When I was about five or six, I was in a PE class; the teacher put on some music and made the whole class run around in circles pretending to be different animals. At that age, I had no fear of looking foolish and had a well-developed imagination I was well-used to indulging. When the call came for us to “become” beautiful butterflies, I spread my wings and soared around the room. I distinctly remember believing I could see sun-dappled gardens around me.
Boy, did I come crashing back down to earth when an irritated voice screeched my name across the room.
I hadn’t followed instructions. Real butterflies, as it turned out, did not fly that way; I was holding my arms wrong.
The teacher was unimpressed with my “creativity”. She couldn’t see my shimmering wings. I was similarly unimpressed – I couldn’t fly with her stunted vision.
We were both dissatisfied.
When it comes to working with an editor for the first time, many writers are, understandably, nervous. Writing is an essentially solitary business, and for a lot of people this might even be the first time they have let anyone outside of close friends and family read their work. Few know what to expect. While there is always the hope that the editor is going to return the manuscript with assurances that it is word-perfect and a guaranteed best-seller; there is the much greater fear of being mocked, laughed at, told to give up this silly dream of writing and leave it to the professionals. And of course, there is the fear that the editor will take over, that they will not understand the writer’s vision, or they will rewrite the manuscript and the writer will lose control.
Writing, then, takes a certain level of courage. First you must be brave enough to let loose and pour your heart out onto the page or screen in the first place. Then you must be brave enough to hand that creation over to a stranger and trust that they will not only take care of it, but that they will treat you and your feelings with kindness and respect as well.
It can be difficult for writers not to lose confidence during the editing process, particularly the first time they receive a manuscript back full of pencilled (or track-changed) crossings out and comments and queries. Every mark can appear to be a criticism. It’s important to remember, however, why the editor is there. Ideally, the editor should help make sure that the idea that the author has in their head is the same one that ends up clearly on the page; that the story ends up being the best that it can be.
The editor is not there to give their personal vision of the author’s story; they’re there to ensure the author’s own vision is clearly conveyed. The voice, the style, the essence of the story should all remain the same. The editor is not there to interrupt the creative process or to take over but simply to ease the flow of the words across the page and smooth the edges.
The message to writers is the same as it was for six year-old me: guidance can be good, as long as it doesn’t stifle your creativity (but don’t get in trouble with the authorities).
Have you worked with an editor (or are you an editor)? What’s your experience? Do you have any horror stories? Or success stories?