An editor’s perspective on writing

I went to a brown bag lunch the other day, and it was led by Colin Harrison, the Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Scribner. Before joining Scribner, he was the deputy editor for Harper’s Magazine. He’s an accomplished novelist but edits mostly nonfiction because he enjoys the challenge, the journey that he takes with the sometimes nervous and overburdened writer.

These sessions allow young editors the opportunity to interact with someone who, before, had only been known by name.

Harrison is a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and a well-kept winter beard, and he talks with his hands. I expected the typical spiel about the business of books, but he actually provided an intimate account of writing and editing. I felt that some of his points might help me and you (whoever “you” might be) become better writers.

“What does it mean to be a writer?” he asked us. We all worked in different departments: editorial, marketing, finance, and legal. First thing that popped into my head is that writers need to be a bit bonkers. They need a small dose of insanity to conjure wild stories. Harrison definitely agreed, saying that a writer either wears this stereotype like a badge of honor or profusely denies it.

But, “writers are [also] criminals,” he remarked. While others aren’t noticing, while they are too busy obsessing over the superficiality of the world—the Kardashians, for example—writers take what they see as authentic and appropriate it to their own use. Without others knowing, these writers commit a slight theft, storing knowledge for later use.

Harrison also discussed the challenges that writers encounter: the form, the story, and the process.

The Form. This should be the easiest thing to figure out, right? Wrong. Sometimes you’ll need the reader to point out that one form would benefit the story more than another. There have been plenty of times when I critiqued a writer’s work at my writing group and saw that the story could have functioned as a poem, rather than a short story.

The Story. Ugh, the struggle. I often ask myself why I’m telling this person’s story? What is the narrative that will grab the readers’ heart, hold them hostage until they become willing visitors to another world?

The Process. Every writer has a particular way of functioning. Harrison mentioned someone he knows who writes in the morning. And every morning, his wife would pour water on his head to wake him up. Funnily enough, this practical joke has become a step that the writer takes to jump-start his writing process. I haven’t developed a process that benefits me fully, but I will.

Oftentimes, writers mistake one problem for another. Example: I can’t figure out how to write this story in first person. Someone else asks: Why? Writer: Because the coffee shop where I write gets noisy and I can’t concentrate when that happens. What they think is a form problem actually turns out to be a process problem.

Finally, Harrison also talked about the definition of a book. He dismissed the normal definition that we all use, and of course, tweaked it with a novelist’s flair. According to him, a book is a machine of language. The beginning brings readers to the middle, which leads to the end; every part of a novel benefits the next. So, in this sense, editors are the mechanics. A book comprises a narrative, an argument, or a list. If you have trouble placing your book into any of these categories, then you might not have a book.

Well, it’s obvious by now that I love talking about writing! Perhaps too much. But I hope Harrison’s tips resonate with you as much as they resonate with me. Comment below to let me know your thoughts!

Other posts on writing: 

What I learned after working at literary agency 

In search of a writing community

What I learned from reading and writing fanfiction

On receiving my first short story critique

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Photo from Flickr user J. Paxon Reyes

I finally tied down my ego with double braided nylon rope (it’s still screaming, “Love me! Love me!”) and got one of my short stories edited. I used the editing services from Carve Magazine, a magazine named after the minimalist writer Raymond Carver. I love Carve because it publishes pieces that are so concise and beautiful.

I felt like it was time to have a professional glance at my work. I used to be so incredibly shy with sharing my work with anyone. I was only comfortable with anonymity. It all started with writing Harry Potter fanfiction. Boy, was that embarrassing. I’ve only realized recently that a good majority of readers venture into the realm of fanfiction writing and are proud to announce it. But I have yet to verbally admit my fanfiction days…

…and no, I will not tell you my username, because I don’t want anyone to know how angsty I was as a teenager.

Wow, I’m sidetracking. Okay, so yes, I paid a generally low price of $45 to have the editor look over my short story about a listless cab driver who encounters a passenger who then inspires him to right some wrongs done to his loved ones.

I submitted this piece in a workshop for my Fiction I writing class with Dr. Michael White. I received good comments, and he encouraged me to submit it to magazines. However, he warned me (with a pointed index finger) that I should have it edited first. This time I felt serious about having my work published. The previous works that  I’ve submitted had been silly high school pieces that I idealistically believed were good. Well, the list of red, bold “declined”s in my Submittable account had proved me wrong…

After a few days of waiting, I received a line-by-line critique of my short story. I was pleasantly surprised by how honest it was.

I’m not going to tell you all the nitty-gritty details of the editor’s comments (I’ve already talked about it with my therapist), but one thing that he did say was that I was overwriting. I let out an unlady-like snort when I read this comment, because way back when, I had the serious problem of underwriting! On almost all of my essays in middle school, the teachers would write “MORE!” One teacher even liked to underline the word with three lines!

I’m working as hard as I can, people.

Overall, did I find the editing service helpful? Most definitely. You always need someone to ‘Gordon Lish’ your work. Yes, the editor actually turned the name of a well-known editor into a verb. The editor pointed out inconsistencies that I missed, mentioned parts that didn’t make sense, and highlighted sentence structures that needed serious revision. At the end of his note, he said: “Sometimes revision is a re-‘vision’ as in reimagining the work, not just revising.” I couldn’t agree more.

I’m trying to improve my editing skills. In fact, in a few minutes, I’ll be attending my first class on editing. So excited!

If anyone else is interested in trying an editing service, I do suggest inquiring the help of Carve. I also discovered a new editing service for “independent authors and publishers” called Indie Proof. I haven’t tried it, but it has absurdly low rates for its services and seems worth the try. You won’t regret it!

Update: Indie Proof apparently closed. What a shame.