Why editors still matter

By Caitlin Kelly

Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a great essay from Publishers Weekly, (a must-read publication for any truly ambitious author), by a career editor:

A publisher once said to me, almost in passing, “We don’t pay you to edit.” The real message was: “Editing is not
crucial. If you’re an editor, what matters is acquiring.” After I’d left in-house editing and was being courted by an agency, the owner/agent said to me, “Remember, you can’t sit in your office and edit.” In other words, “If you’re an agent, what matters is selling.” One thing these comments imply is that editing is no longer the editor’s main function; editing is done on your own time. But that has been true since I went into the business 28 years ago.

As a freelance editor, these models no longer apply to my work. I no longer have to jump on every promising submission overnight. I no longer need to be looking over my shoulder, hoping for the approval of the marketing, publicity, and sales departments. I no longer have to determine the worth of any particular project a year before publication (and we know how often publishers get that right!). The burden on the freelance editor consists solely of helping the author write his or her best possible book.

The dirty secret of contemporary publishing — any author quickly learns — is that the verb “to edit” may not mean what you thought or hoped it would.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” was acquired by a very young and hungry editor who handed me back barely a page and half of notes on my final manuscript. I rocked! (Or did I?)

It quickly became clear to me that any editor was very short on time. There would be no long lunches (or even short ones) to discuss the world of letters. We maybe spoke to one another four or five times from acquisition to publication date — a span of more than two years.

The one time we did hang out — bizarre but true — was when I took her shooting in New Jersey and we spent the afternoon firing handguns at a local gun range. She wanted (which I really appreciated) to better understand the subject of my book. Our book.

My second book, “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” came back to me with a suggestion that Chapters 1-10 more closely resemble the final two. Holy shit!I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do it.

That editor, whose strong ideas about structure and tone were invaluable (if daunting) had previously worked for NASA — maybe great editing was rocket science!

I’m working on yet another book proposal right now and, if this one sells, (no guarantee, as ever), I sure hope I find a terrific editor. I owe Courtney, my editor for “Malled”, a deep debt of thanks for her willingness to push me as hard as she did, even making final edits as the book went into production in September 2010.

A great editor will save you. We all need them!

Yet it’s very odd when you find a publisher for a non-fiction book — essentially an intellectual blind date.

Whoever chooses to publish you assigns an editor you have likely never met and know nothing of. Yet you’re bound, (maybe more an arranged marriage?) for the next few years to one another’s taste, personality and schedules. It requires a great deal of mutual trust between strangers whose careers can be enhanced or seriously damaged if the book soars or tanks.

I’m dying to read this new book, “My Mistake”, by editor Daniel Menaker whose career included The New Yorker and Random House  — if only for its spectacular conflagration [ba-boom!] of an editorial bridge most New Yorkers still genuflect to — legendary power couple Tina Brown [ex-editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the Daily Beast, among others] and her husband Harold Evans.

The review in the Times is by Meryl Gordon (who kindly blurbed my last book) and whose own next biography comes out next spring.

Journalism and publishing — certainly in New York City — is still a hothouse of interlocking egos, power and (artfully disguised) terror.

Fifteen Ways To Make Your Blog Irresistible

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait f...
Reporters awaiting news of D-Day. Are your readers this eager to read your next post? Image via Wikipedia

I search every day for an hour for new blogs to subscribe to, but, frustratingly, often come up empty-handed. As a career journalist and author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books, I read and write for a living, so maybe I’m not the average reader in what I expect, or want, to find.

But all readers have limited time and attention.

These are the things that, for me, make or break a blog:

Is your blog overly personal? However fascinating your nephew or dogs or divorce feel to you, how much do they really interest your readers? What universal feelings or thoughts (fear, humor, embarrassment, sadness, anxiety) can you describe that we can all relate to and easily identify with?

Check your spelling, vocabulary and grammar. Messy copy shows a lack of respect for your readers.

I recently read a blog post using “pallet” instead of palate. Big difference. (Then there’s palette.) Spell-check is not your best friend. A dictionary is.

