a reply shortly. Ten days later, as promised, you get an e-mail from Trauma Drama with a two-part evaluation of your article: a summary of opinions from the board and a copy of your manuscript with suggested revisions redlined. There are lots of those; the comments highlight weaknesses in your story that will take you several days to correct. You're glad (and so is your editor) that you submitted early.
You're surprised at some of the suggestions, but you understand that authors are the least objective readers of their own work. You accept most of the revisions and offer compromises or alternatives for the others. Within a few days, you and your editor agree on what you'll change. You submit your rewrite well within the time frame needed to put that issue of Trauma Drama to bed.
Two weeks later you receive a proof, or preliminary copy, of your article as it will appear in the magazine. You advise your editor of two minor errors, which are corrected before publication. The following month you're the proud owner of the latest issue, with your byline prominently displayed. The graphics you previewed in the proof look even better in print. You quit your day job and begin working on your first novel. (Wish fulfillment may have influenced that last sentence.)
Already late with "Russian Dressings," you entrust delivery of your manuscript to the U.S. Postal Service--despite Trauma Drama's preference for e-mail submissions--because you can't get a dial-up connection. By the time the magazine receives your hard copy, your editor has to expedite the evaluation process, giving reviewers less time to offer detailed feedback to you. Still, the board highlights significant problems with content and structure, forcing you to rewrite several pages of text--a task that would have been difficult even if you'd had more than 48 hours until proofing. You balk at some of the proposed changes.
Your editor spots unresolved issues with your resubmission, but has no other copy-ready content available at the last minute. The only solution is an all-night rewrite of the rewrite--mostly by your editor, whose skills and perspective transform your manuscript into a cogent, well-crafted piece with a different angle. You're pleased to see your article in print, but you can't help feeling it's no longer your work.
You can minimize the chances of Scenario #1 turning into Scenario #2 by observing these editorial guidelines:
- Meet or exceed commitments. Unreliable writers develop reputations that don't enhance their probability of success. It's a buyer's market; if working with you is considered a labor-intensive exercise, your competition likely will get preferential treatment. When you agree to deliver a manuscript of a certain length on a certain subject by a certain date, you're staking your reputation on that outcome. Don't promise anything you can't deliver.
- Address problems promptly. If you're not able to meet a deadline, inform your editor as early as possible. The longer you wait to address a delay, the harder it will be for a publication's staff to make other plans.
- Expect changes. I don't think there are any writers who see their work as objectively as their readers do. I believe editors, with their experience and third-party perspectives, have more accurate perceptions than authors of how manuscripts will be received by audiences. I've lost track of how many times my editor has saved me from my own flawed text. When editorial direction calls for major changes in our precious prose, the smartest thing we can do is stop wasting time and get on with it. If you have to explain what you meant, it's not working.
- Don't take criticism personally. Writing might be a hobby for you, but it's a business for anyone whose name is on the masthead. Feedback from media gatekeepers and other evaluators is meant to foster the best possible product. Most editors are scrupulous about maintaining a double-blind process (writers and reviewers anonymous to each other) so that comments are likely objective. Pay attention to suggestions; they're previews of how readers will view your work.
- Be flexible. Say you've met your March deadline for a May feature; in April your editor tells you your article won't appear until September. It happens. Newsworthy trends, unanticipated content, and costs are the usual culprits. My advice? Go with the flow. Getting published late is better than never.
- Don't be a nuisance. Editorial staffs are always working on the next issue. If your piece isn't scheduled to run right away, it probably won't be as high a priority for your editor as it is for you. There's nothing wrong with confirming receipt of your manuscript or checking in once in a while, but let the pros do their jobs.
In part 10 I'll summarize the best of The Write Stuff before finishing the series with a dissection of a manuscript in progress--mine.
King S. On Writing. Pocket Books, 2000.
- Part 1: Introduction--goals, philosophy, agenda.
- Part 2: Getting started--generating ideas, choosing topics and planning content.
- Part 3: Developing publishing contacts; submitting queries and proposals to editors.
- Part 4: Language, structure, essential elements of composition.
- Part 5: Using protected material--references, citations, quotations, graphics.
- Part 6: Grammar--common mistakes.
- Part 7: Establishing your style.
- Part 8: Self-critique--reviewing, rewriting, polishing.
- Part 9: Editors and editing.
- Part 10: Summary.
- Part 11: Case study--development of the December 2011 Life Support column for EMS World.
Mike Rubin, BS, NREMT-P, is a paramedic in Nashville, TN, and a member of EMS World's editorial advisory board. Contact him at email@example.com.