2006-08-21

Role Reversal: The Editor is Edited

This summer has been pretty interesting on a number of fronts, not least of which has been the experience of having my work edited.

I'm not fearful of critique, and in fact I sort of relish having my work torn up by discerning reader-writer friends, because that process always always shows me ways to deepen and focus what I'm trying to produce. But critique is not editing -- critique is a "Take it or leave it" sort of thing, a reflection on what your READER pulls from your work, and a suggestion about ways to fix it that are entirely left to your own discretion as WRITER, to do with as you please.

Being edited is another thing entirely, especially when the editor in question is an "endgame editor," the final authority on whether or not your work will see the light of day. The changes suggested and the notes proffered feel more compulsory when you're working with an editor, b/c ultimately your work has to fit the editor's vision even more so than your own.

As I've previously posted, I spent a lot of time this summer working and reworking an essay for the the collection GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS, which is to be published by Dutton / Plume next June. I wrote nine drafts on my own terms, then I sent it to the editors--and then the real work began.

I struggled with the first round of rewrites they wanted. Much of what the editors suggested was helpful and spot on, but still I struggled with notes and suggested cuts that I felt messed with not only the ryhthm and shape of my essay without offering alternative structure suggestions, but also erased my voice. Voice was a huge concern for me--I think personal essays are driven almost completey by voice.

Despite my misgivings, for the most part I complied with the editors' suggestions--this was their book after all, not mine. But with every change I made, I distanced myself more from the project, and the draft I ultimately returned to them was no longer something I felt I owned. I did my best to make it work, but I didn't like it.

The work I did on that draft made me think a lot about my own practices as an editor. Obviously, I am an editor of a different sort than the editors of GIRLS WHO ... I don't work at the end of the process, as they do -- I intervene at earlier stages, because I am working with my writers to hone THEIR visions, not my own. So when I make notes, I'm thinking about the ways I can help my writers achieve their own goals first--I try to help shape their project from within their own vision, I try to see what they see, to help them write the book that they want to write (not the book that I might prefer, not the book that I might write out of the same material).

Which is why it can be hard to see the changes an "endgame editor" requires. Part of this is ego--but another part is pride. One of my biggest challenges as a writer is my own perfectionism--I don't ever want to release a piece of work with my name on it unless I know it is the absolute best I can do, that it sparkles and shines as an expression of myself. This can be a handicap, obviously, since it means I spend a lot of time working on things that other writers might consider finished (Husband, for instance, always thinks I'm done many drafts before I do). So that first edit really bothered me, b/c I didn't think I'd manage to take the suggested edits and integrate them into a sparkling whole, nor preserve my true self-expression. The resulting draft left me cold.

Thankfully, as is generally the case, editors are editors for a reason--they're generally smarter and more insightful than they first appear. This is because what an editor does in concert with a writer can be compared to what a writer does on his own--draft, revise, polish. Round one of edits can feel a step backwards, as it often creates a messy and confused draft out of what you considered a finished product. But hopefully round two puts the pieces back together again, better than before.

Which is why I was thrilled with the notes I was sent for the second round. The new notes cut and restored and moved things around in just the same ways I think a real, down-and-dirty revision ought to. I was in my element with this second go-round, and really felt like the editors and I were in sync. I spent a long week in deep thought with the new edit, and what I produced was in many ways a completely different essay,than what I'd sent them in the first place. Tighter, more insightful, more balanced, more true to myself. I was thrilled to send it back to them.

Fingers crossed they feel the same way.

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