Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An Editor is like a Good Executive

I was perusing The Artful Edit the other day (not the website, but the book) and it struck me how intrinsically a good editor is like a good senior executive.

A number of years ago (too many, it seems) I was an Executive Vice President at a mid-sized company. I am sure I had a lot of flaws, but who wants to talk about those?! My skill was with other executives, or with program managers, software architects, or product managers, in listening, and asking questions that led them to come up with new, interesting, creative answers. I rarely had the “right” answer myself, but had something of the skill of talking, suggesting directions, and asking questions that spurred smart executives, managers, and creative senior people to suddenly think in a new direction and come up with cool solutions.

This skill, just as an editor’s, is hard to quantify and when you look at the end result you do not see the “hand” of the editor (or executive) directly in the result. Yet, the group’s results improve. Are mistakes made? Sure. Is it perfect? Never. Is it better than it was before and does it on that wonderful occasion break new ground? Yes!

The reason this works in some companies, with good executives, managers, and software architects (who are creative, often nearing the “art” world) is when the person being “managed” or edited is mature enough to understand that s/he does not need to follow the suggestions exactly, or at all. In fact, often the suggestions are contradictory. The mature person lets the suggestions trigger the thought process and in the end the changes are sometimes better and sometimes worse, but they add up to a better end product.

A good editor and executive does not micro manage,

A good editor and executive at a certain point says “if you think this is good enough, go with it.”

A good editor and executive also embraces that the end product may not be what anyone originally intended!

There needs to be maturity on the executive/editor’s side also. If the author (or manager) seems to ignore your suggestions, then make sure they are ignoring them with understanding and purpose and then, let them ignore it. My rule of thumb is if an author, or when I was managing people my “partner” would listen to 40% of my suggestions in some form or another. As long as I felt there was an understanding and a listening.  Then back away and let the creative person do their work. My hand should not be visible, but my team should shine in the end.

Obviously, the analogy is not perfect, but I am often struck by how similar processes are in many fields. As writers and creators of books we like to think that business is not like the creative process of writing. The truth is, it is. There is still something of a profit motive when dealing with an editor and creativity takes many forms.

The next time an editor makes a suggestion, realize that it is just that, a suggestion, but listen and do something surprising with the suggestion.

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