Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


Three prominent literary editors head-to-head
Share |

By Zoe Whittall

There is perhaps no trickier a relationship between two initial strangers than the pairing of editor-writer. There’s often a limited timeframe and a lot of ego to wade through before the business of making a literary work polished for publication is complete. Once you find the perfect editor, it’s common for writers to say they’ll never work with anyone else again. Editors have an awful lot to do with the success of a book, but remain elusive and shadowy figures. Who are they, exactly, and what do they do? At this year’s The Scream Literary Festival, the editing process will be autopsied for an audience.

Stet: Redacting the Redacted explores what dialogues and tensions occur between authors and editors. According to their website, the Scream invites the audience into a “surgical amphitheatre” as Julie Wilson ( hosts an editing autopsy. The participating editors have individually blind-edited one poem and piece of prose by two well-known writers and the authors will be unveiled, the editors will then discuss “what it’s like to get their hands dirty, and we’ll get a good look at literature from the inside.”

Alana Wilcox, Senior Editor at Coach House Books, will be one of the editors participating in the Stet event. “To be honest, I’m nervous about the whole thing,” she explained via email. “Editing is a private, intimate act, done in collaboration. So it’s troubling to not have the context of who the author is, nor any chance at a relationship with him/her.”

Leigh Nash, organizer of the event, explains its inception. “I wanted to organize an event that centered on the process of editing, and it was Bill Kennedy who pushed the idea to its extreme limit and suggested an edit-off. Realizing that no self-respecting editor would actually participate in a competition (and rightly so!) we toned it down a notch to blind editing that would occur in advance of the event, so that the editorial work done by each editor provides a jumping off point for a larger discussion and something concrete to talk about at the actual event. The revealing of the authors is just a fun gimmick.”

Despite the toned-down approach, participants are understandably nervous. Stuart Ross, also participating in the Scream event, is a freelance editor with thirty years experience, and is currently poetry editor at Mansfield Press. He’s also a well-respected fiction writer and poet. When I ask him about participating in the event, he admits it’s a bit of an unnatural situation. “One tries, as an editor, to help the author do what the author wants to do, and how to do it most effectively. So, to have this single piece of writing, out of any personal or artistic context, isn't what editing usually entails. Also, I'm having to communicate with the faceless author through Leigh Nash, and that distancing of the communication doesn't make for an ideal collaborative process.”

Exploring the editorial process live on stage with others watching is perhaps what’s making the whole event so intriguing. De-mystifying the process and exploring how different editors work on the page while we get to watch – it’s a voyeuristic delight, especially to aspiring authors, many of whom attend Scream events.

Nash explains that the event is meant to highlight the importance of the editor's role and the different impact each editor can have on a work. “It’s not meant to suggest that editors are people who just muck around with otherwise great writing, but rather that editing is an important craft in the same way that writing is, it’s just that it’s rarely brought into the public eye.”

How do editors start out and grow to become big players? Lynn Henry, publisher and editor at House of Anansi Press, has been working as an editor for over seventeen years, but remembers a certain childhood proclivity. “I have a distinct memory of imagining, with a mix of astonishment, glee, and horror, what would happen if I were to rearrange or change the words in my picture books.”

Any writer who has been around the block can tell you the editorial process varies from editor to editor. Henry has this to say about her approach to editing a work: “I think the biggest challenge for book editors like me is to balance the need to think rigorously, precisely, and critically about a work with the need to be open to its possibility and potential. So, in practice, I’m all about trying to pose the right questions and put forward sensible hypotheses, and not at all about simply marking up a page or giving answers or telling someone what to do (at least, not until much later in the process, once the author and I have reached a mutual understanding about what we’re doing). I think it’s much harder to articulate intelligent and useful questions than to provide answers; such questions demand an understanding of the difference between the work as it exists in the manuscript and some intimation of what the finished book could be, or wants to be.”

When editors and writers first meet, it can be scary on both sides. “One never knows how an author is going to respond to editing,” writes Ross. “I feel very secure in my editing chops, and in my ability to communicate with an author. So, if the operation is successful, it's because the author was open to empathetic editing; if not, it's because the author didn't want to be edited.”

