KR BlogWriting

Working with Editors

Aaron Gilbreath’s collection of essays, Everything We Don’t Know, was recently published by Curbside Splendor.

Let’s be real: some people are difficult to work with. They don’t listen. They tell you what to do without explaining their logic. They can be unreasonable, reactionary, short-sighted and lazy, doing what’s best for them rather than what’s best for the job, and woe be you if you still don’t follow their directions. Most magazine editors aren’t like that. They’re saints. You write. The piece you submit is great but it could be even better, or it’s okay and could be great. Editors get you there.

Many of the published stories I’m most proud of resulted from collaborating with an editor. Meaning, the reason these stories turned out as well as they did is because an editor who I’d never met irl, only talked to over email or the phone, took the time to work with me to develop them. Not to sound like a hot shot, but I think my writing is pretty good, not brilliant or innovative or timeless, but above average and accessible. And yet, so many of the pieces I turn in are vastly improved by what editors do to them. Or, more accurately, the work editors and I do together. That’s the thing: writing for publication is a collaborative affair. Editors don’t just clean up your sentences and correct commas. They work on the whole story, doing what’s called developmental editing on the level of ideas, beyond paragraphs and phrases. They work on the big picture, shaping emergent themes, enlarging the story’s scope, strengthening support for factual claims and improving story structure, all while requesting the writer do more. That’s a tough job. Working both macro and micro requires skill and practice, excellent reading abilities, patience and lots of imagination. Knowledge of pop culture, history, current trends and human behavior also helps, as does an inborn love of narrative. Ultimately, developing a story requires assessing what the text has in it now, envisioning its future, and then suggesting the things that could bring that potential to life.

The best editors see potential: this piece could do this and this, not just this. They see what the writer is going for, and they help you get there. They don’t smother your vision with their vision. They don’t confuse collaboration with rewriting your sentences the way they would have written them had they created this draft. Instead, they suggest changes that preserve your voice, style and unique way of thinking, while also enlarging the piece, or shifting the focus to something more substantive or interesting. Thankfully, editors also do edit your sentences, because I mispell things and leave many typus. If you have a good relationship, they even send you assignments. But at their core, they help you do what you do better than you always can on your own.

Besides the need to be respectful and professional, the most important thing that writing for literary and commercial magazines has taught me has to do with openness. Stay open to new ideas. Stay open to different approaches. And open yourself up to editorial collaboration. If an editor is interested in publishing your piece after you revise it, be willing to reimagine your story according to the editor’s suggestions. Don’t get stuck on the current version as the only version or the best version. The finished version you turned in might not be as finished as you thought. Like the others before it, it’s a draft—a highly refined polished one, but still a draft. To me, most pieces are drafts, because you can always take them in different directions if you keep wrenching under the hood. As poet Paul Valéry said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” That’s as beautiful a thing as it is infuriating, because it means that no matter how many months you’ve worked on your piece, you’re still facing its potential rather than its present condition, opening rather than closing the box on a project you probably thought had nearly ended. That’s also the thrill: it’s still filled with potential. It’s malleable. Keep playing with it, this time, with someone else. You can’t improve a piece if you don’t loosen your grip on it. Open yourself to an editor’s suggestions. Try the promising ones and skip the ones you definitely disagree with. Or, try those too and see what happens. The thing to remember is that you can always go back to the original. A revision is like a haircut: if you don’t like it, your hair will grow back. (Well, yours will. I’m bald.) As long as you save each draft with a label, no change is permanent. Knowing that you always have the original frees you to experiment with huge structural revisions because if you don’t like the results, nothing was lost. But your new version will probably be much better than what you previously had. To get there, you have to be willing to move way out from where you started.

