Kindness for the Word Herd

By Alison Behnke, Free Spirit editor

September 2013 marks the 30th National Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month. (So if you haven’t finished your holiday shopping yet, don’t panic—there’s still plenty of time.) This year also marks the 30th anniversary of Free Spirit Publishing. That makes this a natural moment for those of us here in the editorial department to consider a question: When editors and writers are collaborating, what’s the best way to show kindness to one another? As an editor who has also been on the other side of the process as an author, I’ve discovered something it definitely does not mean: Backing down from a difference of opinion too quickly and making compromises too readily.

douglas adams, author of "Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy" H2G2

Compromise is necessary, certainly. From beginning to end, many people with diverse areas of expertise and sometimes differing expectations play a role in crafting a book. It’s a wonderful but sometimes strange sort of work. There’s an element of it that’s unquestionably magical—turning thoughts and ideas into beautiful and tangible things. And especially because we work with some very big ideas at Free Spirit—ones that are important to kids and the adults who care for them—it can also be a highly emotional business.

But it is a business, which means that nuisances like deadlines are an unavoidable part of the picture. (Have you heard about writers and deadlines? How about editors and deadlines? In the interest of avoiding libel, I’ll speak only for myself in saying that I find them to be a significant challenge—especially when I’m in the authorial rather than the editorial role. That is why I will never tire of quoting Douglas Adams’s writerly witticism: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”)

This whirl of emotions, hopes, and expectations, combined with the stress of deadlines and the pressure of demands and desires from all parties, can be volatile at times. Conflicts arise. Tempers flare.

But what I’ve learned from being invested on each side of the action at one time or another is that conflict very often builds a better book. When everyone cares deeply about the end result, there will be disagreements, strong feelings, and different visions. Behnke QuoteThat’s why giving in on a point about which we feel passionate is the opposite of real kindness—because it doesn’t serve the book. We all have the same essential goal: to make the book the best it can be, and to shape it into the most useful tool it can be for the reader. In the long run, keeping that reader at the center of the conversation and at the heart of the decision-making is far more rewarding for us editors and authors than smoothing ruffled feathers in a moment of discord. Most important, it’s more rewarding for the kids and educators who benefit from the work we do together. So the very best way to show kindness to an editor or a writer is to work hard for the book and the readers we all care about.

Books, Coffee, Mug Rug (c) M. Wilbourn for FSPOf course, it never hurts to say thank you for all that hard work once in a while, too. I can guarantee that it’s appreciated. (Note: Coffee and books are also acceptable in place of verbal thanks. Check with your editor or author for details.)

Alison Behnke is a Free Spirit editor, and the author of more than 30 nonfiction books for children. She lives in Minneapolis.

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