Q&A: Author Elizabeth Berg on the author/editor relationship

author Elizabeth Berg
Elizabeth Berg

What do authors think about editors? What do authors think makes the difference between a good editor and a great editor?

In March, BoldFace asked author Andrew J. Borkowski about his experience working with editors. This time we posed the same questions to Chicago-based, award-winning, New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Berg, whose books have been translated into 27 languages. Her latest book, The Bird Lover (about French writer George Sand), will be available in spring 2015.

 Q&A conducted by Jennifer D. Foster

 Overall, what’s your experience like as an author who’s been edited?

On the whole, it’s been helpful and very supportive. I’ve found editing much more flexible for books than for magazine pieces, where space and advertising are concerns.

What is it like as an author to work months, or even years, on a book to then have an editor read it critically and suggest (sometimes major) changes?

Well, there seems to be a process that most writers go through when they get notes. First they get offended. They can think, “She’s wrong! Those changes won’t work! They’ll destroy the integrity/structure/intent of the book! She doesn’t get it!”

However, beneath this outrage, oftentimes, is, “Ah, jeez, I thought I was done. Now I have to do more work.”

Writers tend to suffer from a great deal of self-doubt, and they tend to be sensitive. That’s one of the things that makes them good writers. When their “baby” is picked apart they can get very defensive. But if they just try to stay calm and accept that the editor is on their side and is trying to make this the best book it can be, all may be well.

When I turned in my first novel, I was not asked to change one single word. That happened with a few other books, as well. No editing at all, or very light editing. But when I turned in my most recent novel, I was asked to do a ton of work. One way to take that is to think, “I’ve lost it; my work is no longer any good.” It would have been easy to enter into all that neurotic spinning, and I did for a little while. But the latest book is infinitely more complex than my first one was, and when I finally figured out how to use the suggestions I was given, I was far happier with the book.

What do you think is the formula for a positive author/editor relationship?

Mutual respect, just like in a marriage. A willingness to admit when you’re wrong and to feel you can advocate for yourself when you’re right. An ability to really listen to each other. Consistency, too, so that neither of you says one thing one day, then another the next. Kindness always works, as does a sense of humour and perspective.

What’s your advice for a writer working with an editor for the first time?

Understand that all kinds of emotional responses are possible, but be respectful. Remember that it was probably your dream to have an editor; now that you have one, don’t get arrogant. But try to stay true to your vision. Read through your editor’s notes the first time, have a hissy fit if you must, and then put the notes aside to read the next day and then the next. Day by day, they will start to make more sense. Try to get to a place where you see the criticism as an opportunity, which it is.

Be respectful of an editor’s time, energy, and eyesight, and don’t make demands that are unfair or unnecessary. You want to be in this for the long haul? Keep your business relationships professional. Don’t do things that will burn bridges.

What are the characteristics of a good editor? And a great one?

A good editor gets a book and helps turn it into a better one. A great editor knows not only the business, but also her writers. She knows when to edit and when to leave things alone. Her ego is not involved. Here are some examples of things my editor has done that make me know she’s the one for me:

  • When I first met her as one of the editors who had made an offer on my partial manuscript, she asked if I could tell her what was going to happen at the end of the book. I floundered a little, and she immediately held up her hand, signifying that I needn’t answer. I couldn’t, really. The novel was still too fragile, too dreamy, and I wanted to leave all options open. The other editor insisted that she needed to know so that the publisher would have some idea of how much to offer. So I muttered something that I didn’t even feel was true, and I felt as if a pin had been put in the balloon.
  • My editor is savvy about the market, but it feels as though she puts art before commerce. Also, she understands the nature of writers and the writing process from her many years of experience and because of her great heart.
  • In some ways, my editor knows me better than I know myself. With the last book, I felt overwhelmed. one day I called her in complete and utter despair, saying I wanted to abandon the manuscript. I would give up on this idea and do something else. I could not do it. “Ah,” she said. “This means you’re ready for a major breakthrough.” She also said “You know all those notes I sent you? Give them to your cat to play with.”

When she said that, it gave me the freedom to look at them the way they were meant to be looked at—as suggestions. My editor always tells me “It’s your book.” So I took in her suggestions to the extent that they made sense to me and then I changed the book not exactly in the way she suggested, but in a way that made sense to me. When I did that, the book became very much enriched. The whole arc of the story became apparent. We were both thrilled.

  • Although a great editor deals with a large number of writers, she makes you feel as though you are the only one. She responds to your concerns, answers your emails, and listens to your ideas. She may not do what you ask, but she listens.
  • My editor is full of grace. She is modest, kind, elegant, smart, sensitive, not stingy with praise but not afraid to say when she doesn’t like something, and she is always positive. I think she’s a kind of miracle. Her name, by the way, is Kate Medina. Don’t send her your manuscript. I want her all to myself.

Jennifer D. Foster is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor, specializing in fiction/non-fiction, custom publishing, magazines, and marketing and communications.

This article was copy edited by Maya Sokolovski.

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