Working With New Authors: Editor or Teacher?

There’s something refreshing about working with a new author, someone unpublished and writing for pure, unadulterated joy, without knowledge of the hair-pulling headaches and doubts that plague the rest of us. Just wait, my young Padawan.

I remember when I first picked up the pen and wrote my first story. It was loosely held together by fraying characters and non-conflict. But it had real heart flowing through it.

My skills were that of a child learning to walk and falling on my face (I still have the stitches on my chin). But I was eager to learn.

And to this day, I’ve never worked with a new author who wasn’t eager to learn too. Even though I’m a few steps forward in my head when editing, new authors remind me to slow down and explain. To say aloud the story techniques I’ve known to be true.

With experienced authors, I can simply point to what’s wrong in their manuscript. Having the experience they do, they feel well equipped to make the necessary changes without further guidance.

With new authors, it’s a different type of animal in the editing process, one that requires a level of teaching. It’s not enough for me to point out the story issue. I need to explain how to fix it and show through examples.

Where experienced authors imagine scenes in written words (they begin the writing in their heads), new authors may just have an image, and then try to form the words on the page.

I had this experience when I was in art school learning how to oil paint. After weeks of long painting classes, I began to see the world around me as mixed colors. I would stir paint in my head to interpret the colors of my setting. Pretty cool.

Anyway, back to writing. In a way, I teach writers how to do this in my editorial feedback--to think in words. On top of that, I teach them the terms of storytelling (surprisingly, many new writers who write books don't know these). What structure vs. plot is, what point-of-view means and how to use it correctly, misunderstandings vs. real conflict, using characterization to its fullest. And much more.

These are all things I’m good at. And it costs a pretty penny.

That’s just the nature of this work. Regardless of what editorial tasks editors do for their business, in the end it adds up to time. If they take the extra time to go the extra mile for their authors, it needs to be paid for.

Why would an author want this? Well, not all new writers have writerly friends and writerly groups giving writerly support. And rather than writing workshops, sometimes they want closer one-on-one attention and a developmental editor involved early.

But editors can only do so much, within reason and limiting factors. In the end, it’s up to the person who puts their name on the cover to find success. (I only increase their chances.)

Throughout this entire editing-teaching collaboration, what I find most rewarding is how fast new writers pick things up. I see it before my eyes in their revisions. And I remember again my new writerly days of how fast I learned, and how fast I saw the results of my labor.

Real, tangible improvement. And that makes it all worth it.