Friday, March 8, 2019

Editing Ambitions


A student at my alma mater, Kenyon College, contacted me during the winter to ask me, through an alumni network, for my advice about "moving up the ladder" as an editor. The question arrested me and made me think as I hadn't before about just what I aspire to as an editor. These are the thoughts I shared.
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"…As for editing, I think it is less a question of ambition and "moving up a ladder" than it is of becoming a fine editor, and that requires study and humility. As the primary editor at my press (I have a four-person editorial consulting board) I do two things: I select what I'll publish, and I help authors make their books as good as they can be for readers. In these capacities, my ambitions are for the authors and for readers, so I put myself aside.

"I guess there's the element of ambition for my press, but that is fulfilled by the care I take for the others. My greatest achievements as an editor have been with the two brand-new authors I've chosen. One was straight from her MFA in fiction-writing. The other was a retired public-school teacher who had never written before. I saw an important but poorly-shaped story. The writer definitely had the drive to make the book work, and I guided him for two years—including referring him to an outside editor—to bring it to publication and to eventual achievement of a YA-prize. I doubt that many editors would have given him the time of day. But I think that's what an editor should do: Look deeply into the author's potential and the potential for bringing something important to the public. It's not a matter of burnishing oneself or the press with authors’ reputations.

"To get into editing, prepare yourself by understanding what writers do by studying their work through reviewing. You might join NetGalleys as a reviewer and review a couple of new books every month, reading and reviewing them with the knowledge that your words will help shape the prospects for that book, and will count to the author, the publicist, and the public. Get used to framing an opinion that has a real effect, one that you take responsibility for. Another place you can do this is the Washington Independent Review of Books and similar publications that invite reviews. If you write for these, you practice taking responsibility for authors and for your opinions.


"I'd advise reviewing as many genres as you can, to broaden your information and tastes, to improve your literary "muscle tone," and to know what's out there. This can serve you well when you present yourself to potential employers. Having a variety of areas of knowledge, and to show breadth in a review portfolio will be an advantage.

"The other thing you can do is to write and have someone read you and discuss your work routinely. You need to be very aware of the difficulty of writing, to know that it is all about error, editing, patience, time, application, attention, and excellent thinking. You'll get to understand how much all of those count, and that none can be missing. You'll appreciate how difficult it is to bring a book about. And it will make you both compassionate and demanding as an editor.

"If I were to hire another editor, I'd want someone secure in her own judgment, but I'd want to know that her judgment was solidly based on critical thinking, reading, writing, and focus on authors and readers. Ultimately, to you, I say, treat editing as an avocation and a privilege, not an ambition, and you’ll be on the road to excellence."

—Ann Starr, Publisher and Editor

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