Writers complain about editors as reliably as the sun also rises.
Here’s my secret: how I learned to be happy in a world full of editors.
After all, I’ve been writing for fifty years. I could do workshops on How to Be Happy In Spite of Writing. Can’t you just see the promotion? I’d favor banner headlines in red:
Learn How to Be HAPPY — In Spite of Writing
ONLY $289.95 or a MERE $29.95 a month for fifteen months
Instead, this secret is yours, FREE
No obligation. No guarantee, 90-day or otherwise.
If you are overcome with gratitude, I will accept gifts.
Once upon a time, I’d write an essay and revise it ten times, thirty times, maybe forty. Then I’d send it off to a magazine. And wait. And wait.
Months or years later, I’d receive comments that the editor had jotted down in five minutes, including reading time and making herself a martini.
I’d pore over the scribble for days. Even doctors write more legibly than editors, most of whom are too young to have learned penmanship by drawing millions of OOOs on a Big Chief tablet as I did.
Once I knew what the editor had said, I’d smack myself with The Compact Oxford English Dictionary until the ideas began to make sense.
Invariably, her next set of observations would contradict the first.
I’d swear and throw The Chicago Manual of Style, narrowly missing my faithful dog. To express slight annoyance, toss a thesaurus; reserve the forty-pound Manual for expressing serious fury.
Still, following the editor’s suggestions, I’d revise again.
Thus for many years I humbly followed the advice of every single editor who deigned to supply it in my Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope, returning the revised piece until the editor rejected it. When–and if–the essay was accepted elsewhere, I noticed that the accepted version often resembled my first submitted draft written years before.
Meanwhile, I noticed that I was getting older, and editors were getting younger. If we talked, many would burble, “Oooh, I just graduated from The State University of South Iowindialabama.” Several had never heard of the Chicago Manual.
Gradually, I stopped believing that editors are giants in the earth, though I understand that, like most writers, I learn something every day from a writer or editor.
The minute I spot that rejected manuscript in the mailbox, I start my deep breathing exercises. Whistling to my West Highland White Terriers, I head for my reading chair.
Short dogs with thick necks and skulls, Westies are endowed with almost as much self-esteem as the average teenager, and with considerable more justification. They gallop into the room and sit, tails straight out behind them, heads tilted, gazing at me with big brown eyes, pink tongues dribbling. Closing my eyes, I inhale and visualize the editor sitting beside them, pink tongue lolling. I remind myself that I love the dogs in part because they think I am a better person than I know myself to be. I open the envelope.
Few editors can leave a line of manuscript unmarked.
Reminds me of the way The Bad Breath Boys behave on our rambles in the park. They lurch from side to side, sniff, yark, pee, yipe, pee, snort. Hmm, better sniff that again, yep, needs more; another squirt. Intent on making their mark on every foot of territory, they are one with the trees and rocks, one with the Great Leveling Moment of Peedom, unconscious of anything else in the universe. They don’t know their lives are short, don’t remember doing the same thing in the same place yesterday. Or maybe they think it needs doing again.
Just like an editor invading the brave new world of a manuscript.
No use telling the dogs they are minor characters, that their comments on tree trunks will be covered by the memoirs of the next leashed canine. Like many editors, they have no concept of the forest, because they are too busy demonstrating that this tree is theirs. And this tree. And that bush.
When I let the dogs inside in wet weather, they ignore my pleas to wait on the rug and gallop across the kitchen, scattering blobs of mud.
Just so, an editor’s remarks may obliterate the clean lines of the prose beneath, showing a blissful disregard for the meaning of a sentence or an essay.
When the dogs dig up my flowers, I remind myself that they are creatures of ancient instinct, unlikely to change their ways. I could yell at them and call my anger “training,” or put up more fences to make their world even smaller. But a Westie’s nature includes stubborn persistence; their ancestors dragged Scottish badgers out of their dens.
The same persistence serves a writer, or an editor, well in the long, long life that writing requires.
I also remember my father saying, when we couldn’t corral a difficult bovine, “It pays to be smarter than the cow.” If I cannot bear to lose the flowers, I move them to a part of the yard where the dogs do not go.
Similarly, when an editor misses a point, I no longer attempt to explain. I rephrase the idea, tucking it in somewhere else. Like the dogs, the editor may be so busy admiring or dozing in the hole he’s dug, he’ll never notice.
