Perhaps the most disabling myth of authorship is that writers practice a lonely craft. There is something romantic about the notion of a writer locked away in a loft overlooking the ocean, his only companions a portable typewriter, a bottle of gin and a kitty named Hemingway.
In the real world, writing is more like line dancing, a social function with many partners. Some of those partners -- a writing teacher, a producer, an assigning editor -- may be required to achieve our publishing goals. Other helpers can and should be of our choosing.
Not many writers get to choose their editors, so you may feel stuck with what you have. If you are lucky, you may benefit from a curious, nurturing editor. Unlucky, you may labor under the control of a drudge.
There are ways to train your editor, as we shall see. More important, you must create for yourself a system of support both wider and deeper than the one assigned to you. If you limit yourself to one classroom teacher or one agent or one editor, you are not getting the kind of guidance you need.
My support system changes as I change. I'm a different writer and a different person than I was 20 years ago, so I've refreshed the team I've assigned to help me. This should be a radical concept to you, especially if you are a young or inexperienced writer. You may say to yourself: I'd be happy with any editing at all. I am saying to you: Don't settle for what is given to you. Whatever it is, it is not enough. Work on developing the support system you need and deserve.
Here are the kinds of people I need:
1. A helper who keeps me going. For years, Chip Scanlan has played this role for me, especially when I am working on a long project. Chip has a rare quality as a colleague. He is capable of withholding negative judgments. He says to me, over and over again, "Keep going. Keep writing. We'll talk about that later."
2. A helper who understands my idiosyncrasies. All writers have quirks. The fleas come with the dog. I find it almost unbearable to read my own published work in the newspaper. I assume I'll find some terrible mistake. My wife, Karen Clark understands this. While I am cowering under the covers with my dog Rex, she's at the kitchen table, reading my story in the paper and making sure no unforeseen horror has appeared. "All clear," she says, to my relief.
3. A helper willing to answer my questions. For many years Donald Murray has been willing to read my drafts, and he begins by asking me the kind of response I'm looking for. In other words, "How would you like me to read this?" or "What kind of reading are you looking for?" My response might be, "Is this too Catholic?" or "Does this seem real enough to publish as a memoir?" or "Just let me know if you find this interesting." Murray is always generous, but it helps us both when he reads with a focus in mind.
4. An expert helper to match my topic. My current interest often dictates the kind of helper I need. When I was writing about the Holocaust and the history of anti-Semitism, I depended upon the wisdom and experience of a rabbi, Haim Horowitz. But when I was writing about AIDS, I turned to an oncologist, Dr. Jeffrey Paonessa. Such characters may begin as sources, but the deeper you get into a story, the more they can turn into sounding boards and confidantes.
5. A helper who runs interference. I remember the day I began writing a long series, a project that would take more than a month of daily writing. On fire with enthusiasm for the project, I'd wake up early, get into the office before daylight, and try to get a couple of hours of writing done before my other work responsibilities forced an interruption. Joyce Barrett helps me in many ways. But I especially remember the morning she came in, saw that I was writing, closed my office door, and put a motel style "Do Not Disturb" sign on the handle. That's good downfield blocking.
6. A coach who helps me figure out what works and what needs work. For more than a year, a intern named Ellen Sung edited a column I wrote for the Poynter Web site. In most ways, the two of us could not have been more different. I was older, white, male, with a print orientation. Ellen was 24 years old, Chinese-American and thrived online. She was well-read, curious, with mature sensibilities as an editor. She could articulate the strengths of a column, asked great questions that would lead to revisions and clarifications, and framed negative criticism with persuasive diplomacy. Ellen now works as a newspaper reporter, but she is still part of my network, someone willing to assume a role as a helper at a moment's notice.
So now you have a network. But how do you train the editor you're stuck with? Some writers adopt bad behaviors, forms of aversive conditioning to shut out a cruel or negative editor. One reporter avoids eye contact with his editor in the hope of side-stepping assignments. Another hands in stories as late as possible to escape an inquisition. Still another tries to work from home. Out of sight, out of mind.
These are forms of guerrilla warfare. You will do better when you hope for the best, using strategies that turn the editor from an adversary into an advocate. These include making deadlines; being prepared for story consultations; briefing and de-briefing; sending up a flare when the story changes; praising the kind of editing you want; and being candid about editing behaviors that drive you crazy. You can gripe about an editor behind his back. How much better to look him in the eye and let him know how he can do a better job of helping you? He's more likely to change if you have demonstrated a willingness to help him in a pinch. Volunteer to become part of his network of support.
1. Look at the six categories of helper described above. Make a list of six people who might be able to serve you in these capacities. Rehearse a conversation with each one in hopes of expanding your network.
2. Make a list of the specific ways an editor has helped you improve a story. Have you ever approached that editor to express thanks for such help? If not, go out of your way the next time it happens.
3. Admit it. An editor is driving you crazy. Rehearse a conversation in which you describe the behavior that is an obstacle to your best work. Can you find a way to communicate this with civility and diplomacy? "Jim, the last few times I've suggested a story idea to you, you've assigned it to another reporter. I find this discouraging. I'd like to work on some of these stories. Is this something we can talk about?"
4. Make a list of the people who belong to your current network of support. Next to their names, list the roles they play for you. Who else do you need to get your best work done?