We aim to take the piece of art they have shed blood and tears for and polish it into its most beautiful form, and we do this by being the author’s greatest champion.Simon Ogden, Tellwell Publishing’s lead editor
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a recent Toronto transplant after a two-year residence on Prince Edward Island (Canada’s cuddliest province), but I was born and cultivated throughout British Columbia, mostly Vancouver and Victoria, the latter being where I joined forces with Tellwell in 2017. In Vancouver, I spent many years wearing the various hats one does in pursuit of a theatre career, mostly as a playwright and director, and I ran various hospitality establishments, from ridiculous night clubs to nerdy classicist-cocktail lounges, finally accepting my birthright and inevitable career as a book editor (I’m the youngest son of a pedantic linguist, who passed on to me his deep love of the English language and its best literature).
You’ve been an editor with Tellwell for several years now. Tell us about your role.
I began with Tellwell as a contract editor and soon assumed the post of head editor, or assistant to our beloved managing editor, Alison Strumberger. I have recently moved into the position of in-house editor, which delightfully allows me to interact more with my colleagues populating the other departments in our little publishing mothership, and it lets me keep a more structured schedule than is typical for freelance editing, which I refer to amongst the team as “the craft that never sleeps.”
The bulk of my duties still entail working with our authors to strengthen their manuscripts before we put them to print, but I’m also a handy resource for the rest of the team to make sure processes are on track, and the often esoteric world of the editing department is approachable and clear when needed.
What approach do you take when editing a manuscript?
Working with an editor is a very trusting and intimate relationship, so my first and abiding goal is to get in sync with the author’s style, intent, and rhythm. One of the glorious aspects of the job of the professional editor is the opportunity to work with many unique and personal voices, and it’s our main job to support them. All authors need support in unique ways, so we begin by identifying each manuscript’s overarching strengths and weaknesses, and then decide where best to apply our resources.
For example, a manuscript may present a truly original and fascinating approach to its plot, but its sentence-level syntax isn’t making the plotting as clear as it could be—that becomes the area we would prioritize toward bringing all the elements into alignment. Or the author’s sentence styling might be nuanced and gorgeous but various plot points are in conflict—we would then be looking to smooth them out a bit while maintaining the sentences’ natural euphony … each book has its own needs, and a great editor has to be able to tweak all the dials as necessary.
What is the end goal when you are editing a manuscript?
It’s always the same: to help the author produce absolutely the best final version of their book, one that they can for the rest of their lives be proud to offer to the world in exchange for the cover price. We aim to take the piece of art they have shed blood and tears for and polish it into its most beautiful form, and we do this by being the author’s greatest champion.
Some authors worry an editor may change their words too much, and the book may no longer feel like it’s theirs. What would you say to those authors?
This is a fantastic question and, without a shadow of a doubt, the primary concern of most new authors. The most intrinsic quality of a professional editor is precisely the opposite of this fear: it is our job to support the voice, philosophy, and intention of each author’s work—getting on their wave and riding it with them, as it were. Our abiding maxim is “do no harm”; in other words: we solemnly undertake to protect and strengthen the integrity of each author’s unique expression, and our personal style of composition holds no dominion within the boundaries of our job. We’re guitar techs; they’re the rock stars.
It’s also very important to mention here that, at Tellwell, we only make proposals toward strengthening the manuscript; by mandate we make no permanent changes. Our authors are completely in control of every word and punctuation mark, and are free to accept or reject any suggestion we make.
Each book has its own needs, and a great editor has to be able to tweak all the dials as necessary.Simon Ogden, Tellwell’s lead editor
What is your advice to authors who say they don’t need editing? Perhaps family and friends have read and edited the book, or the author has edited it themselves.
It’s helpful to remember that every book you have ever read and loved has gone through a rigorous editing process by a professional whose life is immersed in the insanely complicated mechanisms of grammar; the delicate nuances of communication; and the amorphous, diaphanous nature of art. I can say with authority, backed up by every professional writer who has maintained a bond with their trusty editors, that your intimacy with your own writing precludes the ability to objectively assess it, so self-editing is virtually impossible. If you have acquaintances with editorial facility who are able and willing to assist with your work, by all means take advantage of it, but editing is a truly expansive, esoteric, and nuanced profession, and engaging a professional will always be the most direct route to a clear, clean, logically consistent, and powerful finished product.
What are some of the most common writing mistakes you come across?
“Mistake” is a tricky term, because one author’s mistake can be another’s happy accident, and thus a shortcut to something magical (aside from simple spelling errors, of course, but the software we use now generally takes care of that). Mainly we’re looking for areas where we can strengthen the prose: make sure the phrasing is mostly active instead of passive; point out little peccadillos that seep into everyone’s writing, things like the inadvertent repetition of words in close proximity, which is hard to self-regulate but tends to sound a dissonant chord to the reader; the use of jargon, which is usually only understood by a certain subset of the potential readership.
And don’t even worry about semicolons—hardly anyone knows where those little guys are supposed to go, so you can just leave all that to us.
What do you believe makes a good editor?
The number-one, all-time, indisputable trait that defines a great editor is the ability to edit to the author’s individual style, and not to some intransigent, stuffy, and fictitious set of one-size-fits-all rules. One of the things that makes English so wonderful to work with as an artist is its fluidity, and as much as it would have pleased my father’s didactic sensibilities, there is no one strict set of rules for its delivery.
We also have to be our author’s biggest cheerleader. After that, you have to read. A lot. Voraciously. And in as many different media as you can get your hands on. This is a profession that asks for perpetual research, and it’s never done.
What do you enjoy most about editing manuscripts?
Much like my time in restaurants and bars, I love being in service to our clients. Everyone has a story to tell, but Tellwell authors have taken the time and passion to spend hours and hours at a keyboard, and I am constantly honoured to be able to help chip away the marble to reveal the wonderful figure inside.
And, like all those in my genus, I’m hopelessly in love with how letters turn into words into sentences into paragraphs into expressions of what it means to be human. I’m constantly thrilled at the beauty of ideas expressed through language.
Which type of books do you enjoy reading most? Which are your favourites? Do you have any favourite authors?
I was one of those kids who would read the side of the cereal box or shampoo bottle if a book wasn’t within reach, and to some extent I’m still that kid, so I can’t really do this question justice in a short take. Lately I’ve been going through a string of political autobiographies (most recently The Education of an Idealist by former UN Ambassador Samantha Power, and I’m in the middle of former Obama strategist David Axelrod’s Believer—both are making me smarter), and my love affair with Lynn Coady continues, who for my money is one of the best writers Canada has ever produced. She has a startling ability to write from the male point of view—specifically small-town Canadian men—better than most dudes I have read. And the writer I think everyone should be reading is Scotland’s Ali Smith. She brings the tradition of the artist in full to her compositions, and is the ideal of the concept that you have to know the rules before you break them. I would pay good money to read her grocery list.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Lately, I’ve been exploring the nooks and crannies and many parks of Toronto with Orwell, my Brittany Spaniel sidekick, and waiting patiently for the city’s tennis courts to open up again. And if the TBR pile next to my bed ever fell on me in the middle of the night it would be the end of me, so I’m working through that as steadily as I can. We’re in COVID lockdown here at the moment, so the government-imposed injunction against bookstore browsing may have given me a fighting chance to get that tower down to a manageable pile at long last.
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