I Don't Need Credit, that's Why I'm an Editor

Not long before I started my freelance career, my mother and I were discussing what would be involved in the job. I had been an editor at a large publishing house for 8+ years, and she knew what that had entailed--acquiring manuscripts for publication, offering feedback on manuscripts, suggesting titles, schmoozing with agents, etc. But, like most people, she was less familiar with the concept of ghostwriting. As I explained what ghostwriters do--take someone's (the "author's") ideas and/or stories and turn them into a compelling written work (a book, article, blog post, speech, etc)--she paused. "Why would you want to write something that someone else gets credit for?" she asked.

It's a fair question. After all, ghostwriters are called "ghostwriters" because they are supposed to be invisible--playing off their writing as someone else's. True ghosts are not even credited on the book so, for all the reader knows, the author wrote it him or herself. Writing is a creative profession, an art, if you will. Why would you want to cede recognition for that to someone else?

"I don't care about that," I said. And I didn't. I've never cared about it. That's why I became an editor in the first place. 

A couple of years ago, I acquired a book called Invisibles by a journalist named David Zweig. The premise of the book was that there is an entire class of highly skilled workers throughout society who are undervalued because their work is largely invisible. In fact, Zweig argued, the better an Invisible does his or her job, the less they are noticed. Examples that Zweig cited included fact checkers, interpreters, and wayfinders (the people who design signs that help you navigate your way through, say, an airport). The point of the book was not simply to acknowledge these people but to argue that we should place more value on the inherent qualities they possess--things like conscientiousness and a passion for the work for the work's sake.

When I first started working with Zweig, he told me that he didn't consider editors to be Invisibles because they got too much recognition from society at large. I took his point--after all "editor" is one of those jobs that women in rom-coms often have (along with "journalist" and "interior designer," and "some vague non-profit job") indicating that many people have at least a dim idea of what they do (you don't want to spend too much time explaining a character's professional life when the focus is on how to get the guy). The career is also, thanks to these portrayals, considered glamorous (many of us live in New York and hobnob with Serious and Important people, after all). A few famous editors have even become famous in their own right (think Judith Jones or Maxwell Perkins).

But when was the last time you read a book and thought, "Wow! This is extremely well edited!" Now, when was the last time you read something and thought "Jeez, this could have used a better editor." I bet I can guess.

I remember one of the first books I edited received several reviews criticizing the amount of repetition throughout. "Fire the editor!" exclaimed the headline of one Amazon review. I was heartbroken, mostly because I agreed. What the reviewers didn't know was that I had, in fact, repeatedly tried removing several instances of repetition but because the author and I were working on an extremely tight deadline and editing the book in pieces (not ideal to ensure consistency), she kept adding pieces back in, probably under the assumption that they weren't already included. And I, having read the book out of order so many times, started forgetting what had been mentioned and what hadn't.

So, no, I don't get credit from the general public for the editing I do. However, I do get credit from my authors, and that's what I got into this business for. I've always been a decent writer, but I realized early on that I preferred (and was better at) helping others make their writing better. My best days are the ones when an author says to me, "Wow! You're such a great editor! Thank you!" That's all the credit I need.




Honesty and Trust: The Keys to a Great Editor/Author Relationship

I recently read the book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull. Catmull is the co-founder of Pixar Animation, though his name is not as well known as his fellow founders John Lasseter and Steve Jobs. But Ed was there from the beginning, a precocious young man whose dream was to create the first fully digital animated film, a goal he accomplished several times over, revolutionizing the industry and raising the bar for animators everywhere along the way. 

I picked up the book for a few reasons. 1) I love Pixar and have always been fascinated by the inner-workings of innovative companies, especially ones involved in creative pursuits. 2) When the book project was originally being shopped to publishers a few years ago, I tried bidding on it. Before I did, I met with Ed Catmull, and that meeting remains the best pitch meeting I've ever had. Without any ego, Catmull regaled us with behind-the-scenes stories of the making of some of my favorite Pixar films, explaining the complicated, sometimes frustrating, and often heartbreaking decisions that go into making one of those truly great films. I was flabbergasted, and even though I didn't end up working on the book, I was eager to hear more about what Ed had to say.

The book is, at its core, a business book. It's not so much about unlocking the creative process or a primer on how to tap into your own creativity as it is a book on how to effectively manage creative people, especially at a large organization. Because that's what Ed does. He's not the guy coming up with story ideas or creating characters; he's the guy responsible for making sure the movie gets made well, on time, and on budget. 

A lot of what Ed discusses in the book has to do with the core values of a creative organization. I'm not going to go into detail on those here because 1) this is not a book report 2) you should read the book and 3) I've misplaced my copy at the moment and can't quote from it. However, as I was reflecting on the book and thinking about how I could apply Ed's wisdom to my own career, I realized that at the heart of his advice is a commitment to two related ideas: honesty and trust. 

Let's start with trust. Part of being creative means trying new things, and people are generally terrified of new things. When creative people work for a large organization and are managed by people whose goals are not simply to do the most creative or exciting thing but to do the most creative and exciting thing they can while still making money, things can get tense. It's therefore the job of the manager to trust their creative talent and give them a safe space for generating ideas, trying new things and, at times, failing. 