Is this post really worth sharing? Just because you saw or felt something doesn’t automatically make it interesting to others. Writing about it well to make a larger point does.

You’re being read worldwide — be inclusive. It’s easy to forget that the food, celebrity, neighborhood or issue you’re writing about isn’t necessarily a household word beyond your borders. Help us out with an explanatory link or some context.

Is every comment a big thumbs-up? Are you hoping to curate a lively conversation, (which, of course, doesn’t always happen), or just get a lot of “likes”? The best blogs aren’t about being popular, but compelling. Don’t be generic!

Are you playing it too safe? If, even behind a pseudonym, you’re not really saying something thoughtful and provocative, why bother?

Are you (even occasionally) funny? We all need a good laugh.

Move us! How do you want us to feel after reading a post? Sad? Outraged? Pensive? The determination to connect with us emotionally — and the skill to do so — makes the best blogs so distinctive.

Edit, revise, repeat. Do you bang out your posts in an urgent frenzy to share your views with the world, and hit “publish” right away? If this is your automatic habit, time to re-think. Very few pieces cannot benefit from a cooling-off phase, even a  few hours’ worth. Use every revision to make it tighter and stronger.

Grab us with the first few sentences. In journalism, it’s called the lede and it better be good. Hook ‘us in quickly.

Use paragraphs. A blog that goes onandonandoandonandon without a single line break, or paragraphs, is the written equivalent of the party bore.  Unreadable!

Visuals matter! A sea of text lacks imagination. Some of the best blogs are visual, whether a drawing (like the insanely, and deservedly, popular Hyperbole and a Half), photo or illustration.

Link to other people’s ideas. Share with us your finds: magazines, newspapers, radio stations, shows or podcasts, TED talks, websites, blogs, videos. This blog, {frolic}, is one of my favorites for all the links it offers: here’s a list of some cool magazines, some of which I’d never heard of.

The blog format isn’t sexy enough without great content. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s de facto fabulous. Just because it’s online and you have no editors to censor or control you doesn’t make it better than something in print. (Most editors improve our work, a lot.) It just means there’s no gatekeeper.

“Voice” matters most. You can write about almost anything if your writing voice remains consistent: funny, angry, wry, thoughtful, musing. Write with conviction and authority. Subscribers want to hear you.

Want To Write A Story — Live, On-Line? Tomorrow's Your Day

St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...
Even St. Augustine had to revise his material...Image via Wikipedia

Want to watch a writer at work — how he thinks, and re-thinks, and changes his mind? How about stepping up to the keyboard and making your own changes, revisions or additions?

Tomorrow’s your chance.

Here’s a wild idea…one writer, Matt Bell, starts his own short story, writes it on-line for a few days, lets two guest writers take over — and tomorrow — you’re up!

I wonder how many people will take up the challenge. Writing is, typically, a private, unseen and invisible process, the machinery whirring away — we hope! — inside our heads.

I had dinner this week with a fellow writer who asked how my book was coming and what my process is. I usually bang out as much as I can, perhaps 1,500 words, maybe 2,000 at most in one go, then stop and take a break. My eyes and my head get tired.

I do some housework or stare at the sky or read a magazine or take a swim class. Then it’s back at it.

I let new material sit for a few hours, preferably a few days, a cooling-off period that allows me to read it more objectively. I print it out on paper and edit in hard copy only. Then I revise on the computer. One joy of being a writer is that no one tells you how to do it. There is no “right” way. You can scribble on a napkin or use a quill pen on parchment or a Mac at the beach.

The final product is yours, all yours. If it’s lousy, well…

I still have 44,000 words to produce to meet my contractual agreement within the new few months. It’s enough to make me huddle in the fetal position beneath the duvet. But, no.

Finding the right ones, making sure they read smoothly, that the entire story is compelling and engaging, are all part of my job. I did use two terrific researchers to help me gather material for this book (the last one used four). Kelly and Peter are both so skilled that, of course, they each just got hired into full-time journalism jobs and are no longer available.

I’d love to add a bunch of elves to my workshop to lighten this load, but, in the real world, it’s not an option.

