7 Things I've Learned About Writing From My Work As An Editor And An Author
For many years, I worked as both an author and an editor, which always felt a bit like being a double agent. I’d spend the days considering other people’s manuscripts and the nights working on my own, which was something of a balancing act. But I always felt really lucky to have the perspective that comes with being on both sides of the desk. I mean, how many people find one job they love, much less two?
A couple years ago, around the time I started working on my new book, Windfall, I left my job as an editor to write full-time. But if there were unlimited hours in a day, I probably would’ve continued to do both forever. Being an editor absolutely made me a better writer, and being a writer undoubtedly made me a better editor, and I’m still so grateful for all that I learned along the way. So I thought it might be helpful if I shared of few of those lessons with you....
Here are seven things I learned from being both an author and an editor:
1. Read, Read, Read
Stephen King once said, "If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that."
I think that’s absolutely true. The more you read, the more you get a sense for what makes a story tick, and you start to develop instincts about pacing and tension and character and plot. As an editor, this comes with the territory; you spend a whole lot of your time considering manuscripts, and you can’t read that many brilliant books and not-so-brilliant books without learning something. It’s like taking a master class in the art of the story, and there’s no question that it helped my writing. But here’s the good news. You don’t have to be an editor to get the benefits of this. You just need to be a reader. So grab a book and get started!
2. Start Off on the Right Foot
When you send a manuscript to a literary agent or an editor, you already know there will be more work to do. It’s not meant to be perfect—not by a long shot. Part of the editor’s job is to shape and mold the book, to help elevate the writing and craft the story, to turn an unfinished draft into something better and more readable.
But in order to get that editor interested in the first place, the beginning of your manuscript has to be amazing. I realize this sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard hopeful writers ask me to ignore the first paragraph or the first page or even the first chapter, promising it gets really good once you get into it. Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works. Editors have a lot to read, and many, many manuscripts to consider, so the opening of your book needs to grab them right away. If not, they have no reason to keep going until they get to the good part. There has to be an initial spark of interest, an immediate connection, a feeling that they can’t wait to see what happens next. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so make it count.
3. Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper
You can’t control what happens once a book leaves your hands. Editors might acquire it or reject it. Readers might love it or hate it. It might sell a million copies or it might sell 12. It might win every award out there or get completely passed over. This can be tough, especially when everyone’s successes are broadcast over social media. But as the saying goes, comparison is the thief of joy, and worrying over what’s happening with other people’s books doesn’t do anything to help your own.
The good news is that the one thing that’s in your control — your own work— also happens to be the most important thing. So focus on that. Don’t worry about the market, or what’s hot right now, or what you think might sell. Just write the book you’re burning to write. Have faith that it will be enough. Instead of looking too far ahead, try to revel in the milestones along the way: a perfect sentence, a solid chapter, a great word count, a finished manuscript. Remember that this is what you’ve always wanted to do, and let yourself enjoy the ride.
As Ann Patchett said, “Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.”
4. Rejection Is Subjective
Rejection stings. There’s no sugarcoating that. We’ve all been there. But it’s important to remember that a rejection letter represents just one person’s opinion. And most of the time, they’re not passing on your book because they hated it or it’s terrible or they don’t think it has any potential. It’s much more likely that it’s simply not the right book for them.
As an editor, you’re looking to acquire books that you’re head over heels in love with, and that’s a pretty high bar. There were so many times when I passed on novels that were objectively great, and they often went on to have a huge amount of success. Later, when people would ask if I regretted my decision, it always surprised them to hear that I didn’t. Because I wouldn’t have been the right editor for those books. Clearly I didn’t have the same vision as someone else, or the same level of passion. But just because it wasn’t right for me didn’t mean it wasn’t the right book for someone else — and in many cases, for thousands of enthusiastic readers.
Publishing is a lot like matchmaking. You’re not looking for fondness or admiration; you’re looking for someone to love your book wholeheartedly. And though it often feels like editors are grumpy gatekeepers who live to reject manuscripts and crush dreams, in my experience, the opposite is true: they’re people who are just waiting for the right one to come along, desperate to fall head over heels in love.
5. Be Open To Criticism
Revisions can be a tough part of the process. As an author, you spend all this time working on a book, pouring everything into it, and then you hand it over to an editor, full of pride and nerves and possibility, only to get back a version that’s practically bleeding red ink. So it’s understandable that for a lot of writers, the first response is sometimes kind of defensive.
As an editor, I used to get a little frustrated when authors bristled at my notes. But then, inevitably, I’d get a letter from my own editor about one of my books, and I’d have the exact same knee-jerk reaction. Receiving criticism is never easy, especially when it comes to something as personal as writing. But I’ve learned that if you take a minute to get your head around the suggestions, you usually realize that they make a lot of sense —and that they might even make the book a whole lot better.
6. Just Do It
There’s no perfect time to write, and there’s no perfect environment. If you wait around for the right moment, nothing will ever happen. Writing is about stealing hours. Being an editor taught me so much about the craft, but it also made it hard to find time to write myself. So I wrote in pockets: early mornings and lunch breaks and weekends, a few words late at night and a paragraph or two before breakfast. I wrote a lot of books like that, and it forced me to focus in a way that’s harder to do now that I have a bit more time. If you know you have an hour to write on a Sunday evening and you spend it procrastinating or waffling or staring at the screen, then that hour just goes up in smoke, and you might not have another one for days or even weeks. There’s an urgency to writing when you’re busy. So don’t look it at as an obstacle, but rather as a tool. There will be days when you wish you were moving ahead by miles instead of inches, but as long as you’re making progress, you’ll get there eventually. I promise.
7. Never Give Up
For years, I kept a quote from a professor of mine — the late writer Frederick Busch — taped to the wall behind my desk. Whenever I was struggling with my writing or worrying over a rejection, it was a reminder to keep going. Sometimes all you need is to find the right words. And for me, this quote always helped a lot. So I thought I’d leave it with you now, in the hopes that it might do the same for you:
“Focus on your work. Love and serve your characters. Talent should be taken for granted until the world proves that you have none, or an insufficient quantity. It is energy that will see you through—to get your work done, to survive rejection. Never use ‘submit’ as a verb for sending work to magazine or book publishers; say ‘offer,’ and never, ever submit. Keep your knees unbent. Be brave.”