Henry says she tries not to let writers see it, but she’s still nervous when she first embarks on the process of trying to get inside a manuscript. “I still think, each time, that I’m going to fail utterly to understand it on all the levels required (in fiction, for example, the basic levels of plot and character and setting et cetera, but also on the more complex levels of theme and metaphor and meaning as embodied in style and linguistic nuance and echoes of other work, not to mention cultural context). But somehow, fear and anxiety seem to burble up a few insights within me. I think of myself as walking inside the work as you would walk inside a building; I enter slowly and look around carefully, going into every room and then up onto the roof, sticking my head out the windows and testing the beams. Sometimes I poke a hole in the drywall or shake the rafters, just to see what will fall out. And then I take my cache of observations to the author and set them down in front of her or him (sometimes with a chart, even!), and we talk.”

Wilcox describes her editorial style as interrogative and respectful. “I try my best to get inside the head and style of the writer, to identify what he/she wants the book to be, then to ask questions (instead of imposing changes) that will help him/her make the book the best it can be.”

Editors, especially those with many years experience under their belts, have many stories of how the relationship can work well, and why it does. According to Wilcox, it often comes down to whether or not an author is open to thinking about their book from a slightly different perspective. “One of my favourite experiences was writing seven pages of notes to an author who responded with about ten pages of his own. He took maybe half of my suggestions, but I wasn’t slighted by that because he offered a reasoned, well-thought-out response to each. At the end he told me I had made him think differently about time and language and that he would carry that into his next book.”

Engaging openly is something Henry values as well. “Engaging in a conversation is much less likely to provoke hostility than sending someone a pointed directive about their work. Also, I’m a great believer in the adage, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,’” says Henry, who recently worked with an author who was initially intimidating: Margaret Atwood. “Her work wasn’t broke, and I certainly didn’t rush towards her pages with my red pen uncapped.”

Henry says she’s been lucky thus far, avoiding the experience of being at odds with a writer. The biggest problem is usually practical. “My biggest sticking points with writers usually occur around scheduling – sometimes I’m juggling too much work and simply can’t get people comments fast enough (and really good writers, I find, are always chomping at the bit for serious engagement with their work from an editor).”

Ross is in the interesting position of being on both sides of the writer and editor table. His newest book is the extremely funny collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand, 2009). He claims to have very high standards when it comes to having his own work edited. “It's tough right now, because I have a novel finished, one that means an awful lot to me personally, and there are only a couple of editors I know that I'd trust with it. I do always give my manuscripts to at least a couple of readers I trust for feedback, before the book ever gets to a publisher's desk. Among those readers are non-writers, writers, and editor/writers.” Ross tries to be an empathetic editor, and he looks for the same in his own editors. “I don't want someone who's trying to write his or her own book through me. I want someone who likes my writing and wants to help me get it right.”

I wanted to know what specific words of wisdom these editors had for the aspiring writers out there. “Don't try to sound like a writer,” says Ross. “Read, read, read. Anything and everything,” offers Wilcox. Henry offers a piece of advice that might go against her best interest as a publisher: “It’s simple: Don’t put a book out into the marketplace if you don’t think it’s ready, no matter the pressure from people around you.”

Nash has two hopes for the Stet event. “On the one hand, I hope this will help to demystify the editing process, and on the other, I hope the event will bring public recognition to the hard work that editors do. And if I get to see three awesome versions of a poem and piece of prose by our two super-secret superstar authors, then I won’t complain.”

Stet: Redacting the Redacted
Saturday, July 4, 2009 at 7:00 p.m.
Mercer Union
1286 Bloor Street West
Cost: PWYC, $5 Suggested

Alana Wilcox (Senior Editor of Coach House Books)
Stuart Ross (Poetry Editor of Mansfield Press)
Bev Daurio (Editor-in-chief of The Mercury Press)

Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall’s next book is Holding Still For As Long As Possible (House of Anansi, 2009).

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Openbook: Past Issues
Go To Issue 14 - Summer 2011

Go To Issue 13 - Winter 2011
Go To Issue 12 - Fall 2010
Go To Issue 11 - Summer 2010
Go To Issue 10 - Spring 2010
Go To Issue 09 - Winter 2009
Go To Issue 08 - Fall 2009
Go To Issue 07 - Summer 2009, including the Special Scream Edition!
Go To Issue 06 - Spring 2009
Go To Issue 05 - Winter 2008
Go To Issue 04 - Fall 2008
Go To Issue 03 - Summer 2008
Go To Issue 02 - Spring 2008
Go To Issue 01 - Fall 2007