One of the cornerstones of the fiction world is the relationship between authors and editors, symbolizing much about art itself: the balance between inspiration and control, generation and selection. A strong author-editor relationship is a rock solid foundation for the burgeoning of creative genius, artistic refinement, and a career’s worth of books that knock the socks off of millions of readers.
Both sides of this equation are important, and many people only fill one role, author or editor. Why this is so seems simple: different people have different strengths, and so gravitate toward one half of that combination. But there’s a deeper reason why this occurs in pairs—labor is often easier when divided. New authors often receive the advice to get as many (skilled) pairs of eyes on their work as they can, at least in the beginning, because it’s extremely difficult to plumb the depths of a book’s potential alone.
But what about those who command both sets of skills—authors who are also career editors? It may be tempting to think that these people have a major edge, and may even be able to “cheat” one of the deepest dynamics in the book creation process by being their own editors.
As someone who is both, I’ve been asked this at times by colleagues and friends. You can edit your own work, right? That must make things easier.
Well, the truth is, it can. Sometimes. Other times? You’d be surprised. And people who specialize in one of these crafts often have their own edge.
Writing and editing do complement each other, in part because they entail overlapping skills. On the face of it, this seems obvious: authors and editors both need to understand story structure; they both need to grasp characterization; they both need a good command of grammar and composition. But the processes of editing and writing can also be more similar than one may think. For example, authors need to spend a lot of time earnestly generating material, then pruning and refining that material in its later stages, through revision. This creates a kind of grow-cut cycle in writing. But editors have to work in this framework, too, it’s just that it’s often in reverse. While editors usually begin by identifying problems in a manuscript, they also have to be able to help an author come up with inventive solutions. While it’s easy to think of writing as a right-brained, creative activity, and editing as a left-brained, critical task, the truth is that both crafts require both approaches.
Another advantage for authors who are also editors is that they have the opportunity to experience the publication process from more points of view. An author who also edits books knows what kinds of things they’re looking for as an editor, as well as common problem areas. Similarly, editors who have direct experience with writing books may have an easier time assisting authors who have had similar difficulties in writing. This results in a great deal of potential for cross-learning. If you know have to be good at tidying up manuscripts, you may become adept at making sure your own are squeaky clean. And just as you can learn tremendously from working with a great editor, you can obtain many pearls of insight from editing for other people, witnessing the depths and expanses of the craft from all sides.
So is multi-tasking the key to improving with both crafts? Not necessarily.
It’s important to understand that while writing and editing are similar, they are fundamentally different processes. Editors need to be creative to work with manuscripts, and authors need to be critical to whip their early drafts into shape. But these processes occur in phases, and moreover, skills do not necessarily translate between tasks. We can all see why editors cannot write other peoples’ books for them, or tell an author what their story should ultimately be—they didn’t write it. But it’s just as true that editing one’s own work is often not only difficult, but sometimes borderline impossible. Any author who has stared down a snarling, unruly manuscript, not knowing what was wrong until their editor identified the problem, can attest to this. I’ve caught the same story error over and over in others’ books that I’ve missed in my own. There comes a point when you simply can’t expect to handle everything yourself.
The flip-side of this is that specialization often pays off. One truism that trickles through writer communities is that when looking for feedback, non-writers are some of the best people to ask. While there are demonstrably brilliant editors who also write, the thought is provocative. By the same principle that dividing labor between author and editor works, there must be something said for compartmentalization. Being a generalist can mean swelling returns, but only if it works for you. If you find yourself leaning to one side of the balance, this is worthy of embrace. And a certain beauty lies in the act of devoting oneself to one particular craft, trusting one’s partners to take over when their task has come. Authors who know their editor has their back. Editors who pour their creative passions into making others’ stories gleaming and razor sharp.
But perhaps the most valuable insight I can share about this is that, no matter what path you take in life, it’s important not to demand of yourself to be all things, all the time. Give yourself space to be what you are. Self-sufficiency is one of the true gifts of experience, but when all is said and done, human beings never stop relying on each other. Sharing weight across many shoulders is not just efficient, it is the oldest thread of human genius. Storytelling, too, is fundamentally about sharing. Sharing experiences, feelings, perspectives. None of these exist in a vacuum. Just as creation and criticism are both vital, we all have our own parts to play.
May Peterson is a writer and freelance editor. She lives in the misty hills of the Midwest and has been accused of being from another world. Her passions include romances that make her cry, reading lots of fantasy, LGBTQ rights, tea, and mysterious fey creatures.
In addition to being their go-to editor, May is a currently editing All in Fear, due out from Open Ink Press on December 1st and will work on two subsequent projects with them.