The Editorial Department Schema

A plan for compartmentalizing your creative writing tasks and responsibilities

I want to introduce you to something I call “The Editorial Department Schema.” It’s a way to think about your fiction writing, or other creative writing work.

What’s a schema? Let’s have a look.

Definitions 1 and 2 both apply here. It’s funny that this particular dictionary app uses both vaccines and a novel as an example, in definition 1. But for us, this goes beyond a simple plan for a single work. This schema I’m talking about is, like definition 2 says, a way to manage a complex reality.

That’s what being a writer is. You’re a writer? Hey, cool, you’re part of a complex reality. Now let’s work on mediating your perceptions and guiding your responses.

This is a way to think about the elaborate set of demands and responsibilities that come with being a writer.

The idea is a simple one: do what editorial departments in publishing companies do. Compartmentalize tasks and duties. Formalize some processes. Specialize your skill sets. Divide the labor. The goal here is to feel more in control of your writing, and ultimately to let the writer do their thing in peace without undue pressure.

Here are the roles — the slices into which you will divide the pizza pie of your psyche.

Publisher

In the publishing world (and not just with trade publishers who produce fiction), the top job gets the title “Publisher.” If you want to substitute “CEO,” you can. It’s perhaps more helpful, since the goal of all the individuals comprising this schema is to publish.

Think corporate. Think greed. Think power. Think of all the dysfunction you find at the top (you know you always do). The CEO is the crazy part of you, the driven part. The founder with wild dreams and big ideas. This is the aspect of yourself that makes unreasonable demands. CEO-you might be impatient, brusque, ambitious, even arrogant.

You might like to make a fairy tale out of this compartmentalization exercise and make your CEO-self a real philanthropist/visionary type. A real kind-hearted do-gooder out to save the world and bring enlightening works to minds of virtuous readers. Don’t. Let the CEO be a jackass or a bitch. It’s good to separate these traits from the writer herself/himself. They’re just ego needs. It’s not like they’ll evaporate while you’re on this earth; at least by embracing them, you have them in your grasp.

So let the CEO be the one who walks into Barnes & Noble [is that still a thing in 2021?] and says, “One day, this whole front table is going to be full of our titles!” The writer can be the humble one, doing work that’s honest, compassionate, comes from the right place, and all that good stuff.

You can embody this nastiness safely, calmed by the assurance that the Managing Editor is the one who has to deal with the CEO most directly — offering empty promises, kowtowing, and perhaps giving some push-back. So whatever raging lunacy, what power hungers lurk in you, they will not flourish unchecked.

Copy Editors do not typically have to deal with the CEO. Interns do not have to deal with the CEO. The CEO wants it that way. The CEO has a god-complex and thinks of these plebes as not worthy to enter her office. Once I worked for a CEO who had been an architect, and when she designed a new facility she gave everyone in the company walls to their cubes except the copy editors and graphic designers. She didn’t think highly of either.

Managing Editor: As I said, the Managing Editor (ME, or Editor-in-Chief) is the one who has to deal with the CEO. The CEO’s ambitions for the enterprise motivate the ME to put things into action, assigning duties and creating schedules, budgeting time, so that the CEO is appeased. Appeasing the CEO is only achieved by getting things done.

Together, the ME and the CEO gauge the marketplace and set the publishing agenda. That means you-as-ME carries out the orders: “We’re doing memoir this year,” or “Let’s crank out essays on public affairs,” or “it’s short fiction in July, and the novel plot charted by end of August.”

Whatever it is, this leadership direction originates from the ME, who is someone who has a spine, and acts from the gut. Yeah, perhaps the CEO founded the company, but when it comes to day-to-day operations, the place is the ME’s ship to steer.

