I thought I’d put together a guide as to how to I operate as an editor. Not everyone works this way, and there will be some editors who will protest my approach, but I’ve been working this way now for about 35 years in one way or another, and have always had amazing results, so chances are this is the way I’ll continue to work.
1. I try not to tell the writer a better way of achieving the effect he or she is attempting to create or tell him what he or she should think about a piece of work, without first establishing agreement with, and ownership of, the underlying principles of storytelling involved.
In other words, whereas some editors will launch into pointing out failings as soon as they get started, my approach involves listening to the writer very closely, understanding what he or she is attempting, and then gently introducing them to the ways of achieving that effect that have been used in literature since time began. Writers normally breathe a sigh of relief rather than complain: they have been working towards a goal in a particular scene or chapter or section or perhaps in a work as a whole, but haven’t been familiar with the tools that they need to be able to accomplish that goal. Seeing these tools at work usually prompts them to take them on board and use them - to positive effect.
2. I avoid using negative terms in any critique as much as possible.
I’ve seen some pretty shocking feedback from editors to writers who are just starting out and finding their way forward with writing. Immediately hyper-critical, instantly derisive, this form of feedback achieves nothing but a sense of temporary superiority in the mind of the editor issuing it. Writers, especially new ones, tend to be easily introverted about their writing even at the best of times - full-on negativity of this kind can destroy them. I’ve seen writers ‘down pens’ for two years based on one savage attack.
And let’s be clear here: such negativity is an attack. It is not designed to help, however the editor may rationalise it at the time. It is probably the product of frustration or tiredness on the part of the editor, but that’s no excuse. The editor is not there to serve his or her own purposes but to serve the purposes of the writer. Savagery of this kind is counter-productive.
The main point is that it’s possible to point out huge failings in a writer’s work without crushing them. In fact, it’s usually feasible to do so in such a way that the writer sees the problem for themselves as though it has revealed itself to them in some other way, without even coming from the editor. Communication is a wonderful thing.
3. I use the basic laws and axioms of fiction as I have uncovered them during 40 years of study.
This perhaps sounds like the most unusual thing on this list. Of course, all professional editors draw on their own vast experience. That I have codified certain principles which seem to be at work behind the scenes in storytelling is what makes this a little different.
After ‘field testing’ these principles with class after class of literature students, and then further confirming them with separate studies, I apply them to pieces of writing from writers new and old with startlingly powerful results.
4. I strive to carry through a piece of work to the full product that can be achieved with that work.
What this means is that I work with the writer to find out what perhaps even he or she didn’t realise while doing the writing: the full power and possible effects that that writing might achieve, if its underlying potential were to be released.
Every reasonably-written piece of fiction has untapped potential. That’s because fiction is a machine made of precise components and a story is a piece of engineering. Once those components are understood and once the writer has taken possession of them for their own use, most writers see immediately that their writing had underlying layers which have inherent power.
A little guidance, a few suggestions, and following the above approach, and a writer can produce the story that he or she really wanted to write in the first place.
5. I recognise the true genius in any writer.
This isn’t idle flattery. Everyone who attempts to write is tapping into a pool of power within themselves to some degree.
Every year as a teacher, I would point out to the classes of teenage students that sat in front of me that they were all geniuses. That self-awareness had so far eluded most of them, I would add (on seeing their disbelieving but hopeful faces) but in my class they would begin to see that it was true.
And they would. Because they were. Underneath the emotional turmoil and drama, the snide falsities and introversion, every single one possessed a unique set of talents. It was the job of the teacher, I postulated, to extract that genius in a form recognisable to others. As I was teaching English literature, that meant in the form of writing. Within the constraints of the curriculum and the timetable, my aim as a teacher was to give each of them a glimpse of a deeper truth about themselves. Now, as an editor, within the constraints of deadlines and budgets, my aim is to give writers a grasp of a piece of self-knowledge which will see them through to greater and greater works if they carry through.
As I’ve said, other editors have other approaches. I do other things too, not listed here, but these are the things that came to mind when I looked it over. So whether or not you use me as your editor, please be aware that these approaches are possible - and that you are a genius with a story that probably has untapped layers.