Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What's an Editor's Purpose? (12/15/02)



Featured writer: Liz Swiertz Newman



Contributors this month:
Barbara Baer
Betty Winslow
Daniel Coshnear
Jane Love
Ken Rodgers
Liz Swiertz Newman
Rodney Lewis Merrill
Sharon Bard
Susan Bono


WHAT IS AN EDITOR'S PURPOSE?

by Liz Swiertz Newman

There's no such thing as an editor.

There are editors, plural. If we imagine a singular editor, one who will do for our work what Maxwell Perkins did for Fitzgerald's and Hemingway's . . . sorry. We won't likely encounter such an editor. Rather, our work will encounter a string of editors as it makes its way from mind to keyboard to the ultimate editor in the string, the last between us and our unknown readers.

We are Editor #1. Our purpose is to review our creative work to see that it contains the indispensable admixture: basic "contest ingredients"-originality, continuity, and aptness of thought; elementary craft-appropriate grammar and punctuation and correct spelling; and applied gifts-talent, imagination, and inspiration.

Editor #2 might be a qualified literate reader or a paid manuscript editor. No matter how well we write, we will never be the only editor we need. We believe there are things on the paper that are still in our head. We believe we have said something once that we actually said twice (because it sounded so good both ways). We believe we've proofread our work until no homophone has escaped us. We believe every pronoun is placed near its proper referent. We believe that every verb agrees with its subject and that every pronoun is in the correct case. If our piece is long enough, we will likely be wrong about every one of these beliefs. The purpose of Editor #2 is to point out the oversights of Editor #1. Our piece will go back and forth between us and Editor #2, #3, et al. until we send it to the publisher of our choice.

Publishers hire multiple editors to set their expertise to our submissions. The main purpose of Editor #1P is to determine whether the material suits the needs of the publication. If she likes our piece but thinks it would require too much work, Editor #1P will use our SASE. If she likes it enough, our work will be handed to Editor #2P, and so on: the editor in charge of our genre; the acquisitions editor; the editor who designs the layout; and the final copy editor. All will apply only the skills for which they were hired.

The last of the editors is finished, and-yesss!-our name is in the table of contents. We are reading our own writing in print, yet . . . our title now contains a pun, in keeping with other titles in the publication. Our piece is shorter by 200 words, to accommodate the large white space, fonts, and illustrations that the magazine features. Some of our words have been changed-also in keeping with the feel of the publication. And those "precious jewels" our early editors suggested we change, but we resisted? Words in italics or in all caps, contractions, ellipses? Those too have been changed. The singular editor in the query comprises many editors. Most of them work for the publisher, and their purpose is to fulfill the objectives of the publication.

Liz Swiertz Newman, MFA, is a freelance manuscript editor and writer of creative nonfiction. You can continue this conversation with Liz at NewProp@aol.com

Barbara Baer



I'm a writer and an editor at the same time, not just sequentially, but simultaneously, which often means I stop my own creative process with criticism, and also means that I try to read and make suggestions to writers that ideally I make to myself, let it rip first, then come in and tidy up. I tend to want to be indulgent, to appreciate everything and not interfere, but find that I am tough on writers whose work doesn't fulfill its first paragraphs.

I often find myself scribbling as many words as they've written, which perhaps is too intrusive. Interesting, but what do you mean? Something's lacking, what are you (your character?) feeling here? I want writers to succeed in getting as deeply and expressively into their material as they can-the deeper one goes, the more risks one takes, the more a work interests me-and I hope that by commenting in margins I'm not directing a writer away from their own purpose but toward it. (I have an editor who will ask me one or two questions about work I've submitted and never corrects the details; I appreciate that, but later in print, I look at a failed transition and wish he'd pointed it out to me.) Surface competence is good, less work for the editor, but I hope to be startled, awed, changed by images and characters and perceptions.

Barbara Baer is a writer, editor and book reviewer living in Forestville, CA. She is also the publisher of Floreant Press, distinctive books by extraordinary women. Visit her website at: http://members.aol.com/floreant/index.html.

