Photo by Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | April 2019 | 12 minutes (1,878 words)

The 11,000 people who attend the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual Conference & Bookfair (AWP) come for professional advancement and to build community. They come to attend panels, to stay motivated after graduate school, to promote their magazines, book presses, and graduate programs and to choose magazines to write for, books to read, and graduate programs to attend. For many attendees, AWP is a chance to talk shop deep into the night. I came this year for many of these reasons, and also to improve my editing abilities.

Even though I work as an editor, I have a lot to learn, and the editors on the panel “Editor-Author Relationships: How Should They Be?” offered tons of practical wisdom. Jennifer Acker from The Common magazine moderated a group that included John Freeman of  Grove/Atlantic, Freeman’s, and Granta, One Story editor Patrick Ryan, and Catapult managing editor Matthew Ortile. Freeman is a quote machine; his  mind moved so quickly I could barely write down what he said.  

Speaking about editing for voice, Freeman said, “I want people to sound like themselves, and they know how they want to sound. Part of my job is to help writers get out of their own way, and that requires me getting out of their way.”

When it comes to finding material, Freeman advised magazine editors to be prepared to wait. He once waited six years to find and translate one Danish poem about climate change, and it was worth it. After reading the poem aloud, Freeman said, “What I’m saying is: Be patient. Editors need to have medium-long and longterm-long lines in the ocean. …Some will take so long [to return] you’re going to forget you asked for them. One of the most exciting things is when that comes back to you. That’s when I know what I’m for.” To do this, editors work multiple fronts, including reading unsolicited submissions, actively searching for and asking about emerging and international writers, and directly contacting writers to commission new work. Freeman has repeatedly discovered new writers this way, such as Sudanese-born writer Fatin Abbas, and Claire Vaye Watkins before she’d published her debut collection Battleborn.

‘Part of my job is to help writers get out of their own way, and that requires me getting out of their way.’

Freeman’s comments reminded me of Zyzzyva managing editor Oscar Villalon’s comments two days earlier: “You want to find what’s interesting, and you want to find what’s new.” He added that, “If you’re not reading submissions that represent what America looks like, then you’re not presenting an accurate portrait of a time and place.”

All the panelists agreed that when it’s time to edit, both writer and editor must  establish “a deep well of trust.” Because the work often happens over email and through the notes we leave for each other in shared documents, editorial relationships are built at a distance. Back in the glory days of magazine and newspaper writing, editors and writers frequently talked on the phone and even met in offices to discuss story structure and sentences. Working with editors now means writers must open themselves up to people who they might never meet in person.

Moderator Jennifer Acker asked how the panelists learned to edit: “Did you have a mentor? Did you just decide one day: I’m going to edit?” The panelists laughed.

Patrick Ryan of One Story and former associate editor at Granta, started his career as a writer. He first practiced self-editing in grad school, then he asked  classmates to edit him and watched what they did. When Susan Kamil, an editor at Dial Press edited Ryan, she was not proscriptive and wouldn’t rewrite much. She’d circle passages and jot  “Doesn’t work” in the margin, without suggestions. She left things open-ended for him to think about solutions. Now when he edits, he writes comments like, “This is what I would do.” “I don’t have time for the other approach,” he said with a laugh.To Freeman, proscriptive editing can be problematic when it creates too clear a map, with less room for discovery. The panelists agreed there were pros and cons to not being proscriptive. For instance, by leaving open-ended comments, editors can invite writers to solve problems themselves. By not rewriting sentences, editors can also help preserve writers’ voices, rather than impose their own. That said, Ryan warned against leaving things too open-ended. “Vagueness invites errors,” he said. “The writer can try to assume my motives or try to give me what they think I want, and that can create mistakes.”

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Freeman said, “I think that time is the best editor. You set it aside, and you can see it differently, be open. When you submit something, what you’re really doing is asking for time. …I want that time for us to jointly see things.”

This was true of my experience as a writer. I revise my pieces 20, 30, 50 times — sometimes over years — and despite all that input, time still reveals opportunities for improvement. I recently reread an essay that I’d submitted to a journal, and even though the journal was still considering it, I revised phrases, chose stronger verbs, and eliminated repetition I should have noticed 20 revisions ago. I hadn’t read the essay in at least four months. That break showed that it still needed help.

Once again, this discussion harkened back to another panel, this time to what Paris Review editor Emily Nemens said when asked for one piece of advice for submitters: “Revise the story one more time.” She assured the audience that “Editors are generous people, but writers know their work better than anybody. Finish the story and put it down, and do something else. It’s going to be a better story.”

