A Teachable Spirit

A couple-three years ago, I had lunch with an author friend who was in town for a conference. She is a speaker who often counsels beginning writers about craft and process, and that day we were discussing the finer points of teaching/editing grownups.

“It’s all about having a teachable spirit,” she said. “You should write a blog post about that.”

Kids generally have what we’d call a teachable spirit. They’re willing to acknowledge that the teacher knows more about a particular thing. Sometimes adults have a hard time with that.

Blog about teachable spirit. I wrote that in my notes, but I needed a story to illustrate it. At long last, here it is.

Several months ago I had interesting back-to-back experience with two authors, both of them with nonfiction manuscripts. (I love working on fiction, but I also love living in this house, so I work on nonfiction frequently to make sure the mortgage gets paid.) What was interesting, though, was the juxtaposition of two authors—both alike in dignity, as they say—and the work experience I had with them. I am the same person, the same editor, with every author: friendly, professional, on the team. (I expect the same treatment from the authors too. This is business.*)

Specifically, this was developmental editing—I worked on the content. What I bring to the content of a nonfiction book, initially, is the reaction of a first reader. Is everything clear? Is the author actually making his/her point? Other things that are important in nonfiction writing are organization (does the topic unfold in the right order?), flow (does the narrative move logically from one topic to another?), and even completeness (are there unanswered questions?). I also bring knowledge of what the publisher is looking for, either because the managing editor has advised me explicitly or simply because of my experience working in the industry.

I found both manuscripts interesting and clever. Both authors used true stories—both personal and from historical sources—to illustrate their points. Both authors knew their material.

Piece of cake, right? Not so fast. There’s one more piece to this puzzle. It’s the receptivity of the person on the other end. The teachable spirit.

When I’m introduced—via email—to an author, the managing editor usually says nice things about me and points him or her to my website, which has even more information about me. But I’m on my own for information about the author. I just have to wade in and see what happens.

In my correspondence with the first author (the nice-to-meet-you email and later the I’ll-have-your-editorial-notes-next-week email), this fellow was a bit brusque. Uh-oh, I thought. But people are busy, I get that. We’ve got a job to do and a lot of folks just want to get to work without small talk.

I’m always a little bit nervous when I send off the editorial notes to someone I don’t really know. Sure, I’ve Google-stalked him, but … I don’t know him. And it’s his first book. He doesn’t know how this process works (my ed notes do spell it out, though), and may have expectations of which I’m unaware and am unprepared to fulfill. You just don’t know.

Twenty-four hours later I got this:

Wow! You’re a pro! I read through all of your notes and they are very helpful. Thank you for paying close attention to all the detail. I know the book will be much better when WE (I like the “relationship” focus you shared) get through this. I’m on it.

That went well. :)

Now that the first manuscript was “out” (with the author), I began work on the second manuscript. This author has published a few books already, so I knew he’d know the drill. He has a very polished website from which his big smile radiates. That was reassuring. His first correspondence with me was very hail-fellow-well-met. And his manuscript was polished and “clean”—a good manuscript, really. I made a few suggestions, noticed a few unanswered questions, a few places with clarity issues, and—as I had in the previous manuscript—I fact-checked the historical stories, where I found a few little glitches. I made some corrections using track changes, left notes in the margins, and sent off the (much shorter than the first) editorial notes.

Twenty-four hours later I learned I’d been working on the (ahem) Perfect Manuscript. The author rejected every single one of my suggestions. He sent an email that said, essentially, NO, and didn’t bother to return the manuscript at all. Instead, he typed up a list of every change he was rejecting (“On page 54 in the second paragraph …”), and expected me to do it. (And I did.)

Don’t get me wrong—he was “nice” about it. Distant, but polite. I suspect he didn’t use the editorial function in MS Word to accept or reject the things I’d done because he doesn’t know how to use track changes. (Although I always send a link to this and encourage questions.)

In the meantime, I was finishing up with the first author. He’d probably been a little nervous in those days waiting to hear from me, but … then he saw what an editor brings to the equation. I’m not kidding when I say he was genuinely delightful to work with. We exchanged a lot of fun emails while we were winding up the project.

The second project was finished a lot more quickly, of course.** I did consult with his publisher about the Perfect Manuscript, who laughed and told me he’d expected as much, so I cleaned it up and sent it in.

I tell folks all the time I learn something from every project I work on, and these projects were no exception. I expected, I think, a little newbie resistance from the first and polished professionalism from the second—instead, I got precisely the opposite.

You see what I mean about a teachable spirit? Some people have it, some people don’t. And you can’t tell by looking.

* I’ve written about this before.
** Though not before someone on the author’s staff added my email address to his mailing list, so that I got five—five!—unsolicited advertisements to buy things from his organization in the first thirty-six hours before I realized what had happened and unsubscribed. I prefer to be asked about these sorts of things, y’all.

 

Tweet: Teachable spirit: Some people have it, some people don’t. And you can’t tell by looking.
Tweet: Teachable spirit? A willingness to acknowledge that the editor has something to teach you.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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