Ten tips on how to turn a writer into a friend, not a foe

During the last seven years of my career, I have not only sharpened my skills as an editor, but I (believe that) I have become a more sensitive human being. 

I have worked with so many authors of different types and stripes that I have come to the realization that as much as it is my job to perfect and polish the text, it is equally my role to hold the writer’s hand, so to speak, and guide him or her through the editing process. 

Writing a book is no mean feat, and revealing your writing – which often, directly or indirectly, exposes your innermost thoughts – to an anonymous editor who is itching to roll up his or her sleeves and take out the unforgiving red pen can be an extremely intimidating prospect.

On that note, implement the following pieces of advice, and you, too, will have your web page filled with glowing testimonials will achieve a harmonious working relationship with your client.

Are you ready?

 1. Meet the writer first. Ideally, you should try to meet your client before you begin the writing process. Nowadays email is the standard means of communication, but it is crucial that you start off on a more personal note. Your client will be entrusting his or her “baby” into your hands, so it is advisable that you meet face-to-face in order to build a rapport. While emails are useful and efficient, they can often be misinterpreted, and it is hard to “read” warmth from impersonal messages. If it is an impossibility for you to meet the writer, pick up the phone.

2. Be friendly. When you write emails to your clients, always try to start off on a light and friendly note. Here is a sample of such an email:

Dear Henry,

I hope you are well.

 I read through the first two chapters, and I have the following comments. Please see the attached document. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask.

Best regards,

Sorelle

3. Explain the process. Do not enter a project with the expectation that the writer is familiar with the editing process. Often writers have never worked with editors before, and are not familiar with Word and track changes. Before you begin editing, send the writer an email explaining to him or her (in a bulleted list) the process of editing, and ALWAYS stress at the end of such an email that if anything is unclear, he or she should not hesitate to ask you any questions. 

When working with a writer, your aim should not only be to dazzle him or her with your brilliance, but also to put him or her at ease. Presuming knowledge from clients is a big no-no, and can often end in tears. If you have a preferred method of working, such as always making a point of renaming drafts, make sure that you tell your client from word go about your preference.

4. Be positive. OK, you have read through the manuscript, and it is going to take a great deal of work and many mugs of coffee to get you through this project. Do not project frustration into your emails. You should adopt the attitude that this project is going to improve your editing skills, and will result in you becoming a sharper editor. When you write an email to the writer with your general comments, try to start the email on a positive note. (There has to be SOMETHING positive you can write about the manuscript, and writers really appreciate any positive feedback you can give them.)  

Even if you believe that the manuscript is in an appalling state, starting off your email with a message similar to the one below is only going to alienate the writer and put him or her on the defensive:

Hi John,

I have just finished reading the first five chapters. I am sorry to say that they are incomprehensible and poorly written. Much work is needed to make these chapters publishable.

Sorelle

No good. Try the following tactic:

Hi John,

I have just finished reading the first five chapters, and am attaching my general comments to this email. From what I have read so far, I believe that the book has a great deal of potential. I have outlined in my comments those issues that I feel need particular attention. Please let me know if you have any questions.

I am very much looking forward to working with you on this project.

Sincerely,

Sorelle

5. Consolidate your comments. If you have multiple comments about the work, it is better for you to write them up in a Word document, and attach them to the email. It is tedious for your client to scroll through an email with fifty points. An added advantage of such a method is that you have your saved file for your records. Emails can get lost.

6. Be clear. If you are inserting comments into the Word file, make sure to phrase your question or comment clearly, and write in full sentences. Don’t fall into the trap of writing short comments that resemble text messages. It looks sloppy.

7. Be humble. The following point cannot be reiterated enough. Always make sure to stress to your client that your editing suggestions are exactly that, suggestions, and that ultimately any major editorial decisions are in the writer’s hands. It is counter-productive to present your argument as an indisputable fact. I find that when I have given the writer the option of rejecting my comments, most times he or she will be more amenable to my suggestions.