Freeman understood Ryan’s concern about vague editorial comments but also appreciated editors whose comments inspire writers to generate their own ideas. “This is the magic of an editor,” he said. “When they know that the writer has the solution, they work to juke you out into doing it yourself.”

Freeman’s experience being edited informs his editorial approach. He started his career as a book critic, writing short reviews for outlets such as Publishers Weekly, the London Telegraph, and Boston Phoenix. At this AWP panel, he recalled how one of his newspaper editors would call him into his office to discuss his book reviews’ logic and sentences. “That demonstration of care really meant a lot to me,” said Freeman. It taught him “the importance of lucid writing,” which is hard to pull off in a book review’s  compressed space. It taught him that, “The most difficult way to say things is not always the best.” Also, Freeman seems to have internalized his early newspaper editors’ dedication and scrappiness. “These are not the people with their Prada boots up on their desk in a New York skyscraper,” he told the audience. “They’re people who drove to work in their 180,000-mile Subarus,” people, he said, who eventually lost their editing jobs as papers cut their review sections.

“Then I learned to edit by having to.” After more than a decade as a book critic writing countless reviews, Sigrid Rausing, the owner of Granta, hired him as her magazine’s top editor. He had never edited the kinds of personal essays, travel pieces, and reportage this literary magazine published. Soon after arriving at Granta, he received Mary Gaitskill’s 16,000-word essay about her cat. “You can’t tell that story right up front,” he said. “I went from being a book critic to being an editor. I basically learned on the job.”

‘I think that time is the best editor.’

Jennifer Acker said she continues to learn from her fellow editors at The Common. “There are many joys and pitfalls,” she said about editing. “It’s ongoing, and always a source of pleasure.” Acker’s perspective was encouraging. As a writer and an editor, you’re never done. There are always new ways to think about narratives, arguments, voice, and audience. If there wasn’t, then the drafts I send my fellow Longreads editors would be a lot less problematic than they often are. (Sorry Michelle, Krista, and Sari!) Editing, like writing, is an ongoing development process. No matter how visionary your ideas and adept your abilities, there is no plateau, no place to arrive and linger. Instead of your laurels,rest on a soft chair, because striving to be the best  writer or editor you can be requires that you keep learning. All the panelists agreed that many editors learn on the job, and the good ones admit they are always still learning. Acker spontaneously crafted a maxim for those who don’t evolve: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds?”

Acker and Freeman’s working lives resonated. At my core I am a writer, so the first things I learned about editing came from watching others edit my work. Most of their edits improved my essays and taught me lasting lessons: starting the story in different places; learning to craft heads and subheads; condensing scenes and slowing time; streamlining sentences to do more with less; recognizing logical errors and getting me to stop burying the lede. Not all of their edits were improvements. Some imposed their voice, imposed their themes, worked from a compulsion to see themselves in my work. I didn’t condemn them for their errors any more than I condemned myself for mine. I tried to learn from them. Now my larger philosophy as an editor is: don’t impose, facilitate; recognize the story the writer wants to tell, get out of their way, help them tell it, and be open. We writers have to learn to trust ourselves. We also have to trust our editors during our brief time working with them, and while building that trust, we have to learn to take suggestions without losing hold of our voice and our vision. Ask me to try something as a writer, and chances are I will try. It can’t hurt to experiment, and you can always return to your original draft if you don’t like the results. Some of my favorite essays resulted from direct collaborations with editors. In other words, they resulted from openness. Openness to feedback. Openness to suggestions. Openness to experimentation, with pushing your piece in a direction you hadn’t imagined it could go, or even wanted to go, but are willing to try to see if it improves. The goal is to create the best story or poem, not to be right or come out on top.”Editing is a collaborative process,” said Catapult editor Matthew Ortile. “It’s a peer-to-peer thing. It is not ‘This is the ultimate 100% way.’ There is room for pushback and for growth.”

The lessons that improve our writing often come from unexpected places, not always from formal education or our peers.

One day Freeman met a 70-year old Lebanese poet while getting coffee in a Dean & Deluca in Lower Manhattan. The two men started talking. John gave him one of his poems to read, and the man started editing it. “He said, ‘Why did you break the line here? What about this? What about that?’ He treated my poem as a puzzle with nine different solutions,” Freeman said. “I learned more from him about editing than I ever could have in any graduate program. My suggestion is look laterally. Look into friendships. Look into older people. You can get what you want without even asking for it, by just being receptive to love and friendship.”


Aaron Gilbreath has written for Harper’sKenyon ReviewVirginia Quarterly ReviewThe Dublin Review, and Brick. He’s the author of the books This Is: Essays on Jazz and Everything We Don’t Know: Essays. The University of Nebraaska Press will publish next book Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California.

Editor: Krista Stevens