Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Editors as Mentors

The editor-writer relationship can be many things: transactional, perfunctory, frustrating, beneficial, and inspiring are just a few descriptions used. One of my favorite yet-to-be-published novelists loves to entertain me with stories about her editor chasing her around a cabin as they argued over a short story. And she loves him for it.

Something magical can occur between an editor and a writer: mentorship. When I left an in-house editing job, I was honored by the number of writers who described my approach to editing as mentorship. It is pure joy to work with people who love words, whether they are seasoned pros or beginners with sentences as wobbly as a toddler learning to walk.

What can take a relationship into the mentorship-sphere? Here’s how a few authors described it to me.
  • Developing trust. Sometimes creating trust is as easy an as editor providing a few “whys” behind the edits – without being asked. It helps to show that an editor is red-penning with the story’s best interest in mind.
  • Understanding what the writer wants to say. My favorite moment is when an author exclaims, “that’s exactly what I meant – but I couldn’t find the words.”
  • Extending a safety net. It can be talking something through a panicked reaction to edits. Or maybe it’s encouraging the scribe to “open a vein,” knowing that you’ll be there to keep the story from sliding off some curvy road.
Not every word doctor will be a mentor – sometimes you just need someone an objective perspective and a sharp red pencil. What’s your favorite editor-mentor story?


A born storyteller with a gift for engaging audiences, Jesaka Long has helped authors (and companies) craft their stories for more than 12 years. A full-time freelancer and owner of a.k.a writer in Denver, she works her word magic for small publishing houses and authors, especially non-fiction writers and memoirists. For more information about her background and writing, editing and proofreading services, visit www.jesakalong.com.

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  1. My favorite relationships, as an editor, are with authors who are open and ready for edits. I always include comments in my edits and welcome comments back. Sometimes we do it via email, sometimes we talk on the phone, sometimes both.

  2. I agree that the ideal situation is for the writer to be open to suggestions from the editor. Also, for the editor to give knowledgeable advice. My own editor, Libby McKinmer, also a member here, did a great job helping me whip both of my books, Two Wrongs and Girl of My Dreams, into shape.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. Great post Jesaka.

    I always have to remind myself that the editor (at least should be) working with you to make a story better. Some editors actually mess things up, though. That's what is hard, knowing who is good, hence trustworthy.

    I remember reading that even Tom Wolfe, notorious for writing too long, was mercilessly chopped by one editor. Apparently a passage about his uncle ran six pages. The editor reduced it one line. I hope he took it well!

    Finally, writer workshops are helpful to bounce ideas around. Though one caveat: ask five people and they will all have different ideas... that's the hard part... one loves this, the other says it's all wrong. So subjective. But where they all agree, you can be sure you need to rework something.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.