Naturally, many people outside of publishing misunderstand an editor’s job. This probably applies to most professions. I don’t fully understand what a securities analyst or CFO does; I’ve never worked with one. Even inside the writing world, misunderstandings abound. To me, the strangest is the way some literary writers demonize editors as the bad guys. Writing is difficult. Publishing is difficult. Teaching is difficult. Secure jobs and good money are scarce. What happens is that some writers scapegoat and blame others for their challenges. Editors are easy targets. As storytellers, prose writers can get used to having a villain. If can feel natural for the narrative of our own writing lives to include dramatic tension, something that we push against in our quest for publication, careers and success, and the resolution that comes from successfully defeating those antagonistic forces fits the narrative formula nicely. In this scenario, Capitalism destroys art. Commercial presses chose crap over substance. The American public doesn’t read enough, and too few people “get” your challenging, pioneering, poetic creations, including these close-minded editors. Editors can function as symbols, if only unconsciously, of the powers that be. You, the writer, are the truth-seeker, the beauty-maker, the lone wolf, inspired and misunderstood, working against the establishment and a cold, unappreciative world. Editors represent the face of that. As gatekeepers, they hold the keys to the literary kingdom and all the glittery things it offers, so some writers don’t like them. With great power comes great responsibility, and to them, editors don’t always wield their power with care and consideration. They don’t even recognize art when they see it! Such close-minded, fearful losers, these editors. To get read, these writers must first get their writing past the editor. Not only do they like having their work read by an audience, they get a thrill from beating the big guy, sinking the ball in the net. They feel like they’re getting one over on them. This idea of editors as the enemy of writing is obviously adolescent and crazy. Anyone who thinks that either has a chip on their shoulder, isn’t writing the sort of material a particular magazine publishes, or they’ve never worked with a good editor. In real life, editors are people who often love books and magazines and telling stories, and they’re out there trying to make a living just like you. You don’t get your writing past an editor. You improve your writing with an editor. Fortunately, the older I get, the less I encounter this kind of warped attitude.

Admittedly, calling anyone a saint sets us up for disappointment; maybe editors are more like doctors than holy figures, because both are life-saving, essential and fallible. Through the years I have occasionally been, shall we say, mistreated. (Sing it in Blues style: “I been done wrong.”) Some editors say one thing and mean another. Some mettle. They don’t respect your vision. They treat you like cheap expendable labor. They disappear for weeks only to email requesting a revision by tomorrow. They don’t care. Or worse, they do care but all their competing work demands don’t leave them the time to do what they want to do. Editors come in all stripes. The fact is, besides their concern first and foremost with their readership, many are constrained by the voice, page space, budgets and advertising at the commercial publications they work for and, like any overworked person, they can drop the ball. One guy at a big glossy magazine had me revise a short piece he liked, then told me he’d get me an edit of that new draft. Week after week, the edit never arrived. I’d follow up and he’d promise to send it soon. Six months later, at my urging, he passed me on to another editor who also assured me she’d get an edit that never arrived. Eventually my peg expired, so the piece was no longer timely enough to send to another magazine who might have wanted it. That steamed me, as did my own complicit, hopeful patience, and I told them so, in clear but firm words: you’re unprofessional and strung me along. Next time, have some respect and communicate directly. It would have saved me six months of wasted energy. She never wrote back. This was an exception.

Sometimes when magazine editors push you to rethink your piece, they push in the wrong direction. Once I worked with a editor on an essay and I had to stop the editing process. Initially, the editor wanted to focus the essay more on the theme of romantic love, an idea that I liked, so I revised accordingly. The new version was great. So was the next version and the next. Soon we had something solid. But the editor wasn’t done. They kept pushing me to revise to highlight a particular thread, and their suggestions would have pushed my essay into a completely sappy direction, jettisoning the material that anchored the story in my voice and my vision, and remaking it into this commercial magazine’s voice and some sort of lame Valentine’s Day card. I politely declined, outlining how our visions had diverged, and that I was happy with the current version, and that was as far as I was willing to reimagine it. Beyond that it became their piece, not mine. Thankfully, the editor said cool, no problem, and published what we had. No matter how much you open yourself to revision, the piece is ultimately still your piece. Experiment with their suggestions, but if you don’t like them, just stop. Say so politely, and explain your logic. It’s as simple as that. Mostly, editors are champions who do a vital job that deserves celebrating. My published work would not be what it is without them.

Another time an editor at a small lit mag—so, a busy MFA student—suggested I cut certain bits from my essay and focus on a particular theme that was in there but overshadowed by other competing themes. I liked her idea, so I went with it. The essay that resulted was much bigger in scope than the seemingly ambitious one I’d turned in, and it was so much better. Deeper. Stronger. More interesting and focused. I loved it, and I loved this editor for not only her vision, but her dedication to her unpaid job, the time she took to really look at the essay and talk about what was there, and her willingness to spend more time working with me on it. That’s the thing: we made it. I lived the material, I thought the story up, I wrote it over many months, but the editor saw what the story could be, and together we got it there. That’s a magical experience. Rarely does writing come so close to playing music in a band, but editorial relationships are where we solitary writers form a group, and the results are powerful. If you let them.