Working with a Writer – An Editor’s Perspective

I've discussed this before, but every now and then, it is worth revisiting. I'm working with a little more than a handful of clients right now, and I received permission to showcase one of my more interesting clients: Michelle Mogil.

I met Michelle when I announced I had upcoming slots for editorial clients becoming available. I hadn't had any real contact with Michelle before we started working together. Our relationship started in an unusual fashion: She wanted me to edit the second book of her series. Usually, the clients I pick up have me start with the first book of a series.

Because of how I like to work, and my habit of starting a series in the middle if I can't find book one, I skimmed her previous book so I had a rough idea of what happened (and I enjoyed it), but I didn't digest it with the voracious appetite of a real read-through.

I wanted to see how her book two would stand on its own.

Before I begin talking about the process of working with Michelle, I think I need to take a few minutes to talk about her basic writing skills. I'm a pretty flexible editor; I don't mind if a new client needs a lot of work to improve their basic skills. I enjoy teaching people. I enjoy helping someone learn how to write, even if I have to teach foundation storytelling skills.

Michelle came to me with very, very solid storytelling skills. She came to me with a pretty distinctive first-person style. That's something I want to preserve when I'm editing. Styles are fluid, changing as someone increase's their skill level. Style is directly tied with how skilled someone is at writing words.

Style is a word writers use to hide behind, when they don't want to improve or change their writing. How you write words down is your style.

Michelle doesn't need a whole lot of help with basic style. Sure, things about how she writes will undoubtedly change as her skill improves, but she has the basics down.

That left me free to point out when her writing is weak, when her humor falls short, and what she needs to do to improve her basic story and characters. It's a situation I love being in. It's also a very difficult situation to be in, as well.

Someone like Michelle has very, very valid reasons to be hesitant over making large-scale changes to her story. She has enough skill where a little ego isn't unwarranted. Writers can be egotistical, prideful creatures. I often feel like I'm tap dancing on thin ice when I really hammer at a talented writer's story.

How will he or she react to it? How much frustration will they feel when their writing isn't impressing their editor (in this case, me) as much as they think it should? How much tolerance do they have for me being blunt and honest about what I think will help take their story to the next level?

When I work with a real amateur, someone who knows their writing needs a lot of improvement, it's often easier than working with someone who is already good at writing.

With the amateur, I can pull out my library of ways to improve writing, give exercises, point out a lot of specifics on things to improve style, and help them find their style. These people are often extremely receptive to the rewrite process. It's like a second chance for them, and they like having someone who will see their effort through to the end.

They want to learn. They know I'm here to help them. If I can't help them, they know I'll point them at someone or something that can help them. They go in knowing my job is to make them a better writer.

I'm not a teacher. I don't have a degree — in anything. The closest thing I have to a degree is a certificate stating I'm qualified to work as an engineering assistant, with a background in CAD in both mechanical and architectural engineering.

Everything I learned about writing, I learned by doing. By reading. By asking questions. By talking to people. By getting my ass kicked repeatedly by people just like me. By working for ten years as a copy writer and SEO specialist and consultant.

When I work with a client, I want to pass on all of the help received. That I still receive.

Working with Michelle is a challenge, because I can't tell you which one of us is the better writer. (This is tapping back on the idea that an editor can be a much better editor than they are writer.)

That said, I'm also a lot harder on Michelle than I am on some of my other clients. I don't pull a single punch with her. If I see an awkward sentence, I call her out on it. If I see a little detail that doesn't quite fit, I call her out on it. If I think a character is even remotely acting outside of the scope of their character, I question it. I force her, every single scene, to justify the actions of her characters. I ask questions. I try to find out what she wants to do and why she's approaching it in the way she does.

For some of my other clients, they have ideas — lots of ideas. Some of them have lots of great ideas, but their execution needs a lot of work. I can cover a lot more ground with them, often covering multiple bases at once. I'm not easy on them. I don't pull punches with them, either. But, the issues they're facing are on a different scope than what Michelle is currently facing.

Most of them come in with the expectation of rewriting their novel or novella.

Michelle came in with the expectation of fixing scenes. Adjusting chapters. Reworking some character interactions.

Thin ice, meet Michelle's editor — yours truly.

Michelle is a great client. She's aware I'm writing this post — I asked her for permission prior to doing so, actually.

But, Michelle is the type of client I don't feel comfortable about openly asking to rewrite their novel. Why? Because she came in with totally different expectations. As an editor, my job is to help point out ways to improve a plot, characters, and so on. I can't do my job if my client doesn't trust me.

In order to earn the trust of a client, I need to show each and everyone of them why my advice is sound. I have to prove it. If I'm recommending a rewrite — and I often do — I need to prove why a rewrite would significantly help the novel.

I can't just get on a soapbox and state, “This needs rewritten!”

Not without explaining why, and talking to the client.

Michelle is the type of client where it is in her best interest for her to come to that conclusion on her own. She's strong willed. She's stubborn. She's persistent. She's a hard worker. She's learning to be truly, truly dedicated to getting stuff done.

She has a lot of potential.

But, she wasn't expecting a rewrite.

She is starting to really understand how much work lies ahead of her.

I'm quite proud of her as a client.

She wrote a blog post of her own about this subject, entitled ‘Shaving the Cat.' It's a pretty apt description, and her post details her reaction to coming to the conclusion the book needed rewritten.

You may notice that she references the fact I was talking about one of my characters and the challenges she has to go through during the novel. I might have specifically done that to show her the difference between a character of a thriller novel versus what she had.

Nail, meet coffin.

Michelle finally was able to step back and see the fatal flaw her story had. She was able to piece together the why of my comments. All on her own, she came to he answer of how to fix it.

Writing a novel is hard.

Editing a novel is much, much harder still. Even for the editor, who has no choice but to sit back, watch, and wait to see what their clients will do, hoping for the best the entire time, but expecting the worst.

I won't win them all. Sometimes, a writer just isn't ready to make those sort of changes. Nothing I can do can force them to do that. They would resent me, they would resent their novel, and they would resent themselves. I don't want that.

But, sometimes we do win, and we get to see a talented writer grow right in front of us.

If I had to answer ‘Why do I edit?' right now, I would just say, “This is why.”

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