8. Be organized. If you are working with a writer who is disorganized and sends you vague emails with vague responses to your questions, it is very important that you formulate your emails in such a way that he or she will be forced to answer your specific points. Number each of your points in a bulleted list, and end the point with a direct question that clearly requires a direct answer.

If the lines of communication seem to be broken, make a point of ending your emails with the following request:

“Please acknowledge that you have received this email.”

9. Keep a list. Keep LOTS of lists. Always keep a running list of the issues that you discuss in your email correspondence with your client. Often interesting ideas will be suggested but sadly forgotten in the midst of more pressing issues, so it is extremely useful to have this list handy.

10. Be humble. Yes, I’m repeating myself. Being an editor requires humility. You are not competing against the writer, you are helping him or her. You are in effect finessing someone else’s work for which you will not receive any credit (aside from a few complimentary words in the Acknowledgments, if you are lucky). If you cannot derive satisfaction from the fact that you have helped steer the writer towards an excellent final product, then you are in the wrong profession.   

From the mouths of babes

When Eliana, my three-year-old, returns from gan each day, she is always showing off a new look. Yesterday, she came home with her hair braided, and I was amazed that Eliana let her ganenet (kindergarten teacher) braid her hair, because at home she cannot stand still for two seconds before jumping up and down and remarking on some earth-shattering event – “Look, Mummy, Tzofi has taken out your wallet and is about to eat your money,” or squeals like, “Aval [Hebrew for “but” – my daughter has yet to say one complete sentence that is either totally Hebrew or totally English. Ah, the joys of raising a bilingual child] Muuu-mmy, I don’t want a braid, I want kemo [Hebrew for “like”] you have – I want to wear a bandana.”

We remarked to Eliana how beautiful her braid was, and asked her who did it for her. She smiled coyly and answered “Sivan,” her ganenet. Her smile said it all. I am an angel in gan – butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth – but at home, don’t mess with me or my hair. It suddenly occurred to Josh and I that we didn’t know the word for “braid” in Hebrew, so we turned to our little angel in the back of the car, and without missing a beat, she enriched our Hebrew vocabulary and told us that “braid” is “tzama”(I think that’s what she said). It is the wackiest feeling in the world when your three-year-old is more of an Israeli than you can ever hope to be, and even though I studied Modern Hebrew in school, am familiar with Hebrew literature and poetry (I still remember quotes from Bialik and Agnon that I memorized for my Modern Hebrew A’ Level), she is teaching ME how to say words. I love it. My daughter, the Israeli. 

Watch this space

In my absence (if I don’t meet my deadlines this week, it will be cornflakes and pasta on the menu for a long time to come), my better half will be delighting you with his wit and banter.

For the record, I take no responsibility for his spelling, punctuation, or grammar. (You can’t have everything in life.)

Beware of Italian teachers with scissors

If you have yet to eat your breakfast, dinner, or lunch, do NOT read on. Save this for a moment when your digestion is sturdier.

A teacher in Milan was suspended for cutting off her seven-year-old student’s tongue with a pair of scissors because he was “lively”. No, folks, this isn’t a Purim joke, you can read more about it here. The understated tone of the article makes it sound as if cutting off a child’s tongue is commonplace and happens almost every day. (I shouldn’t joke, it probably does.)

The child is apparently scared to go back to school (no kidding, Einstein) and now has a fear of knives. The 22-year-old teacher, who warned the child, “Pull out your tongue. I’ll cut it, and you’ll no longer talk,” has since apologized and claims it was an accident. An accident?

It’s a crazy, crazy world we live in. Reading articles like these makes me want to break into my daughters’ daycare in the middle of the night, and install webcams EVERYWHERE. I do fully trust the women who take care of my daughters, but then I say to myself, I bet parents who sat down with this female teacher in Milan for parent-teacher evenings would never have guessed that she is the tongue-cutting type. 

Online socializing – blessing or curse?

Against my better judgment, I got ensnared into joining Facebook. For those of you who are not in the know, Facebook is an online social network that connects you with friends from the past, your next door neighbor, colleagues, ex-flames, you name it….  You can post as little and as much information as you want, and can share an unlimited number of photos, videos, etc.