WHAT IS AN EDITOR'S PURPOSE?

  by Betty Winslow

To make us better writers. To make us doubt ourselves, then pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and say, "Pooh. What does she know?" and go on anyway. To make us better writers. To make us haunt the mailbox and in-box and fax machine, hoping against hope that today is the day when we'll hear from him, when he'll write, "I LOVED it. I MUST HAVE it. Send more." To make us better writers. To give us a chance to show what we can do through our writing to make the world a better place. And to make us better writers.

Betty Winslow, Bowling Green, Ohio,

Writer, reader, and lover of God, friends, family, and life.


Daniel Coshnear



What is the purpose of an editor? Methinks the editor's first obligation is to her readership. That's easy enuf to say, but pretty abstract. Spose yer the editor of a fanzine about Southside Johnny of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes. Then it'd seem yer bidness is to give readers what they want to know about the guy. Do they want to know about the cyst on the back of his knee, or about how much he can bench press, what he got his sweetheart for Valentines, what inspired "Hearts of Stone?"

What if yer Louis Lapham, Sy Safransky, David Remnick? You've got a long tradition of readers and expectations including an expectation to put yer stamp on the mag, see it into the future, or at least the present.

Seems different w/book editors whose primary obligation I'd think would be a collaborative endeavor-- to make the best book the author can tolerate.

The editor's purpose is to uphold or live up to her own moral and aesthetic standards, but that seems to beg the question. Editor seems a little like an aggressive therapist, wants to respect the author/patient's intent, but comes not without her own intentions. Editors are tall and play net in volleyball. They keep their limbs loose so they can go down for a save, they set up teammates for the big spike, and when the conditions are right, they smash one of their own, but everyone expects them to be modest and reasonable about it.

Daniel Coshnear is a writer who lives with his wife and two small children in Guerneville, CA. He teaches writing and is the author of the collection of short stories, Jobs & Other Preoccupations, which won the 2000 Willa Cather Prize. His essay, "Bone Loss," appears in the current newsstand issue of Tiny Lights.

Jane Love



Speaking as a writer, I would hope from an editor that he or she would save me from excesses--save me from myself, as it were. I think of "edit" the verb as a "paring down" or a pruning. So the editor should see dross and excess and not be afraid to get rid of it.

From you I have learned that an editor can also be an invoker. Your gift has been to call forth what is NOT there, and I see that as a valuable editorial purpose.

An editor can also be a re-arranger--can move pieces of writing about on the flannel board of the whole. A good editor needs to be attentive to structure.

So these three then--a ruthless discarder, a tender coaxer, and a creative rearranger--these are all activities of the artful editor.

Jane Love is the events coordinator for Copperfield's Books in Sonoma County: www.copperfield's.net. She is also the editor of The Dickens, Copperfield's annual literary publication. $500 prizes in 3 categories. Deadline July 31, 2003. See store website for guidelines.

EDITORS

  by Ken Rodgers

Y'all recall?

When your mammy

Yes your mammy

Scrubbed your gums

with bitter yellow soap

for nasty talk

Playing doctor

Yeah, boy

Tasted like rancid fatback and ashes

grinding between your teeth

S'posed to make you better

Boy howdy now

Ken Rodgers

Sebastopol, CA

Ken is a poet and essayist whose work has been featured in Tiny Lights. He teaches workshops on the art of writing in Sonoma County, CA. He can be reached at KennethERodgers@aol.com . .


WHAT IS AN EDITOR'S PURPOSE?

  by Liz Swiertz Newman

There's no such thing as an editor.

There are editors, plural. If we imagine a singular editor, one who will do for our work what Maxwell Perkins did for Fitzgerald's and Hemingway's . . . sorry. We won't likely encounter such an editor. Rather, our work will encounter a string of editors as it makes its way from mind to keyboard to the ultimate editor in the string, the last between us and our unknown readers.

We are Editor #1. Our purpose is to review our creative work to see that it contains the indispensable admixture: basic "contest ingredients"-originality, continuity, and aptness of thought; elementary craft-appropriate grammar and punctuation and correct spelling; and applied gifts-talent, imagination, and inspiration.

