How We Edit: Lisa Munro

What is your ideal kind of project to edit? How do you handle this type of project differently compared to a more “basic” or utilitarian one?

Bring us into your process. How do you start work on (1) a book (2) an article or essay and (3) an early- or mid-process draft vs. a near-final one? What are the first few things you do?

What kinds of editing tools do you use regularly?: Find and replace? Specific macros or software? Spellcheck and/or custom dictionaries?

I’m a big fan of learning from mistakes, so: What have you had to learn the hard way about the editing process and about yourself as an editor?

In the first installment of this series, Karen Conlin told us about her work editing indie fiction, what she’s learned about adjusting her developmental editing approaches, and how important style sheets are for her work. My friend and colleague Lisa Munro, a fellow former academic working as an editor and consultant, has learned something else:

Editing is as much an emotional process as a technical one. Most writers, even experienced ones, have a lot of fear and shame around their writing; they want to feel better about themselves as writers and people. I help people not only to improve their writing, but also to overcome their own emotional struggles with writing.

“Writing can be hard, messy, and scary, but also joyful, thrilling, and creative,” she added. Because Lisa also writes regularly, she’s especially sensitive as an editor to her clients’ writing struggles. (Spoiler alert: everyone struggles with writing. Even editors.) For Lisa, editing isn’t “being mercilessly critical of someone’s writing.” It’s much more useful and understanding than the “destructive criticism” she sometimes faced in academia:

I always make sure that I’m approaching an author’s work from a strengths perspective and that my comments are both constructive and kind. I’m in the business of building people up, not tearing them down. I approach an author’s work by first asking myself what I love about the work and then thinking about what needs further development and where there’s room for growth. I’m at my best when I’m helping people connect what’s working in the piece to what needs a little bit more love. I also like to create space for people to use their ingenuity to solve their own problems rather than fixing their problems for them.

Lisa and I linked up on Twitter a few years ago after she’d read some things I’d written for The Professor Is In. It was the first time I’d ever been asked to do an informational interview, and she’s been a great part of my network ever since. She’s a great follow on Twitter. Learn more about her background, editing work, writing retreats, and other things on her website.

Moving from the more siloed academia the more collaborative freelance landscape has taught us that we’re able to bring our skills and knowledge to bear on various types of projects—i.e., not just the Latin American history or literary studies that we focused on as academics. We collaborated on a copy editing an essay collection a few years ago. The early challenge was ensuring we did similar kinds of editing on our groups of essays. We also learned a bit about managing Old White Tenured Professorial egos (a story for another time). This has helped us in our own work with scholars more…open to feedback on their writing.

Lisa is primarily an academic editor who trained as an academic historian. Her “secret love,” though, is working with academics on their creative, non-academic projects:

I know many academics who, in addition to their research articles and monographs, also write novels, short stories, poetry, flash fiction, blog posts, op-eds, or creative non-fiction. It’s fun to work with smart and talented people on great projects that they often don’t feel quite as confident about as their academic works.

She adds:

One of the best things I do is reflect back to authors what I understand from their work. Many times, authors think they’ve made something very clear but don’t know how other people perceive it. I often talk with authors to give them feedback about what I’ve understood from their work.

An important part of our work as editors is this: we need to keep letting our writers know how we’re reading and interpreting their work. It’s especially important when we’re working with a scholar making a series of arguments in an article or book. Lisa’s background as an academic helps her do this kind of active listening/editing well. She likes to start by looking at the overall structure and organization of her clients’ project, as well as their main argument, (mis)use of evidence, and writing style. “I’m at my best when helping writers with clarity and brevity, which often means helping people pick verbs that pack more punch and cutting word clutter. I leave proofreading, grammar, and punctuation issues for the final round.” My process is similar, although sometimes my eye for detail does the proofreading work while I’m trying to focus more on the copy editing. It’s similar for any writers editing their own material: do the work in stages, because it’s difficult to see the big picture and the little one at the same time.

In doing her work, Lisa keeps things simple: GoogleDocs with track changes, the Chicago Manual of Style  (since most of her clients are Humanities scholars), and Zotero or zbib.org to edit citations for bibliographies. These, though, are just the tools she uses. Her editorial mindset is the most important part of her work. She wants her writers to know “they’re the boss of their text.” She adapts her editing style accordingly, making suggestions and comments and—wherever possible—using the writers’ own language when rewording a sentence or phrase. The same goes for their content: “I avoid changing people’s ideas (even if I personally disagree with their argument), but instead work to help them express those ideas in more powerful language.” This is the kind of editorial distance we’re always learning to manage.

For some, the very idea of editing is tricky, arduous, and nerve-wracking. Yes, it can be—but only with the wrong kind of editorial relationship. “It’s important to me that authors sound like themselves in writing, but the most polished version of themselves I can help them get to,” Lisa notes. And finally:

I think people have two main misunderstandings when it comes to working with an editor. First, many people don’t think they need an editor, which isn’t usually the case. (Academic writers, I’m looking at you.) Even if you’re a pretty good writer and have a nice draft, working with an editor can make a good draft into a terrific one.  Second, a lot of people think that their work has to be pretty before they send it to me. It’s okay to send me your work even if it isn’t great. In fact, you can send me your ugliest writing. Together, we can make it better.

***

If you want to participate and show off your editing methods, let me know via Twitter or email (joe@jfruscione.com).

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