If you’re a writer, you might come to a point when you want someone to take a look at your work. Someone who isn’t your friend, a spouse or a family member. Ideally, someone who knows about storytelling and can deliver constructive feedback.
Luckily, there was an editor at the Brussels Writers’ Circle meetings. Chris Dupuis is a Canadian writer, editor, and curator, based in Brussels. He has worked with several BWC members and helped them improve their manuscripts. He has also contributed text to uptight art magazines, gay travel guides, obscure poetry collections, and expansive theatrical encyclopaedias.
If you’re in doubt whether to bring in an editor or not, or when to do it, this double interview with Chris and a writer Karmen Spiljak, might help.
Why did you want to work with an external editor on the project?
Karmen: After being deep inside my story for a few months, I wanted to get an outside perspective on different aspects of the novel, from the storyline to sentence structure, characters and style. Getting unbiased critical feedback was crucial to be able to move on to the next stage. This is why I decided to look for an editor.
At what stage should a writer consider getting an editor?
Chris: An editor can come in at different points in the process. It may be when you’re preparing to send your project to publishers or agents. It may be early on, when you have a great idea but you’re struggling to articulate it. Or it may be somewhere in the middle, when you’ve been working on something for a while but find yourself confused or losing motivation.
An effective editor can assist you at any of these points. What’s important, I think, is the variety of techniques an editor has available to them to do this. When I’m working with a writer, my central task it to figure out what this particular person needs at this particular point in this particular process, and do my best to give it to them. That might be expanding the range of inspiration (“Look at this book/film/TV show…”). It might be some tough love (“This part really doesn’t work and we need to cut it”.) It might just be saying, “You’re doing fine. Keep going!”
An editor can also give a writer something incredibly useful—a deadline. I’ve had a number of writers bring me in at different points in a process in order to give them the push they need to finish a specific section. The goal at that point isn’t to make it perfect. It’s just to get some words on the page so you have a starting point to work from.
What did an editor bring to the process?
Karmen: Quite a few things. A fresh point of view and a micro perspective that helped me rethink certain aspects of the story. Questions, like why I chose this particular point of view, why I chose to write in the past tense instead of the present, and so on, made me re-evaluate certain decisions that I’d already made and reverse them.
As it turned out, just changing the point of view and tense made a massive change to the whole story and helped make it better. I also started to read my work from a different perspective, zooming in on specific sentences and revising descriptions and dialogue, so they would give more backstory.
What are the things that editing/editor cannot do?
Chris: One of the best analogies I’ve come across for an editor is a midwife; a person who helps you through a birthing process. They can give you advice, hold your hand, listen to your screams, and encourage you to push forward. But they can’t have the baby for you. That’s something only you can do. As an editor, I can give all sorts of support around a process. But I’m not writing the piece for you. It’s your baby, and you have to birth it.
Different editors follow different processes. But I always try to work in a way where I’m supporting you in the thing you want to make, rather than trying to convince you to make the thing I want you to make. Some of my work can be about clarification, pointing out inconsistencies in a story or points where things are over/under-explained. Why is a character doing this thing and not another? In Chapter 6 the reality of the world is one way, but in Chapter 8 it’s totally different. What is the reason for that change?
Sometimes writers can get confused about the geography of the spaces or environments they are creating. In one paragraph the window is next to the door, in the next it’s on the opposite side of the room; two characters are standing beside each other and then suddenly they’re five meters apart. Usually, there are reasons for inconsistencies like this—things need to be a certain way to make the action move forward. An effective editor can help you maintain the narrative structure you want, while making sure the reader isn’t confused by the basic story elements.
An editor can also be useful in helping you create consistent characters. Sometimes a writer will create a character that’s supposed to be 18, but speaks like they’re 30. This sort of thing usually isn’t an accident; there’s a reason for the dichotomy. Perhaps they have the intellect of a 30 year old but the vulnerability of an 18 year old? If so, how can help you show both while rendering a believable character? A good editor can help you pinpoint these things and figure out how to use them to your advantage, while keeping the story intact.
What is usually your biggest challenge when editing?
Chris: Feedback on any creative work is largely subjective, so one of the big challenges is striking a balance between your personal tastes and what the writer is trying to achieve. For me, the starting point of any writing relationship is critical. When a writer approaches me about a project, I’ll ask for a short excerpt, maybe 8-10 pages, and look at it to see if I find it interesting. If I can quickly see I’m not the audience for it, I’ll let them know I’m the wrong person to work with. If the text does resonate with me, the next step will be to give the writer some feedback and see how they respond. If the writer likes what I have to say, it’s a sign we’re well matched and we should start working together.
What do you think a writer should look for in an editor?
Karmen: Someone they can trust. Ideally, they should look for a person with expertise in storytelling or literature who understands their genre. Though an editor won’t be your best friend, it should be someone you feel comfortable talking to, someone who isn’t afraid to challenge your writing to help you get to the next level.