Years ago, I got a random postcard in the mail from a San Francisco editor named Tom Jenks. I had just ‘fired’ my agent (who was a charlatan, but taught me some invaluable lessons) and was in the need of some nurturing, but also some prodding. I applied to take Tom’s four-day course in Boston. This involved some serious money, but I was in good company. I took the plunge.
First, Tom asked to see an excerpt of my novel, which I had only just started writing. I was impressed that I couldn’t just waltz in there, checkbook in hand. Nice.
Then he called me on the phone to discuss my 20-pages. Again, nice. A big deal editor–someone who edited Raymond Carver!–was taking the time to call me. That made me feel legit. No money had exchanged hands yet.
And finally, he offered a cursory critique: lovely writing, but he was worried I was “holding the story too closely to the individual character’s perspective.” Intriguing. What did he mean? He suggested reading a Joyce Carol Oates short story.
I was hooked. He had:
- treated my efforts with respect
- created an honest connection between us
- given me some free advice
- didn’t seem overly motivated by being paid
- lured me with the promise of getting even more interesting advice
I had a lot of work to do and a lot to learn, still, but his friendly and assured critique motivated me immensely. In the years since I’ve been doing collaborative writing and editing, I always follow a similar model. I am (fairly) generous with my time upfront; remain unattached to whether the client signs up for my services or not; offer something of value right away; and always allow that mine is but one viewpoint.
Nathan Bransford wrote a post on what to keep in mind when editing other people’s work that I think hits the nail right on the head. Perfect. So did Natalie Whipple. I would add: Just because you’ve been asked to edit someone’s work doesn’t mean you’ve got God-like powers. Stay humble and helpful and honest.