Creating a trusting environment involves communicating expectations clearly, offering feedback, and encouraging people to keep going. At the same time, in order to manage creatives, you need to practice the flip side of trust, which is honesty.

Trust cannot exist without honesty. In his book, Catmull talks at length about what he and his colleagues at Pixar call "The Brain Trust." This consists of a group of higher-ups who aren't working directly on a particular project, but who check in on the progress of a film at critical points in its development and offer candid, honest feedback about what's working and what isn't. Sometimes the conversations are difficult, and whole story lines or characters or even the entire narrative arc of the film need to be reworked. But the Brain Trust works because everyone understands that they have the same goal: to make a great animated film. No one is trying to gain favor with someone else. No one is trying to undermine someone else's ideas. No one is trying to sabotage the project. Everyone simply wants to make the best film possible. By offering honest feedback in a constructive and controlled way, Pixar engenders a culture of honesty and trust that pervades the entire creative process.

So, it's about giving ideas a chance to breath but not being afraid to question them if they're not working. 

It's clear how this concept would work at a large corporation and how important it would be to have a formalized structure in place to ensure that trust and honesty are sustained, but I was also thinking about how this works in the more intimate editor/author relationship.

I'd never really considered it before, but one could say that an editor is a creative manager. I don't manage large teams of people, and my authors don't work for me, but the relationship is not unlike the ones described at Pixar. There is a creative person, the author, and then there is the manager, the editor, who is in charge of helping the author hone their ideas and bring them into the world. And, yes, the pressure of deadlines and budgets are often looming in the background, sometimes more ominously than others.

There are two things I always do when editing a manuscript, especially during the early developmental stages when, generally, a manuscript still requires a lot of structural and conceptual work. The first thing I always do is present my feedback honestly. Of course, I try to do this as constructively as possible, but I have, at times, told an author point-blank that they need to start over, that the structure isn't working, that their thesis is confusing, that this draft simply isn't living up to their idea's potential. Of course, I also believe in encouraging authors, so I try to point out what is working in addition to what's not.

The second thing I do is to point out that any of the suggestions I make are just that: suggestions. Sometimes I might suggest a completely new outline for the book, or I may ask them to develop their argument about a particular subject more while playing down another. But the last thing I want is for an author to feel like they need to do exactly what I'm telling them to do. If they start rewriting in that mindset, they stop trusting their instincts and will quell their own creativity in an effort to do what they think I want them to do. Any suggestion is merely designed to get an author thinking about something differently. Maybe it ends up working, maybe it doesn't, but hopefully it helped them figure out what was best. By explaining that they don't need to take all of my suggestions at face value, I am telling them that I trust them to take this feedback to heart and understand where I'm coming from. They are still empowered in their role as author, in their role as the creative force behind the project.

A big part of promoting honesty and trust is only expressing opinions when you actually have a fully formed opinion. So often people want their voices to be heard, or they want to look like their contributing, so they speak up when they have very little to say. They criticize things they know nothing about, they nitpick, they try to assert control over things they shouldn't be controlling. I once, for instance, worked with an author who insisted on designing his own table of contents page rather than leave it to our professional in-house designer who had been designing book interiors for decades. Needless to say, that author did not inspire trust in anyone he worked with.

Understanding one's role is a big part of this as well. As an editor, my role is to help the author communicate their ideas. The operative phrase here is "their ideas." Not mine. For the first few years of my career, I edited conservative political books even though I am a pretty staunch liberal. I worked with authors whose views completely opposed my own. If I had edited these manuscripts so that they pleased me or so the arguments lined up with what I believed, I would not have been doing my job. It was difficult sometimes, but I did it, and I think my authors were grateful. I don't know if they ever guessed at my political affiliation, but I can guarantee it never came up in any editorial conversation I ever had.

Editing is a solitary process, so I can't speak to what other editors do, but I would bet that the best ones operate, consciously or not, based on this philosophy of trust and honesty. Our job is to help the author write the best book possible, and we do that by creating a dialogue, a partnership where we are free to communicate our ideas, try new things, experiment, brainstorm, and riff without judgement or fear of reprisal. The best editor/author relationships are the ones where this works both ways: where the editor not only trusts the author, but the author trusts the editor. This means they take the editor's suggestions to heart, even if they don't end up implementing every one, and that they trust the editor's instincts and expertise. When honesty and trust are reciprocated in the editor/author relationship, magic happens.

If you're an author looking for an editor (or an agent who will function as  your creative manager in the process leading up to selling your book), I encourage you to keep this idea in mind. Obviously, it's impossible to know if an honest relationship is possible until you really begin to work with someone, but there are ways to figure it out before you sign a contract. For instance, if you're meeting with editors prior to selling the book, ask them candid questions about the structure you propose. If they have concerns, make sure you understand them and their vision is in line with your own. If they love it and have no suggested changes, you should understand what they like about it so you can keep it in mind as you move forward. It's easy to get swept up by advance numbers (and I'm certainly not suggesting you ignore those) and the reputation of the publisher itself, but having a good working relationship with your editor is priceless because it will make you a better writer and also reassure you throughout the long, painful, emotionally draining process of writing a book. And if you're lucky,  you may end up finding an editor you can trust for the rest of your long, very successful career.

Happy writing!