Being a writer’s nurse

It may fall to me to doctor people’s books, but that really doesn’t describe my role. I’m more like a nurse. Doctors don’t actually do much hands-on; they mostly diagnose and prescribe, whereas nurses’ work is more hands-on overall.  This may explain why I so easily empathize with the many nurses in my world. If I just read mss and gave advice, I’d be more like a doctor. Since I fix them myself, I’m more like a nurse. It got me to thinking.

Nurses do a lot of work designed to help people in the long run, but some of it hurts, and some of it terrifies the patients. I think some of them come in with attitudes the nurse must also deal with. This is easy to relate to. Every time I make a change to the writer’s ms, there’s no getting around it: I’m saying it was lacking something. Writers who have never worked with an editor generally don’t know what to expect, and they choose various stances going in:

Defiance: “I will fight for my words!” No, you won’t, because I won’t fight back. I’ll make my point, then let you decide. If you value my guidance, you’ll take it into consideration. If you do not, then that’s your choice. If you ignore me often enough, I’ll ask not to be credited–which you should see as a very bad sign–and you won’t have to worry about whether or not to engage me next time. I want to work with writers I can help. Not every relationship is a good match.

Terror: fear of ‘red ink.’ Some writers are so fragile that a marked-up ms is more than their psyches can take. In those cases, no matter what I do, we count down to the day when I bump the wrong nerve, at which time I’ll become the most recent sob story told to the next candidate.

Pessimism: “Why do you need to read the whole thing to tell me how bad I am?” I mean it. I get this. And the answer is that I need to read the whole thing, in the form in which I would be editing it, in order to assess what it needs, how much work it takes. I have had potential clients who had great mss that interested me very much, about which I was quite optimistic, come in with this attitude. I think it’s like with me opening my mail, when I kind of brace myself for bad news. Except this is mail they asked for, and it’s supposed to do something positive, so I don’t understand the thinking.

Excitement: yes, I see it, and fairly often. Not always from the first contact, but once we discuss the types of editing and I offer an assessment of where I believe we should go. There is a point where the uncertainty yields to optimism, and we have a sense of common purpose.

I grant that the analogy seems flawed on the face of it, since the nurse is not the doctor…at least was not, traditionally. Now, quite often, s/he is in that role, and I welcome it. I have had much better treatment from NPs than from MDs, to the point where I’ll endure an appointment with an MD only if there is some compelling reason I can’t see an NP.

So, nursing. When you imagine the ideal nurse, knowing that such a person represents a theoretical ideal rather than a realistic expectation of anyone, what do you imagine? Here’s my list:

  • Someone finding that fine compassionate balancing point between emotional detachment and emotional involvement.
  • Someone finding that sweet spot of balance between enforcing rules for the sake of having rules, and paying no attention to any rules.
  • Someone tough enough to take a stand where it matters, and strong enough to yield a bit when that makes the most sense.
  • Someone whose care promotes optimism, without offering false optimism where it is not merited.
  • Someone who understands that, in the end, the greatest impact of the outcome is born by the patient, not the nurse.
  • Someone deeply skilled in the art, yet ready and willing to learn new methods.
  • Someone who knows when to get someone else involved, but doesn’t pull that trigger just to avoid the hard stuff.
  • Someone who is just accountant enough to consider costs, but not nearly accountant enough to think of nothing but costs.
  • Someone who knows that a patient may often disregard his or her advice, and doesn’t take the disregard as a personal affront.
  • Someone who can take an obstreperous or difficult patient and make him or her a partner in his or her own healing.

If we replace the medical terms with their literary equivalents, that might just gather up the list of everything I seek to be as an editor (and am not, oftener than I would like).

Let’s not take the analogy too far, though, lest my clients have nightmares about hospital gowns and enemas.

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