December 14, 2010

Resources for Editors: Authors

I will always be grateful to one of my earliest clients, who, a little ways into the editing process, said to me, “You know, you don’t have to do this alone.”

Carol Fisher Saller (The Subversive Copy Editor) and Barbara Sjoholm (An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors) each devoted a chapter -- Chapter 2 -- to the art of questioning the author.

“When you are given a manuscript to edit, that manuscript comes with a writer attached,” says Saller (p13). “Learning to question an author before and during the editing process is an essential skill,” says Sjoholm (p16).

While I was actively in training at the Author-Editor Clinic, I experienced several methodologies for questioning authors, including broad early queries (what strengths and weaknesses do you see in the manuscript?), open in-person interviews with the author (tell me more about how you conceived of the villain), and specific emailed questions and answers (what is most fascinating to you about the protagonist’s changes over the course of this story?).

I know some editors use standard, customizable written questionnaires, and some plan in-person meetings before, during, and after writing an editorial letter. I’ve several times talked with prospective clients on the phone, while using a written author questionnaire as a reminder of all the areas I wanted to touch on during the conversation.

Read the comments on my last post, The Independence of Editors, and you’ll see editors agree that the author’s vision is primary and discuss the usefulness of offering suggestions.

Barbara Sjoholm writes: “You’ll measure your reading experience against [the author’s] stated intentions” (An Editors Guide, p19).

I’ve found that I do have to ask questions, sometimes in several ways, in order to understand the author’s intention. The text on the pages of the manuscript is not always enough information, especially when the manuscript is in early stages. I’ve often been surprised … even about who would be the primary audience for the book (YA or adult?), who were the main characters (she’s a main character too?), or what the author felt to be the primary theme.

I’ve also found I can be nervous about questioning an author I’m working with. I wonder, is there such a thing as a stupid question?

I want my clients to feel confident about working with me -- and yet my vision of a manuscript shifts and changes as I read and think and sleep and think again.

I don’t want to ask questions that sound like I just don’t understand the story. I do want to get information that will help me understand the author’s own vision for the story.

I don’t want to send the author a string of individual questions in one email after another. I do want to begin the questioning before my own, independent vision becomes too deeply rooted, and before the deadline approaches too closely.

Thus far, I have engaged differently in each client relationship. Will I eventually establish a standard process? I don’t know. I’m still learning. How about you?


  1. Nicely put about the inherent risk of querying: done well, the author understands that a query is designed to tease out information, like who will be reading, why, and what effect a particular part of the book will ideally have; interpreted incorrectly, the author will think you haven't followed the book!

  2. My ideal version of the author query includes two stages. The first stage would be upon submission of the manuscript, and addresses basics like intended audience, genre, publishing goals, areas for focus, etc. That would help me not put my foot in my mouth about some things that are clear to the author but may not be to the reader. The second stage would be after the first reading, when I want to draw out more nuanced content from the author to be clear that I'm contributing to the book they want to write.

    But I agree, I think the more you and the writer feel it's a collaboration, with each of you bringing unique and valued strengths, the better the relationship and the result will be.