Running any business involves risks. (Your writing is the business in this schema.) The ME is your manager of that risk (as well as the manager of hte assets). The ME is the Editorial department’s fearless leader. The ME is a sensible person, rational, and a good leader. The interns rightfully admire her. But everyone — quite rightly — feels, “better her than me,” when she’s in that glass fishbowl that is the CEO’s office, and the manuscripts are being rejected, and she has to answer for why there’s no sales or agent acceptances, as well as entertaining radical, sometimes whimsical shifts in objective. For example, when the CEO says, “Hey, what about a starting graphic novel this week!”

Crucially, the ME protects the writer from abuse and disorder of this sort, and from worry about the overall performance of the enterprise.

Editor: Editor is a respected title in the company. This is a person of some maturity, discipline, competence, and initiative. The Editor is a sensitive and creative mind, but not a stark raving lunatic artist with spare change in her underwear drawer and a sleeve of crackers atop the toilet tank. The Editor is mostly an encourager and corrector, someone to support and direct the writer. To keep the writer on task. To answer the writer’s questions. To sympathize with the demands on the writer, and to shield the writer from undue deadline-pressure.

Here’s a common scenario. The CEO yells, “What the fuck is going on? Let’s get this project out!” The ME hears this, negotiations a realistic timeline based on other project objectives, available resources (your energies and interests) and passes on the sense of pertinence to the Editor, though more understatedly. “We want to make this happen by X. It’s important.” The Editor assigns the work to the writer and says, “We’re shooting for X. Let me know how progress is going. I know it’s tight. Do your best.”

Ultimately, the Editor’s role is to make the writer’s assignment clear and to provide the working environment for a successful production of manuscript.

Meetings

Now, in the real world, these parties meet every so often in person, around a conference table, or wherever. I worked in one office where we met around a very ominous sounding place: The Cutting Table. No, no ritual sacrifices took place there (though there were tears and trembling). The table, a big rectangular island, had a laminate top for cutting trim off proofs.

The purpose of the meetings is status reports, of course. These meetings are boring, onerous (because they cut in on work time), sometimes fraught, but necessary. If something’s behind or failing magnificently, it’s important to establish why. Perhaps a white lie or two is told to save face. But in general, we need to be honest at the meetings so that priorities can be reset, and perhaps responsibilities re-assigned. Maybe that chapbook of poems wasn’t the right thing to put on the publishing plan, or to give to the Editor whose expertise is narrative nonfiction in the medical milieu.

Copy Editor

You’re wondering about the Copy Editor. This is a hat you’re accustomed to wearing. Big role, right? Perhaps a loose schema you had prior to now was of you-as-writer and you-as-copy-editor. That’s a decent core staff for a writing enterprise. But now we’re getting more fine-grained in our duties as we get more professional.

So first, the Editor herself. She also edits. She revises content produced by the writer. This is not the same as error-checking, grammar improvement, and formatting. Content editing does often come before Copy Editing. Because why polish something that’s headed for the bin because it’s not on topic? Or perhaps the publisher announced some new initiative this week (on the ME was simply powerless to halt), and these pages are getting shelved.

Content Editing means looking discerningly at the MS and saying, What do we have here? How does this fit the bill for what it’s supposed to be? Is the ME going to be able to pass this to the Publisher and get a thumbs-up? Say it’s a run-of-the-mill short story in the literary vein. Well, how is the plot doing, the character development? What material is keeper? What should be struck and deleted? You-as-Editor ought to be able to articulate in an email or phone call (or these days, video conference call) with the writer, what you like in the story, where you want it to go next, and how you want to see if progress. It’s just that simple. The Editor is the direct-report of the writer. It’s a close relationship, and one that is in the best interest of the Editor to keep amicable. At the same time, if the writer’s work isn’t up to snuff, that makes Editor unhappy, and Editor needs to be able to express that.

Now, as for copy editors. Let me be honest: some of the most insufferable people on the planet I ever met were copy editors. But also some of the most interesting and capable people too. The copy editor is, of course, a grammatical wizard, owner of a compendious mind that seeks order. Unfortunately, the English language can be very disorderly. This is what makes the Copy Editor edgy, impatient, and sometimes disdainful and sometimes just miserable to go to lunch with. Colloquial speech is often incorrect speech; and informational copy can be organized a million ways; and the copy editor loathes incorrectness and disorder and loves to tweak, tweak, tweak. (Some of them feed on writer’s errors, like it’s a kind of iron in their blood that gives them endurance and fortitude.)