Editor #2 might be a qualified literate reader or a paid manuscript editor. No matter how well we write, we will never be the only editor we need. We believe there are things on the paper that are still in our head. We believe we have said something once that we actually said twice (because it sounded so good both ways). We believe we've proofread our work until no homophone has escaped us. We believe every pronoun is placed near its proper referent. We believe that every verb agrees with its subject and that every pronoun is in the correct case. If our piece is long enough, we will likely be wrong about every one of these beliefs. The purpose of Editor #2 is to point out the oversights of Editor #1. Our piece will go back and forth between us and Editor #2, #3, et al. until we send it to the publisher of our choice.

Publishers hire multiple editors to set their expertise to our submissions. The main purpose of Editor #1P is to determine whether the material suits the needs of the publication. If she likes our piece but thinks it would require too much work, Editor #1P will use our SASE. If she likes it enough, our work will be handed to Editor #2P, and so on: the editor in charge of our genre; the acquisitions editor; the editor who designs the layout; and the final copy editor. All will apply only the skills for which they were hired.

The last of the editors is finished, and-yesss!-our name is in the table of contents. We are reading our own writing in print, yet . . . our title now contains a pun, in keeping with other titles in the publication. Our piece is shorter by 200 words, to accommodate the large white space, fonts, and illustrations that the magazine features. Some of our words have been changed-also in keeping with the feel of the publication. And those "precious jewels" our early editors suggested we change, but we resisted? Words in italics or in all caps, contractions, ellipses? Those too have been changed. The singular editor in the query comprises many editors. Most of them work for the publisher, and their purpose is to fulfill the objectives of the publication.

Liz Swiertz Newman, MFA, is a freelance manuscript editor and writer of creative nonfiction. You can continue this conversation with Liz at NewProp@aol.com

WHAT OUGHT AN EDITOR DO AND FOR WHOM?

  by Rodney Lewis Merrill

The purpose of editors, of course, is to discover my talent and to see that all of my work gets published!

Short of that, a good editor should stroke the creases from my saddened brow and tell me the sun will come out tomorrow, everything will be alright, it's only a matter of time .... Oh wait, I'm thinking about a mother.

The purpose of most editors is not -- as one might imagine -- to find promising new talents and provide them a proper venue. It is, rather, to make sure their publishers do not make big mistakes. And one of the very biggest of mistakes is pissing off the sponsors and advertisers. These editors are gatekeepers and agents of risk reduction who pick material that is a lot like material that was previously well-received. In other words, it leads to mediocrity.

I guess I would rephrase the question and ask "What makes a good editor?".

Good editors realize that your future -- as writer and as a self-respecting human being --may well rest in their hands. They do not treat writers like day labor or, worse, beggars. If they lead you on then cannot use your work, they offer a fair kill fee. If their publisher will not pay a kill fee, they make it up to you in other ways. They drop your name, for example, at lunches and parties. This costs them nothing but may land you the kind of placement you need. In short, they look out for you and do what they can to keep you in the loop. In return, you give the good editor first crack at your work and you drop his/her name on promising writers.

Good editors are conversant in the genre, the subject matter, and the cultural significance of your work.

A good editor is honest with you and doesn't tell you that your work is great when, in fact, dogshit on a stick has more appeal. On the other hand, s/he takes the time to help you understand why your writing is getting nowhere, whether it is due to the political climate or factors directly related to writing such as subject matter and current writing fashion. In other words, a good editor is educated both in writing and culture and willing to share this knowledge within the reasonable limits of his/her office.

A good editor does not take on new work when s/he cannot possibly give it and its author the attention they deserve.

In Candide's "best of all possible worlds" the purpose of a good editor is to facilitate the evolution of the writer and his/her writing with the goal of publication and distribution of the writing to an appropriate audience. In the more practical of worlds, an editor is an intermediary between the writer and the publisher and what you can expect depends highly upon which of you is the source of the editor's income.

Rodney Lewis Merrill is a published freelance writer and occasional editor. Rodney lives in Astoria, OR with his wife, Kate Merrill, and his practically perfect dog, Iggy. He can be contacted at RLMerrill@charter.net.

