Red Pen Q&A: Editor or Co-Director?

I had a great conversation in the comments the other day. A friend of mine has a big project he’s been working on for years. He’s built a world with hundreds of characters interacting over multiple generations, and he asked me to expand on my previous post about expectations for a Red Pen. The question that sparked it all is below.

When hiring an editor, how much “homework” is it reasonable to demand, or request, they complete before beginning to make red marks? … Is it realistic to give a prospective editor [a] huge a stack of prep work, or should I just suck it up and expect the constant back-and-forth Q n’ A and hope one or both of us doesn’t collapse in frustration? At that level of involvement, does the role even qualify as Editorial anymore, or is that more Co-creator territory?

This is such an interesting question. Currently, I spend a good deal of time employed as a ghostwriter and a content editor, both of which mean my hands are getting very dirty in someone else’s work. I find myself wondering sometimes if I’m doing too much or overstepping my bounds. It’s a difficult line to walk.

My quick answer to him was another question: What do you want? This question serves as a reminder. Firstly, the reminder is that you need to do your homework before you hire a Red Pen and decide what it is you’re looking for. But secondly, it’s a reminder that you have the ability to ask for exactly what you need, making whatever stipulations are necessary. The longer answer is, well, longer. 

For a time, I worked in retail. The large chain of stores for which I worked allowed managers to be transferred frequently for all sorts of reasons. Between their transfers and my own, I never had the same manager for even a year. Six managers in three and a half years let me witness a number of styles, all of which I’ve learned from.

One such learning experience came from a woman whom we’ll call Erin. Erin was a horrible manager for too many reasons to list here, but the reason I find myself recalling her now is that she had this strange idea that her position as Boss put her in charge of absolutely everything. She wanted to weigh in not only on your dealings with customers, or in-store squabbles between employees, but also your love life, your hairstyle, any major purchases, vacations…

Many people who worked with Erin indulged her desires for control and were rewarded for it. I couldn’t do that.

While and Editor is not the same as a Boss-lady, both are in positions of sway. It is not normal or professional for either to be corrupted by such power, but there are times when it will happen anyway. The difference between a Red Pen and a Boss is that your Red Pen isn’t actually there to tell you what to do. A Red Pen is not a dictator, and does not have the power to change your story. You are the writer, after all. You have the manuscript. You’ll be the one to send it in for publication. If you hate what your editor tells you, you have the power to simply say no, and to keep it the way that it is. You have the power to find a new editor, someone who understands your vision. Because vision is really what it’s about. You have a story that you want to bring to the world. You want to make sure it’s polished, that it’s sensical. You don’t want to be dismissed, or misunderstood, or laughed at. It is for those reasons a Red Pen is hired. It is that purpose toward which your Red Pen works.

My boss, Erin, did not like me. I did not understand why our getting along at work required that I bring her into my personal life. There were times it seemed she was trying to break me like a horse, establishing her dominance of will. I would watch her slowly chip away at my colleagues’ resolve until they would be crying at her in the break room. The next day, they would be like best friends.

Editorial relationships have the same potential. The bad ones should be equally avoided.

A good working relationship requires trust and an understanding of purpose. I think Erin didn’t trust people she couldn’t control. And I didn’t understand my purpose as an employee. The writer-editor relationship requires trust and understanding in exactly the same way. There must be a willingness to communicate needs on both ends, and the same willingness to hear those needs from both ends.

The way that I make sure I’m not overstepping unseen boundaries is partly by over communicating, and partly by trying to present more problems than I solve. Presenting extra problems sounds like the work of the worst Red Pen, but what I mean is that it’s not my job to change the narrative of what I’m presented with, unless that is my explicit job. It is my job to say “I’m confused by this,” or, “consider this phrasing.” At times, I will want more, but rather than simply writing “more” in the margin, as some of my own past teachers have done, I offer the next sentence, the joining piece of information, and explain that it’s an example of what I’m looking for. It is a choice to use my advice or my examples.

Returning to the question that prompted this entire post, there are so many different ways to go about editing, and so many different specific questions to ask and agreements to make. I don’t think there is a right way to hire an editor for a large world such as my friend has built. However, as is my wont, I can offer some suggestions.

When building a world, you might want a content editor to discuss the logic of Everything. In this case, you’re asking for a Development Edits. Lingo can be helpful. Were I that Red Pen, I would ask for a couple of really long conversations, rather than leafing through the hundreds of pages of notes that have been built over years. I would want to know what the specific continuity questions were, and where to address my attention. My goal, in that case, would be to help solidify the answers to questions both the author and the potential readers might have, helping the author write without plot holes in the future.

Another option would be to have a First Reader. This person would simply read what you have, when you have it. Ideally, she would read in the order that any future readers would have access to information, so that she would be able to state her questions and concerns as a proxy for the actual reader. You might still be asking for Development Edits in this scenario, but you’re approaching it from a slightly different perspective as a writer. In this case, you’re saying, I know my story; please help make sure I’m telling it correctly.

Yet another option would be to simply hire someone who is your novel’s equivalent of a film’s script supervisor. In the world of movies, that person makes sure that there isn’t a half-full glass of wine that suddenly becomes full from a different angle. It is his job to make sure that the small details are kept consistent.

In any of these cases, I think you’re still hiring an editor, rather than a co-director. You’re not soliciting help with what characters will actually do in some scenario or other. You’re making sure that what you are writing is what you want to be saying to your reader. As a writer, you get to ask for what you want.

Of course, if you want a co-director, you could ask for that, too.


One thought on “Red Pen Q&A: Editor or Co-Director?

  1. This post addresses all of my questions. Moreover, it provides me with a solid strategy for when it’s time to hire. Essentially, I will need to make sure my editor is 1. Aware of the scope of the project going in (something I have failed at in the past and as a result scared a few potentials away), and 2. Up to speed on the essential information relevant to the specific “chapter” we are dealing with rather than the whole smash, which involves some note refinement and collation on my part. Luckily, a little of that leg work has already been done via well-hyperlinked documents and ample concept work to lay the groundwork. Per your advice, I will look for a Content Editor first and foremost, and seek a separate First Reader to act as a proxy for the uninitiated audience. I believe that will suit my needs as I attempt to launch. More to consider and much more to discuss when the time comes, if you’re willing. Thank you Kendra. May your red (green) ink (computer text) never fade (……..suffer a power outtage?).

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