Literary collaboration: adversarial?

I have a friend who’s a real smart fellow.  Can’t see his blind spots, but is fundamentally a good man and a capable writer.  Some years back he was thinking of publishing a book about this or that. I talked to him about it a bit. He was eager to work with an editor so that he could fight with the editor. Evidently my friend was not so excited about printing his book, but about engaging in debate with his editor. He was eager to be toe to toe, at drawn blades, battling for every word.

Pardon me.  What the hell?

I thought about that recently as I entered into a proofreading project with a first-time author. His work was unpolished but honest and passionate.  Early on, he expressed a strong ability to withstand harsh criticism. Bring it on, he basically said. Good attitude. (It’ll stand him in good stead when the Amazon reviews arrive, and people totally miss his point, saying mostly stupid things, and he has to refrain from answering them at all, much less with “You vacuous cretin…”.)

That writer lacked much ego, and had a desire to improve. Respect for that. But having not really worked with a lot of editors, evidently, a part of him assumed that the critique process would be serrated and twisting the blade. At least that’s what I made of his statement.

The author had a surprise coming. Why would I do that? Only very weak literary professionals hurt your feelings for fun, and thus are questionably even professionals. I never had a real editor treat me that way. I had them send my stuff back for rewrites, ask for clarification, bluntly tell me what I needed to fix. I never had a single one set out to hurt my feelings. Pros don’t have a need to stomp on your soul. They’ll just tell you, this must be fixed. That’s it. If asked, they’ll explain why. They know their trade well enough that there isn’t going to be a bunch of debate.

His surprise: literary collaboration wasn’t adversarial. It was fun. Everyone wants the end product to be its best; if not, they don’t belong on the job. Everyone wins when the end result is something great. Trust builds through working together. You can have a good time while writing a good book. You can banter, kid, laugh, jest. That’s not unprofessional. That is simply making work fun. Writers should like to write. Editors should enjoy editing. Proofreaders should adore catching typos. The relationship should be congenial and collegial. A relaxed attitude is simply the literary equivalent of the special shine on weapons that are obviously in regular use by people who get paid to pull their triggers. If you’re really capable, you can do it without sweat beads popping out on your forehead. You can take time to smell the red ink.

If anyone’s pissed off, You’re (plural) Doing It Wrong.

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8 thoughts on “Literary collaboration: adversarial?”

  1. As J.K. has pointed out, the author-writing professional relationship should always be constructive and never adversarial. A manuscript should never be the field of battle for an egotistical clash of Titans. It’s a place where two people are both dedicated to creating the best that can be made out of a given piece of written work. As a publisher who has worked with great pleasure with J.K. over the years, I can say that discussions with him on how to achieve the best for the work at hand can are often spirited — but in a totally fascinating, positive, and intellectually delightful way. If discussions between clients and their editorial specialists turn into pitched battles and break out frequently on the field of words, it’s generally time for a literary no-fault divorce. Then both parties can turn and walk away from fighting and get back to their goals of writing and polishing something of great value to the reader. For lest anyone forget, books and articles are written for the benefit of the readers, not the egos of the writers, editors, or publishers. Richard N. Côté, Editor-in-Chief, Corinthian Books / http://www.corinthianbooks.com.

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  2. Hey, J.K., just wanted to share a couple of thoughts and clarify something. I understand why you thought I came into the process thinking the long knives might be out, as I expressed some initial fear going into the process. In my case, though, it wasn’t a concern over whether we might have an adversarial relationship regarding the manuscript. Even though I didn’t know you well going into the process, I knew you well enough to believe that wasn’t part of your M.O.

    In my case, it was just a concern that my work wasn’t good enough, period. Somewhere deep in my heart, I had this fear that you would take a look at it and say “What were you thinking? Please remove this piece of dreck from my sight.” This is the peril of being a first time writer.

    In the end, going over my manuscript with you was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. We shared a few laughs, you taught me a lot I needed to know, and my book is now much improved for it. I owe you a great debt for that.

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    1. Points well taken, Shawn, but that is what I was thinking of. I wouldn’t say such a thing about your overall work, or about any aspect of it. I see what you are saying; that it was more self-doubt than concern about me. In any case, your self-doubt was ill-founded.

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  3. I remember when I was a young editor, and I sent a writer the dummied pages (after editing and art was placed) of our book. He started a phone call by screaming, yes screaming, at me for an error that was introduced by the consultant. I, quaking in my boots, tried to calm him down by telling him that we all wanted the same thing: A good book about rocks and minerals for kids. He calmed down, I realized I was an adult and in control of my book, and we both got what we were aiming for. The best books happen when smart and talented writers write, good editors edit, and creative art directors direct. Collaboration is my favorite part of my job.

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    1. And that, Debbie, is why I’m so lastingly glad I accepted your offer to write for AR:FBF (which seems to be out of print already!). I hope you had as good a time as I did. It’s hard to imagine a mature author reacting that way, but you must have a gift for calming people down.

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  4. After a manuscript is edited, the highest compliment any editor can receive is to hear the author say, “That is exactly what I meant to say. You helped me say it better.”

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