Some creative writers [most creative writers?] are woefully unschooled in grammar rules. As a starting writer, I was. And many creative writers are oblivious to the nuances of initial caps with proper nouns, italics with internal thought, when to use that versus which, and how to separate clauses. Spelling out numbers, em dash versus the hyphen, compound adjectives! There’s a lot to know. But I encourage every writer to get better. If you can do one thing to up your Copy Edit skills, do this: understand the comma splice. It’s like Ho-Ho’s with diets: start here. If you can cut out comma splices, your prose will be 50% healthier. I’m talking about, e.g., “Maddox ran to the street corner, she didn’t want to miss the bus.”

After that, comma with direct address.

When you’re acting as Copy Editor, you treat the manuscript ruthlessly, and let no errors slip through. You are careful, thorough, and take the time to look up anything and everything you don’t know. If you don’t know where to look, get a style manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style (print edition or online subscription). Use Post-It’s. Highlight it. Keep it at your desk.

Of course, you can also use spellcheck and grammar check in Word and in Google Docs.

Assistant Editor: Now we’re getting into some of the lower-level skills. Queries and submissions are one of the big duties of the Assistant Editor. That means looking up magazines, agents, and online journal and website submissions policies. That means tracking open submission periods, storing submission contacts and addresses. It includes the tedious business of plugging agent or editor names into query templates, making chapter sample documents as needed (for novel queries), managing log-ins to places like Submittable and Duotrope. Doing the “subs” and tracking. Occasionally, even in 2021, it means buying postage and writing on envelopes.

Say you’re in A.E. mode and you need an author bio for a story submission. The A.E. seeks it from the writer. The writer writes it, then is out of the picture. The writer doesn’t get bogged down in worrying about whether the submission will be accepted, read with glee or disgust. The A.E. just makes sure the protocols are followed, and ships it. And this anecdote captures the ultimate purpose of the Editorial Department Schema: keeping the writer’s onus minimal. Keeping the writer in a happy, stress-free place.

It’s not easy. And I’m not so arrogant as to claim the schema solves everything. But it is tougher to keep the writer unencumbered without this schema, I feel.

Also included in the Assistant Editor’s duties: document management such as directories, file versioning, following naming conventions, choosing and configuring cloud services or other backup systems. Ordering books. Answering and sending emails.

Intern: Photo copies. Buying pens and journals. Making coffee. Really painful stuff like setting up Microsoft Word’s Character Styles and Paragraph Styles, or perhaps things like the default template location path deep in Word’s settings. Transcription of audio notes on projects. Adding words to Word’s dictionaries so they aren’t flagged all the time. Making macros to automate tasks. All the worst stuff that, from the very ground up, supports the objectives of the enterprise at large.

Note: these are all writing-related tasks. This schema does not cover the marketing department. Not all writers need that. But some do, and it’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax.

Exercise: Create one of these professional documents: 1) a spreadsheet taking stock of your works-in-progress. This is probably an Assistant Editor task, but it’s something that might travel as high as the Publisher. She wants to take stock and set the direction for spring based on inventory. So list the title of every story, poem, essay and other type of piece that you have begun. Track these features: word count, genre, date begun, status (as a percentage of completion), and other notes. 2) Work on the Publisher’s Mission Statement. Address the question, What’s the goal of your writing enterprise? What kind of works do you publish or wish to publisher? Short memoir by Latino authors? Crime novels? A mix of personal essays and narrative nonfiction? Cookbooks?

Instructor at @GothamWriters, NYC. Ed.-in-Chief of AspiringWriterSyndrome.com, where fiction is the focus and inspiration is the goal. #Javascotia @PenguinBooks

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