The dogs snap at each other when they disagree over who sits on my lap, whose treat is larger, and for a dozen other reasons, but they sleep piled together.
Similarly, editors display jealousy and distrust until a writer gets famous; then all of them use the same phrases to sell the next three or a dozen books by that author or a half dozen others.
The Westies are pretty ferocious when a Rottweiler strolls past, as long as they are safe behind their chain link fence.
Editors talking to writers from their own offices make a lot of racket and a lot of promises. When a writer is inside that office, the noise level drops precipitously.
So living with the Westies has taught me to lower my expectations about editors. The dogs, for example, aren’t wise enough to be afraid of cars, so I keep my instructions simple. “No!” I bellow at street corners.
When an editor told me to take the women out of one of my books, I used the same word at roughly the same volume. I hear he is now editing something on the Internet, not books.
If I speak harshly to the dogs after they have misbehaved, their ears droop. But their attention spans are short.
When an editor demanded changes I couldn’t stomach, I gritted my teeth and inserted them. Then I deleted them when I read the galley proofs. So far, he’s never noticed.
Watching my dogs lick each other’s ears makes me wonder if the shortage of well-bred editors is coupled with the way male dogs attempt to establish dominance over one another.
While I have not spent enough time in the company of editors to be an authority, I have noted that they seem to spend a lot of time whispering together at public gatherings. Their reasoning, I suppose, is that there’s no sense talking to writers, because fresh, naive ones are always available.
When my dogs sniff each other’s private parts, I realize that they can’t help it. Their inbred behavior requires deportment completely alien to humans. Well, almost.
Still, all writers need good editors to polish their written words, so it’s important that we understand how we can help create the editors we need. As all owners should understand, a dog’s most annoying behavior is likely to have been caused by the way humans have treated him. Editors, too, are abused not only by writers who should know better, but by the reading public.
Just as a canine’s feelings are easily hurt, and an apology may not restore its confidence, so it is with editors.
I’ve seen no obedience school inviting writers to bring editors, properly leashed, for remedial training, but let me carry this comparison one more step. Dogs learn best when they are handled with patience and rewarded with affection. A beloved and respected canine is capable of a loyalty we humans rarely find elsewhere.
So pay attention to editors. Take time to thank them for catching the errors you missed. Remember, a good editor’s labor improves your writing– and therefore your income, and your joy in life. The satisfaction you’ll derive when a good editor understands and improves the point you were trying to make is nearly as good as snuggling with your favorite Westie during a blizzard.
(c) 2015 by Linda M. Hasselstrom
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Afterword to “A Writer’s Best Friend: The Faithful Editor”
This previously unpublished essay emerged in the late 1990s after a particularly frustrating round of revisions and rejections. As I recall, I had submitted an early draft of Feels Like Far to a publisher who shall be unidentified but with whom I had a working relationship based on other books on which we’d worked. After the submission, I was able to meet with the editor, who said I was a good writer but — and here she patted my knee– “We’ve heard enough about your dead husband, dear.”
I have no idea what I answered, or how the interview ended, but I revised the manuscript as she suggested, taking out elements she suggested omitting. After several months she rejected it again, and this time she suggested adding some of the material she had suggested I take out, making clear she had no recollection of her original suggestions.
At that point I resolved to stop submitting manuscripts to New York editors, and turned to regional publishers who might be more familiar with the ideas and attitudes of the West, as well as with my writing. That book was subsequently published by the University of Nevada Press in 1999, but not without more rejections, revisions, and discussions.
Besides feeling vindictive as I worked on this essay, I was feeling clever, so it’s full of plays on words referring to writing– “as reliably as the sun also rises,” and “giants in the earth.”
And I was cynical about the get-rich-quick writing schemes that were beginning to flood the market: How to Write a Best-Seller from someone who never had done so, for example.
But because I am a teacher at heart, the essay is not just cynicism; it’s full of suggestions about useful references, and includes good advice about dealing with editors. Far too many writers get angry at editorial advice and resolve never to send that editor another word. In so doing, they may lose the help of someone who could have helped them become a far better writer.
I enjoyed sly digs like my reference to being smarter than the cow, but once I hit on the dog comparison– no doubt because my then-Westies Mac and Duggan were staring at me from beside my desk– I felt I’d found the perfect vehicle for humor.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
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