Working with a good editor involves a disturbing intimacy. The ostensibly professional relationship unavoidably grows into an invasive friendship when the editor gets inside your head. While massively grateful for the creation of order out of their synaptic chaos, most authors I know feel violated when someone rummages inside their head in this fashion (my wife expresses similar feelings when a cleaning crew shows up at our door).
I‘ve been working with the same Harvard Business Review editor for close to thirty years now (Steve Prokesch, senior editor), and we just completed our third article together. While an article every ten years does not exactly make me into Balzac (or Peter Drucker, for that matter), our relationship has gone through the same cycle every time, something I await, dread and ultimately love. I‘ve found there are editing seasons, each with a distinct experience of the interaction with him. Only upon completion of the full seasonal cycle does the beauty of our co-creation reveal itself.
When I approach Steve with a new idea, it feels like fall. We may have enjoyed sunny beaches together, but the leaves are long gone. I’m getting wet at the HBR door, he’s dealing with publication deadlines on more developed articles, and his mental space is limited. He points to the overlap between what I’m advocating and material already published by others. It feels like I’m being coached into oblivion, with an occasional ray of hope. I imagine Steve at editorial meetings, wondering whether to throw his weight behind my concept, in what I imagine to be a free-for-all of passionate editors each with their pet projects. Our experiences are inextricably linked: I’m looking for business immortality and I hope he’s looking at my proposal from an equally selfish standpoint, evaluating whether I’ll be fun to work with. He knows most authors to be arrogant and mercurial (Harvard professors are trained in condescension, particularly toward editors), allowing me to offer myself as a French pussy cat who’s modestly trying to express thoughts in a second language. Paraphrasing Victor Borge, I remind Steve periodically that English is his language and I’m just trying to use it.
Paradoxically, getting accepted for publication marks the beginning of winter in our relationship. After the Christmas party anticipating the literary birth a few months down the road, comes a season of barren landscapes and tall shadows. What I thought was a masterpiece in search of a few punctuation marks turns out to be a scarecrow with a carrot for a nose and sticks for limbs. Steve moves into his patient, but unrelenting mode. I‘ve learned over the years that an HBR article (at least in my field) needs a core framework, an anchor narrative showing a company applying the framework in some detail (ideally with live characters), a smattering of vignettes confirming others also use the approach, and a process sidebar for readers adventurous enough to who want to try it at home. Steve’s role at this stage is to poke at crevasses in the snowy landscape, exposing content holes and logic flows. When I start shivering in total nakedness in the bleak mid-winter, wondering why HBR accepted such a flawed project in the first place, he starts mentally rebuilding the piece and its author bit by bit, convincing me this is what I had in mind all along. When I hear “let’s work on the introduction first”, I know the snow blizzard is over and the slow march out of the winter woods has started.
Spring is now in the air. Steve is now like Edward Scissorhands, clipping leaves and carving out branches in our bushy manuscript, hacking at the Track Changes-induced multi-color foliage. Every paragraph that survives his cuts is a new bud. Corrections are the easy part, because I’m just asked to agree or comment. Queries are to be feared, because their Socratic framing often hides a “you don’t really know what you’re talking about” implication. Most anguishing is the laconic “huh?” that unavoidably conjures up the Niels Bohr-like comment that “this theory does not even rise to the level of being wrong”. The word count is still too high, the exhibits too numerous and the sentences too long. Steve’s favorite author is William Faulkner, mine is Marcel Proust, and while both are noted for their very long sentences, Steve keeps chopping up my paragraph-long lyrical sentences into small factual bits. Stress level grows higher at this time, as publication deadlines become more proximate. (HBR deadlines are still roughly patterned on the Gutenberg printing press process, the advent of digital printing notwithstanding).
It’s time for summer and fun in the sun. Publication time is close, bringing with it the anticipation of the finished product. Steve moves back into the shadow, his deed done, leaving me in the hands of other types of editors. It feels like being dropped at the beach with kids you don’t know, hoping your parents will come get you at the end of the day, though you’re not really sure. Executive editors come in with different views of what the piece should be about (no editing adventure is complete without at least one major thunderstorm late in the process). I‘ve learned to say “head” and “deck” instead of “title” and “introductory paragraph” to look good in publishing circles (Steinbeck-like cargo pants are my next move). HBR’s editor-in-chief makes the ultimate call when it comes to head and deck, giving him the right to call co-creation schmo-creation if he’s so inclined. Other types of editors become involved in nitty-gritty aspects (there are as many types of editors at HBR as there are pages in an average Dostoyevsky novel).
My first thought when I see the finished article for the first time is always for Steve. Of course, other people play a key role in the development of business articles: my co-author who’s framed the core argument with me, or the managers who’ve been the true actors of the stories we tell. When it comes to the quality of writing, though, the world may never know the extent of his contribution, but I do. I often think of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web’s last line: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” So is Steve.
PS: Steve has not edited this blog entry, which is why it contains mixed metaphors, split infinitives, Gallicisms and assorted grammatical and vocabulary errors.