The reason why I question the wisdom of joining is because I know myself and I do have a tendency to get distracted while I am working, and Facebook provides me with yet another mindless excuse to take just one more tiny break.  The good news, though, is that I reconnected with an old friend from my high school in England whom I have not seen or heard from in over ten years – Dalia, it was great “talking” to you! Thanks to online resources such as Facebook and blogging, the world is getting smaller and smaller by the minute, and in the words of Tom Robbins, “if the world gets any smaller, I will end up living next door to myself!”

From a psychological perspective, I question, though, how beneficial and “healthy” it is to become so immersed in the Internet that we withdraw into ourselves, and forget how to interact on a one-to-one level as human beings. In this day and age, real social encounters, I would imagine, run the risk of becoming awkward and potentially nerve-wracking. It is one thing to express yourself freely in the privacy of your home or office – after all, you don’t need to worry about contemptuous glares from your computer screens – but to reach out to another person in a public setting, such as a party, could be such an intimidating experience that you end up counting the minutes until you can return to the safety of your home, where you can type away on the keyboard to your heart’s content. 

This type of social anxiety brought on by trends in blogging and online chatting might sound extreme, and you may wonder which type of person would really be that socially inept as to experience the above, but my instinct tells me that such social angst happens more often than we think. I have an acquaintance, let’s call her Elizabeth, who seems to have a split personality. When I see her at parties, social get-togethers, and the like, she is withdrawn and quiet. She doesn’t come across as being shy- she just has a distant aura about her. When we chat online, however, it is literally as if I am communicating with another person altogether. There is no point of resemblance between Elizabeth A, who I see every now and again in public settings, and Elizabeth B who is extremely expressive and even eloquent. 

People feel like they can let their guard down in the virtual arena, and while that can be a potential blessing, because they can tap into parts of themselves they may never have discovered, and can access knowledge and information that would otherwise have been blocked to them, it can also be a curse and a vicious cycle. The more you become “hooked” on blogging and online socializing, the harder it is to venture out of your cocoon and face the real world.

I would imagine, although I am not speaking from experience, that this problem applies to the world of dating. You meet a fantastic guy on a dating site – you have so much in common and you count the minutes until you next see him online (you can see where this is going). It gets to the point that you decide you want to take your online relationship to the next level – let’s set up a date. The big night arrives and you are sitting at a table facing a complete stranger, and you are tongue-tied. Suddenly all your mutual interests, likes, and dislikes evaporate into thin air – how do you make the adjustment from writing cute little messages with no real repercussions to interacting with a person face-to-face and establishing a real relationship? Anyway, just some food for thought. As always, I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

Before I go, though, just to present the other side of the coin, I read today that an 107-year-old woman in Australia has just started writing her blog. Considering I never grew up knowing my GRANDPARENTS, let alone GREAT-GRANDPARENTS who reached the 100-year milestone, it is an incredible concept that this centenarian is going to be sharing the pearls of her wisdom with the rest of the world.

Mosquitoes – the stuff that poetry is made of

I have to be honest: I have never enjoyed reading poetry, and could never understand what all the fuss was about.*  In primary school (that’s elementary school to you American heathens), I recall struggling to make my poems rhyme. They went along the following tenuous lines…. “I’m a poet and I didn’t know it…” “The snow covered the mountains, look can you see the fountains?” In high school, we left the world of rhyme behind us, and instead would analyze poetry to death. In exams I “did the do” and would wax lyrical about the hidden meaning behind the words, and the rhythm, and what it all symbolized, because that is ultimately what the examiners want to read, and it worked. Lo and behold, I got that coveted A grade in my GCSE and A’ levels. (Note to anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to be educated in England – A’ levels are the equivalent of your SAT’s. There is actually a world of difference between A’ levels and SAT’s, but that’s the subject of another post.)  To this day, I turn down any editing projects that involve poetry. Give me a straightforward sentence that reaches the end of the line any day.

