Chip MacGregor

February 9, 2008

A Visit with an Editor


A couple months ago, my buddy Andy Meisenheimer stopped in to talk about one of his pet peeves: the overuse of novelists turning all thoughts into italics in their manuscripts. Andy is an editor at Zondervan, and his post caused much debate and hand-wringing with some writers. Never being one to avoid a good controversy, I asked him if he’d come back.

Chip: So your last visit to my site created a stir, Andy. You ready to face this again?

Andy: Yeah, my last guest blog might have come across as Andy’s Vindictive Rant About Certain Arbitrary Rules of Style. People assuring me they’d never, ever, use thought italics, and people offering condolences to the poor writers who have to obey my every whim (and Mike Snyder, constantly calling to let me know his progress in eliminating thought italics from his current manuscript). Instead of a discourse, it became an ultimatum. Instead of "okay" and "better," it became "wrong" and "right."

My intention for that post, and any time I speak up about words, is to encourage writers toward better writing. They aren’t rants about my personal hot-button issues. They aren’t indirect ways of editing my current authors (please, Mike — stop calling). If your editors says to take out all semicolons, I encourage you to say, "Puh-leeze. You got somethin’ to back that up? The market isn’t buying books with semicolons?"

Chip: So would you say an editor’s job is to continue the conventions? Or to help an author break them successfully?

Andy: An editor’s job is to help the author discern what’s working. A good editor must appeal only to conventions of the craft and the effect upon the intended reader to justify editorial comment. And convention and effect are fluid things, open to change and dialogue and debate. Not that they are subjective; there are conventions, and there are effects upon readers, and their equivocation does not make all opinions valid.

In other words, subjectivity is not always the culprit. Think of it like furniture. My wife and I can go shopping for a chair, and we’ll look at one chair. I might like it; Mandy might hate it. That’s fine. That’s liking and disliking; it’s subjective. (Though at the point at which it messes with current fashions — basically, how people have been taught to respond to something — we can call that "effect upon the intended reader," and subjectivity takes a back seat.)

But is it a good chair? Will it hold up? That depends on the skills of the craftsman, but it’s not subjective. It’s based on a lot of factors, most of which you could learn through a school or apprenticeship, but the proof will be in the pudding. Sit on it, rock back and forth, jump on it, have your dog bite it, and suddenly you’ll see if the chair is good or not.

Chip: I guess that makes you a powerful person in the life of a writer!

Andy: Well, that’s a weird way of putting it. Like saying my wife is a powerful person in the life of her husband. True, but weird.

Still, the most fun part of being an editor — and, I like to think, about being edited — is inspiring writers to achieve more. The pushing-forward part of editing, instead of the pulling-back part. Instead of, "You’re doing this wrong," it’s "You could do this even more right." It’s the part that says, "This is a moment — take advantage of it!" and "You should try writing your next novel in second person, future tense, in reverse chronology!"

Chip: Do you ever find yourself intruding on someone’s manuscript?

Andy: Sure. I’m no saint. I’ve got hot buttons. And I probably justify some of them with highfalutin arguments. But I stop myself often and ask the question: Is this just me, or is this on behalf of the reader? To the best of my ability, I want my authors to feel freedom to do what needs to be done to get the story told, and the freedom to ask, "You got somethin’ to back that up?"

Chip: Interesting stuff! So to sum up, you believe all authors should write their novels in second person, future tense, with reverse chronology. Got it. ("Hey," I’m thinking to myself, "this Andy guy is an interesting character…but since I’m thinking this to myself, I’ll be sure to put it in italics…")

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