Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thursday with an Editor - Theresa Stevens

Please welcome independent editor, Theresa Stevens for today's edition of Thursday with an Editor.

In my career, I’ve been an agent, an in-house acquisitions editor, and a freelance editor. Of these three roles, which do you think gives me the most opportunity to dig into manuscripts and nurture writers? Most people guess wrong, but if you guessed freelance editing, you’re right.

Agents have priorities which allow them to shape some manuscripts and groom some authors, but they also have other demands on their time. They must maintain their networks with authors, with organizations, and perhaps most important, with editors. They must review royalty statements and contracts. They must train staff, read queries and submissions, and (depending on their policies), send out rejections. These are important jobs, things you want your agent to do, but they take away from the time they can spend on development.

Ditto for in-house editors, who function partly as project managers. They must shepherd the manuscript through pre-press, which means coordinating with sales, art, and other departments to create the physical book and get it into the distribution stream. Important tasks? You bet. Nevertheless, these things do cut into the time available for actual editing.

As a freelance editor, I have one job and one goal: making your manuscript as good as it can be. I do that not only by marking up the pages, but by demonstrating techniques which can be incorporated in future manuscripts, too. For example, if I see an issue with dialogue tags, I don’t merely fix the punctuation and edit the tag. I explain in a note why I’m doing that, the difference between a tag and a beat, and when and how to use them. I also did this sort of thing when I was editing in house and agenting, too, but it was not my primary focus. Freelance editing gives me more time and flexibility to focus on the teaching side of the process.

Now, here’s a dirty secret from behind the scenes. Some industry professionals – and no, I won’t tell you which – scorn the notion that they have any responsibility for training or nurturing authors. I’ve heard more than one of them openly mock the idea of “teaching moments,” and the prevailing attitude during these conversations seems to be, “If the writer doesn’t already know these things, why should I hire them in the first place?”

This attitude is both wise and foolish, wise because authors should certainly be writing to a certain competence level before publication, and foolish because no writer ever stops learning. Nor ever should. The curiosity and inventiveness that drive the learning process are key ingredients in the makeup of a career author, the kind who generates book after successful book. Failing to respect and nurture those impulses is a mistake, in my opinion.

Obviously, others disagree. I once had a senior editor at a “Big Six” house tell me that she would never even think to point out to an author when she’s doing something right. Another editor at another traditional press insisted that it was the agent’s job, not the editor’s, to show them how to fix an error. They have their reasons, and I understand those reasons, but I disagree with the result.

So, for me, freelance editing gives me the freedom to focus on the manuscript, and only the manuscript. I don’t have to drop my red pen to scamper off to a staff meeting. I don’t have to wonder whether marketing will want the romantic suspense to be more suspenseful or more romantic this time around. I don’t have to run up sales projections or quibble over contract terms or fret over whether an artist will hold it against me if I request changes to a weak cover. All I have to do is analyze the story and edit the prose. My goal is – because it can be – showing the author how to make the book better. And most days, much as I miss the pace and perks of life in-house, this goal is more than enough to satisfy both me and my clients.

After earning degrees in creative writing and law, Theresa Stevens worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she  represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and she is currently the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company. Her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers.
Visit her blog at where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.


Wynter Daniels said...

Thanks for being here, Theresa. I've been so fortunate to have editors and an agent who have no problem with teaching me a thing (or two or three) about making my writing better, crisper and more viable for the marketplace.

Edittorrent said...

Hi, Wynter! Thanks for having me! I'm very glad to be here, and I think your editor series is very interesting.

KC Burn said...

I've learned new things with each interaction with my editors, and I like to think I'm able to strengthen each subsequent manuscript because of it. I'm certainly grateful that my editors appear to be of a similar mind as you, and are happy to lend their expertise - I guess it never occurred to me that it would be otherwise!

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