How Many Words Are Too Many? NYT Plagiarist Resigns, Producing 7,000 A Week

The New York Times building in New York, NY ac...
Image via Wikipedia

In the second screw-up of a thriving journalism career over plagiarism in recent weeks — in this case with a 31-year-old business writer for The New York Times, Zachery Kouwe —  over-production seems to be the culprit.

He has resigned.

It’s too easy to line up and waggle fingers at anyone caught doing this. It’s much harder to be that person.

Any journalist who still has a job, at The New York Times, (which just axed 100 people from the newsroom, some who took the buy-out, some canned), or elsewhere is under the gun. They know very few other jobs are out there, certainly not at the $80-100k/year plus that an outfit like the Times is paying. With 24,000 print journalists losing their jobs in 2008-2009, it’s easy to feel like a polar bear tap-dancing on a shrinking ice floe, staring across what was miles of solid ice at a very large expanse of open water. Once you’ve gotten a good job, like many others these days, damned if you’re going to blow it.


No one wants to trash their career. Few intend to do so. Hearing stories like that of Gerald Posner and Kouwe, both of whom basically said “I was writing too much” begs the question — what’s too much?

In my most frenzied month of freelancing, I cranked out 9,000 words: from initial call to the people I interviewed to final copy. Kouwe was doing almost that each week, he says.

In addition to my blogging here and other writing and editing work, I’m writing a non-fiction book and, after about 2,000 words a day, I’m pretty tired. I hope to produce 5,000 to 6,000 per week, i.e. a chapter. I have a deadline, but it is months away — not minutes, as it is with a blog, for Kouwe and anyone else trying to keep up, let alone lead, a large and competitive pack.

From The New York Observer:

In the coming days, inevitably, The Times will look inward to ask whether the pace of publishing in the blogs can be sustained given the level of editorial oversight they obviously need.

The DealBook banner says that it is “edited by Andrew Ross Sorkin.” Though he does oversee it, he does not edit the majority of its posts, sources said. The editing responsibilities of DealBook are primarily left to Jack Lynch, who staffers said aggregates for the site and posts items and doesn’t precisely give thorough spot checks on each item that he posts.

“Many people have thought for quite a long time that DealBook was the part of BizDay that desperately needed a baby sitter,” said one staffer.

A Times spokeswoman said, “Our journalistic standards are the same online as they are in print.”

When we asked Mr. Kouwe if he felt he needed stronger editing, or if perhaps the breakneck pace was to blame, he said, “It wasn’t anybody else. I was pushing myself to do as much as I possibly can. It was careless.”

The web is a lovely thing for many of us, offering freelancers and others a larger, more interesting platform for our work and ideas.

Maybe not so much if you are on staff, having to crank out yards of the stuff — while remaining readable, accurate and reliable. These days, added to the daily responsibilities of covering a beat and staying highly visible and productive on it, it’s starting to look like a speeded-up industrial assembly line.

Is this journalism any of us want to read? Or produce?

So, This Unearned Check Arrived For $2,666.67. What Happened Next…

'Untitled (Roll of Dollar Bills)' by Andy Warh...
If only it were mine! Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

Imagine! Two weeks ago, a check arrived, made out to me, at my address, for the sum of $2,666.67. It was from a major consumer magazine from a Glossy Mag publisher we all know.

Problem was, I hadn’t written anything for that magazine, or that publisher, in about a decade.

Maybe it was a re-sale and this was my cut? Could be. I’ve gotten unexpected checks from other contracted re-uses of my material, and the odd number sounded like that might be the case. That’s a lot of dough in our house, and maybe many homes these days.

The company, of course, won’t let you actually speak to anyone in accounts payable; only by email. So, for the past few weeks, I’ve been tugging on their sleeve asking repeatedly who paid this to me and what for and why? I knew it wasn’t mine. Of course, I wanted to keep it. Lord, that’s a lot of money.

Today I found out who to send the check back to and why, possibly I got it in error — I’m not (sob) the only freelance writer with my name writing for this company. News to me.

Guys, how about a fruit basket for my determined Boy Scout-ness?

What would you have done?