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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Collaboration with editors

What I miss most by working independently is the steady influence of an editor. There’s a saying that a good editor can make a mediocre writer great and a bad editor can make a good writer mediocre.

I’ve had my share of both kinds. When the editor/writer relationship works, it is simply a thing of beauty. After 17 years in this gig, I’ve found that editors, much like writers, all have their strengths—and weaknesses.

My first editor was Ellen Walker. She was a generation older than me, a chain smoker and intense newspaperwoman who banged away on her typewriter taking notes while talking on the phone. Though diminutive in stature, she scared the crap out of me. She was so … authentic.

Under her tutelage, I learned reporting skills such as how to read a school budget, how to cover a municipal story when the mayor won’t talk and how to investigate land deals. I received crash courses in the functions of municipal government. I learned (or at least I tried) photography and getting over the fear of asking strangers for their opinion for a man on the street column.

We were a staff of two and with her help I began to figure out what this newspapering business was all about.

She made me feel at turns incredibly inept and incredibly gifted. I never knew precisely where I stood and I suppose that kept me hungry and working. I wanted to please her.

The next five years of my career left me without a strong editor as guide, though I had an assistant editor I worked with who set a quiet example for professionalism, strong reporting and gifted writing. Though we have both long-since moved on, we continue to remain friends and have worked together at another magazine as freelancer and editor.

What I learned during those years was how to push myself when no one else did. Any amount of success I had there was a reflection of my own initiative and not the mandates or the challenge of any editors. I attempted my first series, volunteered for investigative teams and dabbled in column writing.

I was very unsure of myself in my first magazine job, but I had a sense that the longer form would allow me to develop and exand as a writer. My editor there was not so much a reporter as she was a wordsmith. My writing abilities grew there in ways they never would have otherwise. Her influence is found in my writing to this day.

At my last job, I had a colleague who didn’t so much serve as an editor, though she did review my work, as much as she was a collaborator. We could get together over coffee and brainstorm like crazy. We could take rough copy and make it sing. And we prided ourselves on finding diamonds in the rough and nurturing them into writers. It was great fun and we did what did out of love. That relationship gave me my first taste at sharing what I know about journalism with others.

But now I don’t work with AN editor, I work with many. Some of those relationships are very good, some are strictly on a “get me the work, this is your deadline, this is your fee” basis. No warm and fuzzy collaboration.

I miss plopping down in an editor’s office and saying, “I’m struggling with parts of this story” or “The reporting is not coming together the way I’d like, any suggestions?” It is possible to forge those kinds of relationships with editors as a freelancer, but you straddle the line between being collaborative and being a nuisance. One is clearly good, the other not so much. I’m just not sure where that line is and I suspect it’s different for every editor and every publication.

I’d really to find a way to engage in more collaborative-style relationships with editors. Because in the end, I think it results in expectations met and stronger stories. In the past couple of weeks I've found a great outlet for collaboration. To nurture it along, I'm going to buy this editor a cup of coffee when I get back from Vegas and brainstorm about how we can help each other.

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