Sunday, July 15, 2007

How do I know I'm a good editor?

A while ago, Sara posted this question in the comments section of this post, and I've been meaning to answer it:

And I have another, different question I've been wanting to ask you (and asking myself for some time now.) How do YOU know when you are a good editor? I mean the actual craft of editing a manuscript. Do you already know that you are a good editor, and what makes you think that? Or are you still becoming a good editor, and what will it take for you to decide that you are? I'm not questioning your talents, because I know you are fabulous! And I don't mean the question to cut off the possibility (probability/sure thing) of you getting lots better as time goes on. But I want to know when/how/what you have decided about that for yourself.

Tough question! And the short answer is: I don't know.

I don't know if I actually think that I'm a good editor. I hope that I am, of course, and most of the time I'm fairly confident of my abilities--I know when I'm reading a manuscript that I can make it better, or "take it to the next level" as I like to say. But how do I know?

This kind of ties in with what's been going on right now at work--it's annual performance review time, and so I've been evaluating my own performance (and also that of my assistant's) over the past year. We have a formal written form, and one of the sections asks us to outline our key accomplishments, and part of how I've been doing that is by looking at the books I've acquired/edited and how they have performed, both in terms of reviews and other acclaim, and sales. So I'm able to say, "Look, these books all received at least one starred review, this one was taken by Scholastic, this one won this award, these books were chosen for these end-of-year lists, this one has sold really well, etc. etc. That's one way I've become more confident in my abilities--the books I edit tend to get starred reviews and good acclaim, which I think is a good sign. The books I edit also tend to exceed the sales expectations placed on them, also a good sign.

I think most agents and authors and illustrators say good things about me and refer people to me, another good sign. I've had agents call my editorial letters "brilliant" and authors praise my comments. Then again, I'm never sure if they're being honest or just polite.

I do think I'm good at my job overall, in part because I'm just so in love with it, and am constantly trying to improve. I think the fact that I've been at the same company and able to advance is a sign that my supervisors think I'm doing a good job--I tend to get glowing performance reviews, too--more evidence. But the truth is, just as authors have doubts, despair that they are horrible writers, will never write another great book, I have those same doubts about my professional abilities. Sometimes I feel like a fraud, like I don't deserve to be in the position I'm in. I know I'm still learning, I'm still honing my skills. With every manuscript I edit, every conference I attend, every review I read, every book I read, I'm learning and getting better.

I don't know if I'll EVER feel like I'm a fantastic editor. But as long as I am given the opportunity to do the job that I love, I'll take it.

For you other editors out there, how would you answer this question? And for you authors and illustrators, librarians, teachers, parents, etc., how do you know that you're doing a good job?


Anonymous said...

This is a very good question. I'm in a new imprint that publishes mostly fantasy paperbacks. Fantasy and paperbacks rarely get the kind of award attention you're talking about, so I can't use all the kinds of measures you do, though we do look at things like BBYA, Quick Picks, etc., and reviews. We also look at bestseller status--last year was a benchmark for us, getting our first NYT best-seller.

But that's just one measure that says we're reaching our market. I think just as important in how I measure how well I'm doing is if librarians and teachers and kids recognize the books I've worked on. Do they love the books? Do they read them? That's what matters most to me. And it's the hardest to measure, of course.

Anonymous said...

as an unpublished author...well, it's pretty hard to know whether or not you're really good or whether you totally suck and no one will tell you. sometimes my agent will say nice things. sometimes the editors she sends it to say nice things, but there is always that doubt, like, "are they just trying to soften the blow?"

I think ambiguity is one of those things you battle in publishing/life/all that. you just know deep in your soul that you're doing the job you were put on earth to do. and you do the best damn job you can. and pray for the best.

love your thoughts, alvina! thanks so much for them!

Emily Jiang said...

Oh, so interesting a question, and so difficult to really judge because unlike math, there's no absolute one correct answer for skills like editing or writing.

I think external recognition like awards and unsolicited praise is a wonderful boost to one's confidence and a sign that one is on the right track. Or at least the knowledge that at least one person out there appreciates what you are doing. And isn't that what we are trying to do as writers, especially? Touch the mind, heart, soul of another person through our work, through our words?

To get feedback on my drafts, I find readers whose tastes align closely with mine and whom I trust to be completely honest with me. I solicit lots and lots of feedback and let it simmer for a while.

But ultimately, I go with my gut decisions for revisions because honestly you can't please everyone. In the end, the reader I am most accountable to is myself.

Sara Z. said...

My first published book was written mostly during a time when I was in this really wonderful writers group. There was a constant feedback loop, and even though I rarely agreed with every single group member's comments, it was a really good way to guage whether something was more or less working and what I could do to get to closer to my vision.

During the writing of my second book, I was on my own except for agent and editor. My group had disbanded and I didn't know how to go about finding another group. Now that I was published to some acclaim, I suddenly had giant irrational fears about showing rough work to anyone. I had SO many days and nights of paralyzing fear and doubt during that time, there were days I honestly didn't think I was going to make it. It all turned out fine, but the process was way more hellish and crippling than it needed to be.

What I learned is that peer critique is really important for me. While my agent and editor give excellent feedback, I really need that safe, small circle of people (whose writing I admire so I know I can trust them) who have no investment in my career, nothing at stake. That's what helps me "know I'm good." That doesn't mean the critiques are just "This is great, keep going!" It's more that we're all working at a certain level and I know I wouldn't even be talking to these people if I sucked. Most of all, regular peer critique keeps the work at a rational, practical "this is my work" level that's about craft, and helps keep us neurotic writers from spiralling down into the "I'll never work in this town again" kind of insanity. With the right little group of people, that kind of peer critique can actually give you a lot of confidence. So I'm in the process of rebuilding a little community for myself that way.

I really liked it when I found out that editors (at least at my publisher) work in a similar way, seeking peer input at a certain point to make sure there are no blind spots, etc.

Anonymous said...

For me the question of what makes a great editor is personal. Do her comments spark a creative response in me? Or do I find myself shutting down?

Mostly I find that good editors have a way of commenting that is neither too pointed nor too vague. They can accurately, precisely identify sections that are slow; and make tactful, general suggestions about what might be tightened or deleted. They can point specifically to an inconsistency in a character, but will refrain from telling me how to fix it.

A good editor has the ability to see what I cannot, because I am too close to the work to be objective. And a good editor has the wisdom to comment gently; because I am too close to the work to be objective.

A good editor is a guide, not a director.

And a good editor illuminates the manuscript for the author. We always do better work in a good light.

Thanks for holding that lamp high!