AN EDITOR'S PURPOSE

  by Sharon Bard

An editor is a literary Mommie to a writer whose purpose is to delve into childlike behavior, playing with blocks and spoons (words and ideas), and teetering across the living room (actually write) with dubious attention. As with parents, there are all types of editors. supportive, nurturing ones who see raw talent and encourage writers to grow into their best. Others are stern, manipulative, and try to mold the material into their own worldview. These editors carry small choke chains and have been known to be sadistic.

Many editors are highway patrol type. They make sure there is order on the literary highway: smogged cars (proper spelling and grammar), speed limits observed (word count), no weaving across the lanes (logical thinking must prevail), and not following too close (plagiarism). Those who are obsessed with the weaving issue may not have been allowed to waddle across the living room floor with abandon as toddlers. They abhor alcohol.

Editors are usually control freaks. They often dwell in back apartments of writers' homes, spying and running up electrical bills. However, with maturity, tolerance and good fortune, the two neighbors might join in matrimonial bliss.

Writers, on the other hand, can be found lurking in many editors' front rooms (where the latter used to waddle), with their eyes glued to the TV. These editors usually find it easier to edit than to write, and have more fun editing someone else's writing. They are often writers disguised as editors, (children disguised as parents) whose muse has abandoned them for more interesting causes like peace in Somalia. For these unfortunates, the editor's purpose is to stay busy patrolling the word paths of others until the internal writer turns off CNN and re-inhabits the editor's soul. While world peace may not unfold, pages of untamed and less than literate ramblings will most certainly appear, like this little essay.

Sharon Bard, PhD, is a Sonoma County freelance writer, poet, essayist and former host of "On the Edge and Centered" for public radio. She is proof that great things come in small packages

Susan Bono



I understand those writers who are a little leery of editors. It's easy to think of an editor as the Enemy, an assassin who cuts out your heart with a pen, an opponent who is simultaneously cruel, insensitive and stupid. That's how I feel when those creeps reject or criticize me. Luckily for me, I have played the creep often enough to get a glimpse of what they're good for.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that editors and writers are actually playing on the same team, with a common goal to serve the work. Those who edit put themselves in the service of good writing in much the same way as those who devote themselves to the service of God. No potential for trouble there, right? But good editors, like good pastors and priests, keep the spiritual aspects of their calling ahead of their insecurities and egos, just like good writers.

Rejected outright, are you? The editor responsible may indeed have a tin ear or someone else's favor to curry. But remember, unless some incredible evil is afoot, that editor has been selected for her ability to ferret out a particular kind of writing for a specific kind of reader. So a rejection simply means that your work would be better served by a different audience. Whenever you send in a piece that gets accepted, it is easier to appreciate such discrimination.

Your editor is full of suggestions, is he? If your work has indeed found the right home and the right editor, this is wonderful, because now you have a chance to dialogue with a representative of your intended audience before publication. What aspects of your story need to be emphasized, clarified, organized more forcefully in order to communicate your vision? How can you bring more of yourself to the work? Trying to figure out how the world sees your writing is like trying to give yourself a haircut without a mirror. You already understand the advantages of a designated driver when you're in the mood to party. Smart writers use their editors as designated readers when they want to do their best writing.

Heaven knows, any collaboration between editor and writer is fraught with peril, especially when the two are strangers. Each undertakes the process full of questions that can only be answered as the work progresses. The editor asks, "What will get this writer to delve more deeply into her story? Have I made myself clear? Will these suggestions inspire or confuse? Am I doing the writing for her?"

The writer asks, "How can she expect me to reframe that situation? How will that change affect the rest of the piece? What are those comments supposed to mean? How do I get her to back off? Who's in charge, anyway?"

But if both parties are in service of the writing, these issues have a way of working themselves out. A mutual respect, infused with fondness, develops between these comrades at arms when, as a result of their courage, honesty and receptivity, the work, in spite of the writer and editor, reaches its fullness.

Susan Bono edits for love and money in Petaluma, CA. She can be reached at sbono@tiny-lights.com .

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000ó2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devilís-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so heíd know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. Davidís dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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