Editing a first-time author calls for a blend of sharp-eyed clarity, cheerleading and hand-holding. What if the author is also an editor? As part of a series of blog posts featuring conversations between editor/writers and their editors, The Editors’ Weekly asked two editors to reflect on their experience of working together as critique partners.
Laura Bontje (London, Ontario) is a freelance editor who specializes in children’s literature. Her debut picture book is forthcoming, and she looks forward to sharing an official announcement soon. Laura also volunteers as the proofreader for The Editors’ Weekly.
Margaret Kingsbury (Nashville, Tennessee) edits for Salt and Sage Books, among other clients. She’s a regular contributor to BuzzFeed Books and Book Riot, and co-creator of the children’s book review site Baby Librarians. She is currently seeking representation for her picture book manuscripts.
How did you go about finding the right critique partner?
Margaret Kingsbury: Laura and I found one another through a Facebook group for children’s authors seeking critique partners. I’d previously had some critique partners that came and went, but several things made Laura stand out as a critique partner I needed to keep: her attention to detail and narrative play (I tend to be a big-picture thinker, so I appreciate her ability to see where I can hone details) and her in-depth knowledge of picture books — and because I loved her pieces so much!
Laura Bontje: I was drawn to the fact that Margaret was an editor and a sensitivity reader. I’m a firm believer in the importance of conscious language, and I appreciated knowing that we shared similar values about the role of language and literature.
It also helps that I adore her writing! We both love playing with language, and Margaret’s poignant, lyrical stories are a joy to read.
How does your feedback change between editing and critiquing?
MK: Many of my editing clients are book coaching clients writing their first novels. They are mostly unaware of narrative forms or structures and hire me to guide them through the process from start to finish. This makes editing a rather intense and time-consuming process on my end because I’m not only editing, I’m teaching.
With critiquing, I can focus on the manuscript itself and what the author is trying to say. It’s more casual, but I still bring my editorial self to a critique!
LB: With my clients, the scope of what I’m evaluating is much more defined. Clients know whether I’ll be looking at the story or the language and whether they’ll get an editorial letter, in-text edits or both. For a peer critique, I’m more fluid in both scope and structure. But whatever the format, I’m thinking about all the same things that I would be in a formal edit.
What have been the benefits of having an editor for a critique partner?
MK: Trust. I know that Laura understands how to give a critique. She highlights what I’m doing well and points out what needs work. I know I can trust her opinion, and I know I’m going to have a lot to think about when she sends a piece back with her feedback.
I’ve been in critique groups before where I received conflicting feedback and my partners didn’t quite know how to phrase what was bothering them about my manuscript. There’s no such confusion between Laura’s and my critiques!
LB: Our shared experience is like a shared language. I can make notes about narrative voice or showing vs. telling and know she’ll understand. And when Margaret suggests that I adjust the pacing in a story, I know that her feedback carries the weight of her expertise assessing literature.
Even though Margaret isn’t a picture book editor, she has a strong understanding of the craft. Picture book writing is quite different from novel writing, so it was important to me to find a critique partner who already understood those nuances. And Margaret is masterful with comp titles! No matter what concept I’m working on, she always knows just the right picture book to suggest as a reference point.
How has being an editor helped you receive critiques?
MK: As an editor, I’m very aware of the many shapes and forms an idea can take. I understand there’s no “right” way to tell a story. Instead, it’s constant experimentation and shifting until everything clicks into place. Because I deeply understand that revision is essential to finding the right vision for a piece, I do not get offended by critiques. In fact, the opposite occurs: I enjoy learning more about writing and editing from Laura’s critiques!
LB: Writing and editing are two very different processes. I often have to turn off my editorial instincts to give myself the freedom to draft. During revisions, I become an editor again — except that I know it’s harder to see the weak spots in my own writing than in someone else’s. So editing has taught me to be open. If Margaret questions a character’s choice, I trust her intentions. That trust allows me to let go of any defensiveness, look critically at my work and see that she’s usually right!
What surprises have you encountered through this process?
MK: That I’m as committed to seeing Laura’s manuscripts published as my own! I will probably cry when I receive her first book in the mail. The friendship has also been a welcome surprise. Laura and I have both been working from home during a pandemic with young children and trying to make art in the meantime. We’ve formed a friendship that transcends distance.
LB: I’ve been surprised by the way that immersing myself in someone else’s writing has helped spark more story ideas of my own — sometimes a single turn of phrase sets off a thought that leads to a new idea. And like Margaret, I’ve been touched by the friendships you can foster by email. We’ve never met face-to-face, but we’ve shared the ups and downs of writing and querying (and of parenting through a global pandemic). We don’t need to be in the same place to help each other reach the same goal.
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