Before and After

Every writer needs a good editor. Finding a good editor is easier said than done. You might get lucky, as I have, in finding serious feedback in a creative writing class, a critique group or a writing conference.

But feedback and editing are two different animals. You need the former while you’re still writing. Feedback can help you find the emotional core of your story, flesh out a character or punch up a narrative arc. Feedback is essential before you submit a piece for publication.

The editor doesn’t show up until after the piece is accepted.

Different Strokes

Some editors use a light touch. They restrict their comments to matters of grammar and syntax. That was my experience with the fiction editors for my 3 short stories: “Words Fly By”, “Moon Cakes” and “Frogs”.

Based on this minuscule data set, I might conclude that being a fiction editor is an act of restraint. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke. But I had a very different experience with my debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.

fiction editor
Cover image: The Dancing Girl and the Turtle

My publisher / editor Lynn Michell sent me elaborate, in-text comments. She pinpointed sections where she lost the emotional connection with my protagonist Anyi. Lynn saw that I had used too many points of view. Could I fold some together?

The edit of my debut novel was a highly collaborative process and a deeply satisfying one, as well. We worked through the manuscript, chapter by chapter. Lynn would send comments. I’d bat back a new draft. It was like playing ping-pong.

Deep Dive

With my creative nonfiction works, I’ve run into yet another species of editor. These folks seem to be just as hands-on as my novel editor was. They also have very concrete ideas about what does or does not belong in my essays.

Nonfiction editor
The Common

Take, for example, my essay “The Mapmaker.” I wanted to write about a map of Shanghai my Aunt Ruth had drawn for her daughter, my cousin Brenda. I wanted to describe the map itself, but it couldn’t be found. So, I chose to imagine how my aunt would have made her map. This essay is a hybrid of fiction (my imaginary mapmaker) and nonfiction (the history of Shanghai and my family).

The editor rejected my first version as a bit too slight and enigmatic. She wanted an expanded version: more of the narrator (me) and more grounding in my relationship with my aunt and cousin. Her third suggestion was

to further develop the vital historical details you introduce, the nuance and politics of language and naming more broadly, and the personal and generational impacts upon the family in specific (to explore further how these aspects were felt by the family who stayed, and the family who left).

Rejection note from Liz Witte, Associate Editor at The Common

Before the Editor

I took Liz’s advice. My revision was 3 times longer than the original. Liz accepted it for publication. Then the editing began. Liz wanted to know about pinyin and the simplification of Chinese characters. These could be unfamiliar terms to a reader. Could I elaborate?

Her questions made me realize that I had missed a core point. Aunt Ruth spoke Shanghainese. My cousin Brenda was learning Mandarin. No matter how good Brenda’s Chinese got, it would never be the same Chinese as Aunt Ruth’s.

The original paragraph looked like this:

nonfiction editor
The Bund, Shanghai 1984 Photo credit: Karen Kao

Instead, it’s the mapmaker’s daughter who’ll enter China first. Now she sits at the kitchen table, determined to master the Chinese she’ll need the minute she lands.

Karen Kao, Draft of “The Mapmaker”

In the published version, the same paragraph reads as follows:

Her daughter sits at the kitchen table. She’s determined to master the Chinese language but which one will it be? Every province speaks a different dialect. Even villages inside the same province have their own unintelligible variations. The mapmaker wants her daughter to learn Shanghainese, the language of her childhood.

The Mapmaker in The Common, 11 July 2019

A Future Editor?

I have 2 more pieces accepted for publication though not yet through the editing phase. One of them is a short story for a US literary journal. The other is a work of creative nonfiction for a foodie magazine. It’s hard to know what to expect. Will the fiction editor go easy on me while the nonfiction editor goes to town?

However this goes down, I will be eternally grateful to Matt, the editor at the foodie magazine, for opening my eyes to the wild and crazy world of creative nonfiction. As in the case of “The Mapmaker”, the foodie magazine rejected my original submission. Matt, however, offered to work with me on a revision. No guarantee that my revision would be published but I’d learn how to write a long-form essay. So what did I learn?

Lesson #1: know your reader. If you’re writing an article for a general public, you might need to be careful about terms and historical references not obvious to all. When your target audience is a bunch of foodies, you better have something more to offer than factoids available to anyone with an internet connection.

Lesson #2: know your strengths. I’m no expert on food. I’m also pretty bad at basic journalism. But there is another way. To prepare for our first editor meeting, Matt went online to find samples of my writing. In our call, he quoted to me passages that he loved. He liked the imagery, he liked the language but above all, he liked the story inside all those facts. Matt said, tell me a story.