12 Rules for Working with Content Creators
Rule 1: Shoot for Realism from the Start...
Don’t shoot for the moon if your author is not astronaut material.
Set yourselves the most ambitious goal that you can realistically expect to reach, then evaluate whether that goal warrants the investment of time and money.
Rule 2: Planning is Everything...
Don’t tell an author, “Let’s get into it and see how it goes.”
An initial plan, however provisional, forces the involved parties to state their goals up front and describe how they imagine the process of collaboration will unfold.
The initial plan flushes out a host of assumptions that can otherwise plague the project.
It goes without saying that the plan will change—repeatedly—during the book’s development.
Rule 3: Create a Project "Road-Map" Upfront...
In that initial plan, make explicit decisions about who will do what, by when, and in what order.
Many times I have assumed a project was going smoothly only to discover, by impromptu phone calls, that author and Developmental Editor (or, DE) were each waiting for the other to make the next move.
Rule 4: It's All About the Enthusiasm...
DE: If the project doesn’t truly engage your interest, don’t accept the assignment.
Authors: If the publisher’s insistence that your manuscript needs development doesn’t ring true, don’t agree to the plan.
Publishers, if you don’t sense that both DE and author have bought into the developmental plan con gusto, don’t bother—you’ll end up sinking a lot of money into the job and reap marginal benefits.
Rule 5: Learn to Leave Well Enough Alone...
Focus on resolving problems that stand in the way of a manuscript’s success.
DE: Don’t take out your frustrations as an under-published novelist, scholar, or poet by attempting to contribute substantively to the book’s content.
Authors: Don’t keep rewriting passages that have been deemed successful; this constant revisionism will undermine the DE’s efforts to bring the problematic passages into alignment.
Rule 6: Remember, It's Really About the Reader...
The silent partner in the developmental process is the audience, and the author, DE, and publisher may all have different ideas about who that reader is.
The initial plan should include a readership profile, and collaborators should return to that profile regularly to ask: “Are we still on target?” or “Is the book shaping up to appeal to the intended audience?”
Rule 7: Set Well-Defined Markers to the Finish Line...
The developmental plan should include concrete goals at regular intervals that will give both DE and author a sense of accomplishment.
The first milestone should be an easy one that can be reached in two to four weeks—say, revising the table of contents, or writing a new passage to open the first chapter dramatically.
Success in reaching the first few milestones will spur both parties onward; milestones at the halfway and three-quarters marks will keep both marathoners’ chins lifted toward the finish line.
Rule 8: Remember Your Manners: Tact is Golden...
DEs, know that a book is the closest thing to a child that a human being can produce; don’t say anything about the author’s prose that you wouldn’t say about her toddler.
Authors, don’t be so territorial about your discourse that you react in a knee-jerk fashion to ideas that hadn’t occurred to you.
Give all suggestions an honest and respectful hearing, whether or not you ultimately accept them.
Rule 9: Be Candid in Your Communications...
That being said: don’t allow tact to turn obsequious. If your collaborator doesn’t understand a suggestion that you are making, restate your case more clearly and firmly.
Sweeping issues under the rug will only accrue a lump of resentment that will ultimately impede communication.
Rule 10: Listen More Than You Talk...
Get in the habit of repeating what your collaborator has just said back to her, paraphrasing her point to see whether you’ve heard it correctly.
Verbatim parroting is no use; you must put her message into your own words to demonstrate that you’ve truly understood what she means.
Rule 11: Brainstorming is a Two-Way Street...
Make all key decisions with a brief, fervent brainstorming session conducted via phone or email or face to face.
This habit ensures that all parties—DE, author, and publisher—are kept “in the loop” and have a sense of active participation.
It also allows the collaborators to identify blind alleys at the outset rather than wasting days or weeks on an approach that will ultimately come to naught.
Rule 12: Keep It Current...
As brainstorming sessions give rise to alterations of the initial plan, update the written document and circulate it among author, DE, and publisher.
This ongoing “secretarial” task can be tedious, but abandoning it halfway through the project, I’ve learned, can result in the project quickly veering off course.
Either the publisher or the DE should perform this chore; most authors will find it too unnerving.