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A vintage-style illustration of a bear fighting a hunter.

“It’s like we’re wrestling with the same unruly grizzly bear (but the bear is my writing).” Image: Wikimedia Commons

What I Wish I’d Known is a new series at Kill Your Darlings where we ask some of our favourite writers to reflect on an element of the writing and publishing process that they wish they’d known when they were first starting out, and share some of the unexpected and useful things they’ve learned throughout their publishing journey. In this first instalment, writers reflect on working with an editor.

Rebecca Giggs, Fathoms: The World in the Whale

If the stars align, a good editor can induce a phase-shift in your writing. Seeking to work with the best editors should therefore be a major course bearing in your career. Don’t let striving to impress become an impediment to folding an editor’s expertise into your problem-solving. You should want to dazzle your editor, yes, but having the humility to admit that some aspect of the work is presently defeating you should not be viewed as a loss of face. (Indeed, it’s probably necessary for creative collaboration to take root). Expect that the stronger your relationship with an editor becomes, the more robust their feedback will be. Know that there are differences in editorial approach and resourcing: some editors will elevate your style, some have a sharp eye for structure, a rare few will help you build out ideas. Your editor is not your friend, but there does need to be a fundamental values-alignment between you, as well as a shared communication style, and a common vision of the work’s goals and its audience. If these threshold conditions are not met it is no snub of the professionalism of either the writer or the editor to—candidly, respectfully—sever the relationship.

Ruhi Lee, Good Indian Daughter

I absolutely loved the editing process. I had a gun team of editors to collaborate with! But that’s not to say there weren’t challenges.

Our publishing industry is very white. I wish I’d known how fatiguing it can sometimes be to have to educate people on why an editorial suggestion might be inappropriate or justify a certain word or sentence choice—which all authors, no matter their ethnicity, would do anyway—but there’s an extra layer of work for authors of colour. For example, the suggestion that a section of dialogue isn’t ‘conversational’ enough—I sometimes had to wonder who the authority is on what sounds conversational and what doesn’t, then say, ‘This might not sound conversational to you, but (given my background) it is for me.’

Having said that, I was incredibly fortunate to work with editors who were very respectful and open to my pushback and conversely, I took the majority of their excellent feedback on board. It felt like an equal relationship and while I can’t praise my editors highly enough, I do look forward to seeing more diversity in the publishing industry.

Andrew Pippos, Lucky’s

Some early career writers take it as a point of pride that they don’t accept ‘intervention’ by editors, that their manuscripts go largely untouched between acquisition and publication. I don’t see things that way. The editing process is an opportunity to work with talented people who will help you make the book better.

I wish I’d known that I’d see the novel anew when I received the proofs. The work takes on a new level of seriousness once your proofs arrive: you finally see the format that will be presented to the reader. Make as many changes to the proofs as necessary. This is one way of saying goodbye to your first novel.

Jock Serong, The Burning Island

I wish I’d known how vital the editing relationship is. I’ve never had a more supportive, challenging, productive working relationship in my life. I once told my editor Mandy Brett in an email that my biggest fear was I’d write a shit book and it would all come to a crashing end, and with typical brevity she fired back, ‘You won’t. I won’t let you write a shit book.’ Knowing that someone understands your good writing and your bad writing possibly better than you do, is enormously reassuring. There is no ego, no argument, no tentativeness or manners. There is just This doesn’t work. This does.

Sinéad Stubbins, In My Defence, I Have No Defence

Every editor I have ever worked with may want to thwack me over the head with a frozen fish after they read this, but: I wish I had known that it’s okay to push back and ask questions. I’ve never been a terribly confident writer, so whenever anyone questions anything about my work my first reaction is to say, ‘You’re probably right and I am almost certainly wrong!’ But I am learning to question editing decisions (not in an arrogant way, but in a curious way) and often this leads to very interesting conversations. Sometimes my editor changes their mind and sometimes I do, but it never feels like a battle. It’s more like we’re wrestling with the same unruly grizzly bear (but the bear is my writing).

J.P. Pomare, The Last Guests

I wish I knew I could say no to suggested edits. When someone (anyone) tells you there is something wrong with your work, they’re always right, but when they tell you how to fix it they’re always wrong. Okay, maybe not always, but pretty close. The most useful feedback from my editors on early drafts comes in the form of three letters: NQR. That’s all it takes and when I see it, it seems so obvious—a line or a word or a scene is not quite right. Most other edits I view as suggestions, and although I’m dealing with highly skilled qualified editorial teams, I can also see that it’s all subjective, which is something I didn’t realise early on. This also means I continue to trust my own vision of a story and refer back to that when working through edits.

Laura Elizabeth Woollett, The Newcomer

A good editor is like a good GP. They can diagnose problems in your work, which you might feel the symptoms of but often can’t define, let alone find solutions to. They’re easy to have difficult conversations with. They know your history and care about your future. And yes, they’re sometimes overbooked and running late! I’ve worked with the same editor on all three of my books and really value this continuity, as it means having someone to check in with even when I’m between projects.

Want to learn more about the ins and outs of the publishing process? Check out Getting Published with Rebecca Starford and Hannah Kent, or any other of our Online Writing Courses, available to complete in your own time, at your own pace.