Shannon Whibbs is Acquisitions Editor at Dundurn. She has edited the works of authors such as Austin Clarke, Audrey Thomas, Farzana Doctor, George Fetherling, Allan Stratton, and Priscila Uppal. She holds a B.A. in English from Queen’s University and is a graduate of the Centennial College Book and Magazine Publishing Program. Shannon is a former writer for Chart Magazine and has done editorial work for FASHION Magazine, Harlequin, and House of Anansi. She lives in Toronto.
Shannon gave the May guest talk at Brockton Writers Series, “Shall We Dance? The Importance of the Author-Editor Relationship”, and follows up with ten tips to remember, below.
Shall We Dance? The Importance of the Author-Editor Relationship
The relationship between an author and their editor is crucial. Some of the best have lasted for years, and in some cases, lifetimes. I have always thought of it as a dance. A dance requires two willing partners who come together in a mutual love of the music and the steps to move as one. Here are some ideas for both partners to consider in making the best of this creative relationship.
1. Put yourself in the author’s shoes
Before beginning a project, the editor would do well to acknowledge and remember the countless hours of work and emotional stress that goes into producing a draft of a manuscript that the author considers “ready” to be worked on. It helps to put oneself into the headspace to start working with the text with a firm but respectful hand. It can be a first step in establishing the trust that must be earned.
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate
This goes for both parties. It’s incredibly important for the author and editor to stay on the same page (no pun intended). This also aids the development of trust. As the author should refrain from picking away at the manuscript and creating new drafts while the editor is at work, the editor should be transparent in their work so the author will feel at ease. I try to read the manuscript as a reader first. I look for the joy and the mystery and I also look for the parts that interrupt my immersive reading experience. I try to know the book as much as I can. Because for a temporary, intense, and crucial period of time, this is “your” book together.
3. The editor can be the author’s biggest champion and trusted ally
Over the course of an edit, I find myself — in addition to shaping and polishing the text — playing the role of cheerleader, advocate, and therapist. The author-editor relationship should not, by definition, be adversarial. The editor should not be viewed as a nemesis. There will be disagreement, but ultimately an editor’s role is to support and to help the book realize its full potential by acting as an objective eye. Editors also advocate for their titles to fellow colleagues in the house in order to raise enthusiasm for the title. And they reassure the author in all-too-frequent times of insecurity.
4. Embrace the spirit of collaboration
A true collaboration between an editor and author can be spectacular. An editor will shine light on problem areas that were previously missed. Or point out a scene that needs fleshing out. Sometimes editorial suggestions result in the resolution of long-standing problems that have plagued the author regarding an aspect of the story. It is a genuine thrill when an already-great story blooms even further when the two creative forces combine. But the author’s voice must always take precedence. To quote legendary editor Diana Athill: “It must always be the author’s voice that was heard, not mine, even if that meant retaining something I didn’t much like.”
The path to a great manuscript is not an easy one. There will be differences of opinion. Some of the most famous and successful author-editor pairings were known to be tempestuous and fraught with conflict. But in the end those conflicts come from a place of mutual respect. Compromises will need to be reached. An editor and author will not always see eye to eye, but it helps to communicate clearly and to be judicious about which causes to pursue. And while sometimes editor and author may differ in which turns to take, it is important that they do not lose sight of one another. Always keep your dance partner in your line of sight.
6. Pick your battles/don’t sweat the small stuff
This applies to both parties, but the author can set the tone. Arguing about hyphens, comma placement, and typesetting is not the best “hill to die on.” Especially since this is mostly technical work that must adhere to set rules and house style set out by the publishing company. I am more concerned about the author’s thoughts on my work regarding the story arc and suggestions I have made for tightening up the story or improving the flow while retaining the voice. When I had the pleasure to work with the esteemed Austin Clarke on his memoir, ’Membering, he picked his battles very wisely, allowing me to do the work I needed to do, while illustrating to me that the comparatively fewer things he challenged me on were indeed matters to be taken very seriously.
7. Embrace adversity
Technology has made the transmittal of information in modern-day editing easier than ever. But sometimes technology fails or is not an option, be it with an older author or one living/working in a remote area. I’ve made house calls to edit with pencil-and-paper, I’ve fielded four-hour long-distance phone calls as we pored over the book page by page, I’ve emailed files to print shops on the other side of the country, or to a third party who would drive them to the next town to transfer onto my author’s computer. I haven’t yet had to hire carrier pigeons or messenger donkeys, but I’m not averse to it. You do what you need to do to get the book done. And then you have a great story to tell at cocktail parties. Or in blog posts.
8. Editors shouldn’t (necessarily) expect to be thanked
Fifteen years ago I had an informational interview with a long-time editor who worked on the educational side of the business. And I’ll never forget one of the things he said to me. He asked, “So, do you need … a lot of external validation? Are you self-motivated?”
I thought about it and replied, “Yes. I think I’m a pretty independent worker. I take satisfaction from a job well done, not external praise.”
“Good!” he said. “Because you won’t get any.”
I think it’s a little different in the trade-publishing world. If only a little. I never expect to be included on an acknowledgements page. Sometimes there isn’t even a page on which to be included. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. My self-esteem is not reliant upon it. Again, I defer to the wise words of Ms. Athill: “An editor must never expect thanks (sometimes they come, but they must always be seen as a bonus). We must always remember that we are only midwives — if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own.”
The editor takes joy and triumph in their authors’ successes. It really is the best reward of all.
9. Not every dance will be your best.
Not every editor-author partnership is going to be one for the history books. Sometimes partners just can’t agree on the music and steps. The important thing is to find as many compromises as you can, get through it as best you can, and hope for better with the next pairing.
10. Spoiler alert: editors are neither perfect nor infallible
But we work in the business of perfection. We’re always striving to improve, for ourselves and our authors. I am always striving to be better. And so, when you are invited to dance by your editor, know that they want more than anything to fall into step with you. Listen to them as they listen to you. Communicate with each other. Some dances will be better than others, but when you find the right routine, the experience is indeed nothing short of divine.
Check back after our next event for another 10 tips from our next guest speaker–and before that, see you at our next event: July 13, 6:30pm, at full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto!