Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Editor as Everyone’s Advocate

The internet’s filled with people’s infinitely varying opinions on every subject imaginable (and a few beyond imagination, I’m sure). The definition of a good editor remains subject to those opinions; but I tend to agree with one claiming a good editor serves as an advocate for readers, and that’s a fair if broad summary. In my experience a good editor serves as an advocate on behalf of three masters: the reader, the publisher, and the author. This assumes one agrees editors still have a relevant place in today’s Internet Age where people far too often assume a spell- and grammar-check program is enough to ensure intelligible and clear communication in e-mails, blogs, and even published newspapers, magazines, and books. In a time of relatively easy self publishing enabled by computers and the internet, many talented individuals possess the sense of professionalism to produce solid work for free or for pay without the need for an entire editorial team and art department a publisher offers.

Editors primarily seek to finesse an author’s manuscript into a format easily appreciated and comprehended by the intended audience. This includes the obligatory adherence to consistent rules of spelling, grammar, and style, plus a good deal of moderating the language, varying word choice, and otherwise helping to shape a manuscript into an engaging piece of reading. But editors also represent a publisher in molding manuscripts to fit a professional objective encompassing subject matter, production schedule, and future projects. To this end editors also serve authors as guides in the writing process and in improving skills for future submissions. Publishers often need writers for upcoming projects; the more proven authors available, the better the choices in matching writers to assignments.

The letter below represents perhaps the best aspect of my work as editor of West End Games’ Star Wars Adventure Journal in the mid-1990s. I keep it to remind myself that – despite a host of game supplements I loved writing and developing, all the interesting people I met, and all the fantastic gaming experiences I enjoyed during five years with West End – I’m most satisfied I made a small yet positive difference in the lives of many young people and aspiring writers who might otherwise not bothered exploring their potential:

Dear Mr. Schweighofer,

A few months ago I submitted a short story to you…. Upon rejecting my story, you wrote me a three and a half page letter explaining why it was not up to the standards of the Star Wars Adventure Journal. I thank you for that. You see, it would have been just as easy for you to have sent me a form letter, but instead you paid close attention to what needed improving in my story and in my writing in general.

When I first received your letter I must admit that I was crushed. Writing for Star Wars meant – and still means – a great deal to me. I put the letter away for a while without reading the whole thing, the weight of the rejection pressed on me so hard that reading criticism felt like it would have caused a collapse of my confidence in my writing ability. A few days later I mustered up the strength to read the letter through. I resisted some of the points, but others were too clear to be denied. As time passed my bias against the other points faded and they were like crystal as well. Soon after, I began to look at the letter as a tool, something to help me see my weaknesses as a writer clearer. At about the same time my quest to locate a copy of Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction bore fruit, and the art of writing became more transparent to me. I am still in the process of learning. I write every day, and upon reading that writing the next day I blush and write something better, which I blush at a day later. I thank you a thousand times for rejecting [my story]. I realize its weaknesses more and more each day and I wonder how I could have considered submitting it. However, I know at the time it was the best I could do and I respect that. It was an important step for me as a writer, made all the more important by a compassionate editor who paid attention to a 19 year old kid struggling to forge himself into a writer.

I write you this letter so that the next time you receive a rough story from someone struggling to become a writer you might share with them the insight you shared with me (and keep on recommending Mr. Knight’s book, it is excellent). Thank you for your time, and know that this isn’t the last piece of my writing you will lay your eyes upon. Good luck and continued success with the Adventure Journal (it is fabulous).

The letter arrived in my West End Games’ office in December 1995, about halfway through my all-too-brief career with the company; I cannot recall if we actually published any of the writer’s later work, and I don’t know if the author continued his writing aspirations afterward. I’m grateful I found the time and motivation to write short critiques even of the material I rejected; in many cases it later bore fruit in the form of far more polished submissions that found their way to publication. Those short stories, source material articles, and game adventures that ultimately appeared in the Star Wars Adventure Journal endured far more scrutiny and much longer critique letters. All these efforts supported my editorial role in advocating for the interests of readers, the publisher, and authors in the name of engaging writing.

That same work ethic – spending time working with authors not simply to improve the project at hand but their overall abilities for future assignments – gave other writers guidance for improving their work later reflected in other mainstream West End projects. I recall spending an hour or so with an author at GenCon discussing a hard critique of a rough manuscript for a sector setting sourcebook; he was a fan, not a writer (though a talented professional in another field) who many years later went on to contribute to both Wizards of the Coast’s and Fantasy Flight Games’ subsequent iterations of a Star Wars roleplaying game.

Few professional editors have this kind of time, especially when faced with massive slush piles of submissions or a huge backlog of manuscripts awaiting their editorial attention in the often rushed process to bring material to publication. I’m grateful I had both the time and the position to evaluate writers’ work and offer some small guidance in improving their craft; I hope many have continued exploring their potential as writers, especially given the far more numerous outlets for their work in an Internet Age enabling many to disseminate their writing to a broad audience. Thanks to social media I occasionally encounter someone who says something like, “My proudest moment trying to break into the industry was my rejection letter from the SWAJ,” or “Do you remember that submission I made to the Adventure Journal years ago?” I’m humbled that I have in some small way contributed to their further work as fans or professionals in the adventure gaming hobby, from fanzines to freelancing and beyond.

I suppose at heart I have a large teaching streak in me; I’ve often considered, and quickly set aside, the prospect of becoming a professional teacher. At various points in my past I’ve tried encouraging people to pursue their interest in writing through editorial critique letters, workshops for young people, and other publication-related activities. I don’t believe everyone’s a New York Times-bestselling author, but I think anyone with an interest in writing deserves a chance – and a little encouragement – to explore the craft and engage their creativity.

Lately, thanks to contacts in social networking, I’ve considered contacting people with promising game ideas and offering to develop, edit, and produce their work. I’ve not followed through much; I suppose I’m wary of working to publish other people’s gaming projects when many of my own sit on the back burner thanks to my lack of time, focus, and energy given my full-time parental duties. I’ve done a little editorial consulting, an endeavor I might pursue more in the future; the entire editorial critique process seems much easier in a world with e-mail and online face-to-face conferencing instead of printing out letters to send off in the post. I realize I miss working with authors to further develop and refine their ideas and presentation with an eye to bringing a project to publication and (hopefully) appreciation by a growing fan readership. It’s easier with the backing of a brick-and-mortar professional publishing house (and a world-famous intellectual property license); but for now I’m content that my past editorial work and the few people it inspired remains a small candle to sustain me.

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