There is one exception, however, to the “I can’t abide poetry” rule. Many moons ago, when I was a teenager, I came across in the public library a volume of selected poems by D.H. Lawrence.  To give you some background information about this writer: This man was notorious in the 1920’s for his controversial and best-known novel, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which contained some rather explicit descriptions of sexual relationships. At the time, such subjects were strictly taboo, and the novel was banned in England and the US until the sixties.

Anyway, returning to the point of this post, when I saw the name D.H. Lawrence on the spine, I immediately picked up the book. I had read another novel of his, Sons and Lovers (I am sure by now, you can detect that love was a central theme in his works), and I was a big fan. After leafing through a couple of pages, I think it would be safe to say that I was mesmerized by his poetry in which he ascribed human emotions to animals. Truthfully, after reading his poem “The Mosquito,” I have never looked at this blood-sucking insect in the same way again.  Warning: the poem you are about to read is not for the faint-hearted. 

The Mosquito

When did you start your tricks,
Monsieur?
 
What do you stand on such high legs for?
Why this length of shredded shank,
You exaltation?
 
Is it so that you shall lift your centre of gravity upwards
And weigh no more than air as you alight upon me,
Stand upon me weightless, you phantom ?
 
I heard a woman call you the Winged Victory
In sluggish Venice.
You turn your head towards your tail, and smile.
 
How can you put so much devilry
Into that translucent phantom shred
Of a frail corpus ?
 
Queer, with your thin wings and your streaming legs
How you sail like a heron, or a dull clot of air,
A nothingness.
 
Yet what an aura surrounds you;
Your evil little aura, prowling, and casting a numbness on my mind.
 
That is your trick, your bit of filthy magic:
Invisibility, and the anæsthetic power
To deaden my attention in your direction.
But I know your game now, streaky sorcerer.
 
Queer, how you stalk and prowl the air
In circles and evasions, enveloping me,
Ghoul on wings
Winged Victory.
 
Settle, and stand on long thin shanks
Eyeing me sideways, and cunningly conscious that I am aware,
You speck.
 
I hate the way you lurch off sideways into air
Having read my thoughts against you.
 
Come then, let us play at unawares,
And see who wins in this sly game of bluff,
Man or mosquito.
 
You don’t know that I exist, and I don’t know that you exist.
Now then!
 
It is your trump,
It is your hateful little trump,
You pointed fiend,
Which shakes my sudden blood to hatred of you:
It is your small, high, hateful bugle in my ear.
 
Why do you do it?
Surely it is bad policy.
 
They say you can’t help it.
 
If that is so, then I believe a little in Providence protecting the innocent.
But it sounds so amazingly like a slogan,
A yell of triumph as you snatch my scalp.
 
Blood, red blood
Super-magical
Forbidden liquor.
 
I behold you stand
For a second enspasmed in oblivion,
Obscenely estasied
Sucking live blood,
My blood.
 
Such silence, such suspended transport,
Such gorging,
Such obscenity of trespass.
 
You stagger
As well as you may.
Only your accursed hairy frailty,
Your own imponderable weightlessness
Saves you, wafts you away on the very draught my anger makes in its snatching.
 
Away with a pæan of derision,
You winged blood-drop.
 
Can I not overtake you?
Are you one too many for me,
Winged Victory ?
Am I not mosquito enough to out-mosquito you?
 
Queer, what a big stain my sucked blood makes
Beside the infinitesimal faint smear of you!
Queer, what a dim dark smudge you have disappeared into!

 * Disclaimer: It goes without saying that my strong dislike of poetry doesn’t extend to the poetry that my husband has on occasion written for me. That kind of poetry I will read any day.

An Ode to Coffee

As I sit here at 10 p.m. on Thursday evening (quite sad, really), willing myself on to edit just another couple of chapters, fuelled by a “supersized” mug of coffee, it brings to mind an astoundingly fresh historical novel that I read last year called The Coffee Trader by David Liss.

The novel takes place in 17th-century Amsterdam (in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition) and is centered around a trader named Miguel Lienzo, of Portuguese Jewish descent, who has just emerged from a financial disaster and hopes to recover his fortune by trading in the virtually unknown new commodity called [WAIT FOR IT, *DRUM ROLL*] coffee. I particularly enjoyed reading about people’s reaction to this bitter brew in the 17th century. They found it hard to believe that money could be made from this weird and exotic beverage. I can’t even begin to think what my (professional) life would be like without coffee. There’s a G-d in the world.

