How do we work together?

 

It starts by my answering your question: “Would you read my (blog, book, manuscript, article, proposal, resume) and help me with it?”

 

This should be an easy “Yes, sure!” response - correct? No, not always.

 

I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve been asked to "just look over" another person’s writing, sometimes by a friend, sometimes by a casual acquaintance, sometimes by a member of an organization, or a peer or a new client.

 

In the delicate verbal dance that follows a, “Would you read this for me?” request, I start by asking myself several questions very rapidly before I even speak a word:

First, I assess the relationship that I have with the requester. How do we know one another? How well do we know each other? How comfortable am I with critiquing their writing? And do they really want critique? Or just praise? Lastly, when they asked me to read their work, how, precisely, did they phrase their request? Did they state exactly what they want from me?

 

 I usually answer with another question, or two, or three, or more. For example: “What, precisely, would you like me to look for as I read?” or “What stage is this piece? Draft? Nearly finished? Giving you trouble?” or “How honest do you really want me to be when I give you my report?” Then I ask, “What is your intent for this work? Is it something private for you only? Do you want to present this to a publisher for consideration? Are you planning to self-publish? Is it for your family and friends only?”

 

And, before we go any further in the conversation, we must discuss the financial arrangement: Do they want a favor? Or are we talking professional fees? In my experience, a fee-for-service, no matter how modest, establishes the professional relationship immediately. I am the editor; they are the writer.

 

When I receive a request to offer critique only, I have to be especially careful to ask the right questions and establish the boundaries and expectations for both of us. I’d love to read everything from everyone who asks, and not charge a dime for it, and offer in-depth critique, and shepherd them all to success.  But that’s not fair to me or them. A more distant posture gives each of us the perspective that we need. For me, it’s the position of considered critique and the ability to do my job. For clients, it’s a stepped-back position in which they can receive a professional opinion and a candid critique with suggestions for improvement. My comments are about the work, not about the client.

 

In thirty-plus years of reading and editing, I’ve encountered writers who were extraordinarily talented with story, plot, dialogue, and description, but hopelessly inept at grammar, punctuation, spelling, and the correct use of tricky words. This type of writer is actually my favorite. It’s easy to fix something that’s perfect except for cosmetic changes. This writer is aware of their strengths and weaknesses and we have a mechanic/driver relationship. My job is only to fix the broken bits, and the manuscript or project will then move ahead on its own power and merits.

 

My second-favorite writer is the one who has brilliant ideas and great information, but a poor sense of organization. Most of the books or projects in this category are non-fiction or business-related. All of the information is there, but it is presented like puzzle pieces scattered on the floor. My job, then, is to organize the bits and pieces and paragraphs and sections into a book that has a natural and organic flow. I call this “road-map” editing. I help the writer organize the book or proposal so that his/her reader can start at point A, make all the stops necessary – even side trips – and get to the conclusion at Z with complete confidence.

 

But, what about the writer who’s been struggling to put a difficult personal story into fiction form and is having trouble straddling the line between detached and involved? Or the writer who has a story about a dysfunctional family dynamic and it’s difficult for me to get a clear perspective – I don’t know what point of view the writer wants emphasized.

 

Maybe the writing switches willy nilly between contemporary language and the language that would have been more appropriate for the setting/time of the story or the age of the characters. Or, it’s possible that the writer has a professional background of writing factual reports and is trying to write a novel. What usually happens in this scenario is that the writer can’t get into a flow of descriptive writing, and the result is that the characters aren’t fleshed out and the setting is sterile? There’s no intrigue, no tension, no resolution.

 

The final scenario is one where the writer leaves out bits of information that are critical to a reader who is new to the concept or proposal. This happens often in technical writing or in instructional projects. The writer must assume that the reader knows none of the steps or processes; everything must be explained down to the most minute detail.

 

One way to ease into a project is for me to read the first 10-20 pages, or past blog entries, or draft proposals to get a sense of the current project. I can then present a more accurate estimate of the amount of time and expertise needed. Once the scope of the project is understood by both parties, I write up an agreement, we both sign it, and the fun begins. Open communication at the very start of a project ensures that the outcome will please both parties, and that the end result will be stellar writing in a flawless presentation.