WRITING LIFE: Learning to Trust My First Editor and Myself by Michelle Bowdler

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A little over a year ago, my memoir sold. I knew something about this specific publisher since they had recently published my teacher and mentor’s book and I was ecstatic. I would be working with an editor for the first time in my writing life over the next year. She was the one who read my book proposal, wanted to acquire my book, and would now be working with me on shaping it for publication. The editor would be my primary contact in a process I would be learning while, at the same time, doing.

In my early 20s, I had been an assistant editor for a trade magazine. My role consisted of reading articles from a large pile of submissions, choosing a handful to share with the managing editor so he could select which ones would go into each issue of the magazine, and then copy editing those chosen for his review once more. I knew this was a far cry from an editor’s role in book publishing, but dare I admit how naive I was about the whole process? I was a debut author in my fifties and thrilled to have sold my book. That this was happening seemed unreal, and many of the details of the upcoming process—in-between signing a contract and readying my work for publication—were a mystery.

I’d taken intensive writing classes and maintained a long term writing group where feedback on language, structure, character development, pacing, and other critical aspects of craft were given freely. I’d received hundreds of marked-up pages of my work and had learned how, as they say in recovery programs, to “take what you like and leave the rest behind.” Maybe that last sentiment sounds like I didn’t listen to my writing colleagues all that well, but the truth is that every writer getting feedback still has to measure it against the need to be true to their voice and vision. Finding just the right balance in that effort was often a challenge for me.

I didn’t know how or whether any of my previous experiences would ready me for this new one-on-one relationship. In writing my book, I had made very intentional decisions on what I wanted to share of my life and how detailed I wanted certain sections to be. I had recently shifted from a braided structure to a chronological one, which I quite liked since the story spanned decades, and I found it easier to tell with a linear trajectory. But had I gone too far and succumbed to what my writing teacher called the “and then, and then, and then,” problem? I knew all of it would be up for discussion and that some of my most coveted sentences might not make it into the final document. It gave me a stomachache if I thought about it too much. Still, I knew the manuscript needed work. I wanted it to become its best self so it would be read and the message I hoped to convey unambivalent.

My first conference call with my agent, new editor, and the head of marketing was great; everyone expressed excitement to be working together, and we agreed during that conversation that I’d be adding some research. This change would enhance the book in its current form but meant that revisions would be extensive since about a quarter of the manuscript would be brand new and impact chapter placement, structure, and voice. Also, the newer material would undoubtedly need more editing than parts that had undergone several revisions over the past few years.

I’m in a long term marriage; how to enter into a brand new and what felt like intimate (business) relationship stymied me. However, from the moment we first talked following the editor’s reading of my proposal and first 100 pages, this virtual stranger with whom I’d soon be engaged in an intense relationship with the material I cared about deeply seemed kind, passionate about my project, and very intelligent. It was clear she had read the book very carefully and more than once, and, shared many of the same goals for the manuscript. After we hung up, I did what any reasonable and highly anxious person might do in our current world.

I Googled her! First stop, Publishers Marketplace, where I saw she specialized in non-fiction and had edited some highly successful books already. They were about topics I also cared about. This fact mattered to me enormously. She was committed to social justice and understood that this was a part of my memoir I wanted to amplify. All of this made me feel like we shared many of the same values and that her interest in my book was for all the right reasons – its message being key. Still, trusting anyone is hard for me. It has often taken me years to fully believe someone has my interest at heart. This relationship required trust instantly, as all meaningful and successful relationships do. I didn’t want my insecurities to thwart our success, so I decided to focus on what had become my core values for my deepest relationships and friendships and let the process unfold. These are:

  • Listen even when it’s hard.
  • Compromise even when it’s hard.
  • Speak up about what is important to you.
  • Prioritize—everything isn’t equally vital or urgent.
  • Work hard and try not to cry when the result is more work to do.
  • Remember, you are part of a team. You have the same goals.
  • Compromise – repeat. Listen – repeat. Pick your battles – repeat.

When I got confused about whether the amount of revisions asked of me were typical, or whether I was writing way too many emails, or I needed an outside opinion about whether losing a small section hurt the book in any way, I called my agent. She, too, was kind and smart and had my best interest front and center. So between my editor, my agent, and my effort to trust my new colleagues and the revision process, a book was born. Maybe it’s more accurate to say the book wasn’t truly born, but it became a better version of itself, as was my hope at the start. The editor, who was a stranger one year ago, is now a friend and cherished colleague. Thank you, Bryn (her name), for making a challenging process tolerable and – yes – for making me a better writer. Because, now, instead of wondering how much feedback I can “take and leave the rest behind,” I am trying to first take all that I can and look at it critically and without fear. I owe that to a successful collaboration with a fantastic and talented editor. And, maybe in the future, I’ll be able to see the wisdom more generally of trusting someone sooner than my inclination and cynicism has allowed in the past.


Michelle Bowdler has been published in the New York Times, The Rumpus, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Gertrude, and other literary magazines and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has been a fellow at MacDowell and Ragdale. Her debut book, Is Rape a Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto (Flatiron Books) will be in bookstores on June 9, 2020. You can read more about the book and the author by visiting https://michelle-bowdler.com.


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