The Value of a Good Editor

There is an Appropriate Hat for every Story
Photo by Linda Wilson
One of my writing pet peaves is that authors often get credit that their partnership with their editor(s) is due. Perhaps, if you wade through the "Acknowledgements," you might appreciate the number of people it takes for the author to arrive at the finished/polished product. I confess, I read the
"Acknowledgements," but really, how many readers can be relied on to do that?

Preaching to the choir a bit here, but, we writers know how valuable an editor's opinion is, from pros to critique groups, family and friends; and for children's stories, kids. Others' ideas and opinions open up worlds that may not have been considered. One of my instructors once told me one doesn't write a book, one re-writes a book.

Start by Changing Hats
It is crucial to keep your writer's hat on to revise as much as possible before asking someone else to read your work. If you're a beginner, you may need more advise than a more experienced writer. I know I did and still do. So, if what you offer is the best you can do, after running through your own checklist(s), then be satisfied with that. An editor once told me that I am going to "make it." You know why? No matter how much she finds that needs revision, I'm grateful for her insights and always work to improve by considering her advice. The writers who never give up, she says, are the ones who succeed. For it is well known (to quote the lovely phrase read often in Alexander McCall Smith's books), the best way to learn to write is to: Write!

When it's time to don your editor's hat, run through a checklist to make sure you've covered as many bases as possible. Start with a standard list and add to it as you become more experienced. My list has blossomed into a folder and encompasses the three types of writing I've focused on so far: articles, short stories and now, children's novels.

Basic checklist for a children's story
Make sure your story has:
  • an intriguing title
  • a beginning, middle and end
  • each paragraph that contains a beginning, middle and end
  • a beginning and end that compliment each other. A common way to view this is that your story has come full circle; your ending circles back to the beginning
  • a story arc: the action builds to a climax and ends quickly
  • an intriguing story problem
  • a main character who grows and changes by the end
  • REAL CONFLICT, which is the basis of a good story
  • action that is not predictable
  • age-appropriate names and content that is appropriate
  • everything explained clearly
  • "kid friendliness"--cut "adult" words and references
A Peek at Editor Know-How
Back in the day (in the '90s), I dipped a toe as a correspondent for our local newspaper. My very first published article, now framed and resting on my wall, suffered losing my beautiful, well-thought-out title to a drastic editor-knows-best change. After that, my poignant summaries and heartfelt endings in many articles suffered the last and sometimes multiple paragraph cuts at the end, for lack of space. Most painful, was the cut in pay (pay, you say? Yes, those were the days when newspaper correspondents got paid) I suffered at the lens of my husband, whose accompanying photograph made one-third more than my article. It's how I grew my first layer of skin. The bonus: I learned to enjoy editors' economy of words. I wouldn't call our exchanges conversations, exactly, but in the editors' rushed and few words, I understood what was expected of me; and learned to skip-the-chit-chat, easy with even a glimpse at the volume of paper on my editors' desks.

Today, it is doubtful that any local publication can pay its writers (hopefully some do), but writing for them for free still gives writers the benefit of working with an editor (and getting published). Just for fun, here is a short list of some of the ways editors have helped my pieces and stories see print
(albeit, not without some degree of pain):
  • For one of my short stories the editor cut off my ending and ended the story "early"--inwardly a move I didn't like; but I held my tongue and once published, I saw the wisdom. Lesson: it's best to be agreeable with your editor unless her change, in your opinion, compromises your story's intregity. In my case, her idea improved the story a great deal.
  • In another story, the same editor asked me to add an ending and suggested what she'd like to see. It took me about two minutes to add the ending she suggested. She emailed me right back and was delighted with what I had done, and amazed that the change came so quickly. I chalked the speed of my reaction up to a rapport we had established and her expertise at knowing how to take my story where it needed to go.
  • For an article I researched and interviewed over many months time, my editor loved the piece, but the competition at the magazine was so fierce that she had to fight to get my article published. The outcome is one of my proudest pieces, to date.
  • Saved the best for last: one prominent children's magazine bought three of my articles, paid me, and yet hasn't published one of them so far. It was great to get paid, but I'd really rather see the articles in print. Go figure!
Next month: Critique Group Do's and Don'ts

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has
published over 100 articles for adults and children and six short
stories for children. Recently, she completed Joyce Sweeney's
online fiction and picture book courses. She is currently
working on several projects for children. Follow
Linda on Facebook.


Anne Duguid Knol said...

Love the checklist idea and yours is a great starter for children's stories. And the peek at editor know how brings to mind how we all suffer, writing and rewriting intros and endings. And the joy when we first get an article published intact! Thoroughly enjoyed this article. Thanks, Linda.

Linda Wilson said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Anne. It has a little piece of all of us writers in it, I think, in learning to work with and appreciate our editors once we get published. Thanks for commenting.

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, great advice on editing children's stories and dealing with editors. And, it's so true that it takes a team to get a book traditionally published. Thanks for sharing.

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you, Karen. It's a real privilege to work with an editor for many reasons!

Shirley Corder said...

So true, Karen. It takes many more than one to create a worthwhile book. I squirm whenever I hear "I finished my book last week. It's up on Amazon . . . "

Linda Wilson said...

Very true, Shirley. The "I" syndrome!

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