Anyway, on that note, my coffee break is over. It’s back to work.

Rap music…sounds like somebody feeding a rhyming dictionary to a popcorn popper

The subject of this post is a quote from my favorite writer of all times, Tom Robbins. I start reading his books with the knowledge and acceptance that the world will look radically different once I have finished. When I prepare lunch for myself, I half expect the can of baked beans to start talking to me – inanimate objects take on a special life force in his masterpiece Skinny Legs and All. You come away from the book with the sneaky suspicion that until now, you have lived your life as if you have been on the set of a black and white movie, and suddenly you are seeing things in color. A revelation. Every sentence in his book is a gem, and no word is wasted.

I recently read an online article in which Tom Robbins revealed the secret of his writing, and while I wouldn’t necessarily advise writers to adopt this approach, it was definitely an eye-opener:

When he starts a novel, it works like this. First he writes a sentence. Then he rewrites it again and again, examining each word, making sure of its perfection, finely honing each phrase until it reverberates with the subtle texture of the infinite. Sometimes it takes hours. Sometimes an entire day is devoted to one sentence, which gets marked on and expanded upon in every possible direction until he is satisfied. Then, and only then, does he add a period.

Next, he rereads the first sentence and starts writing a second, rewriting it again and again until it shimmers. Then, and only then, does he add a period. While working on each sentence, he has no idea what the next sentence is going to be, much less the next chapter or the end of the book. All thoughts of where he is going or where he has been are banished. Each sentence is a Zen universe unto itself, and while working on it, nothing exists but the sentence. He keeps writing in such a manner until he eventually reaches a sentence which he works on like all the others. He adds a period and the book is done. No editing or revising in any way. When you read a Tom Robbins book, you are experiencing the words not only in the exact order that he wrote them but almost in the exact order that he thought them.

“But wait a minute,” I interrupted. “The first sentence of your first book, Another Roadside Attraction, is ‘The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.’ Are you telling me you wrote that sentence having absolutely no idea where it was leading?”

“Yes,” he said. “I knew I could explain it later. I like painting myself in corners and seeing if I can get out.”

Once an editor…

Welcome to Double Take! The problem with being an editor, and having an anal personality in general, is that you can never stop being…an editor. I recall countless blind dates, back in my single days, when I vowed that I would not point out to my date every ridiculous spelling mistake on the menu – and believe me, Jerusalem restaurants have their lion’s share of those! – but alas, I couldn’ t help myself. It would take me an hour to decide what to eat. This was not because I couldn’t decide on the dish, but rather the mental red pen was crossing out (Track Changes in Word is a lame substitute for the relentless and unforgiving red pen) each and every typo on the menu. Well, there is a happy ending – luckily I found someone who found this quality of mine to be amusing and even endearing, and after six weeks of dating, it was a done deal and we were engaged. So now he has to put up with my editorial observations on a daily basis.

As part of our engagement trip, we went to Disney World. My husband was extremely excited – as a child and teenager, he would travel to Disney World almost every winter, and now he was going to share with me the magic of Magic Kingdom. It was my first time in Disney World, and to be honest, I wasn’t convinced that it was going to be quite the magical experience for this British gal as it was for him, but to my credit, I was jumping up and down with excitement. If it meant something to him, it would mean something to me, too. Well, after 5 minutes of sitting on the train that took us into Magic Kingdom, I didn’t need to “act” anymore. I experienced Disney World in the same way that a toddler experiences his/her first taste of candy. I jumped up and down on the spot in order to be noticed and chosen by the magician. I was entranced. We entered the Hall of Presidents, which frankly bored me to tears (it’s hard enough to keep track of all the British Prime Ministers), and just when my husband thought that he had left the editor behind in Israel, and was traveling with his fun-loving fiance, I exclaimed upon noticing a typo on the board.

Once an editor, always an editor…..