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Renni Browne: Self-Editing And Afterward
--Interview by Scott Nicholson

Renni Browne is co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (HarperCollins), a title the Los Angeles Times named as one of "six indispensable books for writers" and Library Journal termed "a superb tutorial for anyone wanting to learn from pros how to polish their writing with panache." She began her publishing career in 1961 as a magazine editor, then became a fiction editor for Charles Scribner and later for William Morrow. She left mainstream publishing and, in 1980, founded The Editorial Department, a company of independent book editors now owned and operated by her son, Ross Browne.

Ross will be Browne’s co-author for the upcoming Dialogue That Dazzles, the second book in a projected series of four that began with Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and will include titles on characterization and scene-building. Self-Editing consistently sells in the top dozen books for writers. Browne’s articles have appeared in several magazines, including Writer’s Digest. She does occasional radio commentaries on writers and writing for a regional public-radio station, writes and gives interviews for various online publications for writers, and is just beginning a book on story inspired by the oral tradition in the mountains where she lives. She is an organizer and panelist for the Lost State Writer’s Conference, held every autumn in Greeneville, Tennessee.


Q: What do you think is the importance of having an outside person edit your material?

Renni: I know this is true for me as a writer, and I know this is true from working with writers for forty years. Your book is your child. I don’t know anybody who can be one hundred percent objective about their own children. Of course, some people are better able to be objective than other people, and some people’s kids are better to start out with than other people’s kids.

You don’t get editing because your kid needs work, in the sense of not being a good kid. You get editing because it’s yours and you can’t see everything because you’re too close to it. You can do a lot of it yourself, but you can’t do the whole job.

Q: There seem to be two different types of writers: those who roll it out of the typewriter and send it off, and those who worry and work over something until the life is gone from it. What would you say to those two groups?

Renni: People who let it roll it out should work on it some, and the people who worry it to death need to not cross over that line to the point of diminishing returns. To both of those, I would say "Get an editor." That’s what editors are for. It’s rolled out, it’s come out in all its glory, it’s flowed out. Now somebody can step in and say, "Okay, look at Chapter Two, if it’s non-fiction, your flow of ideas has bogged down and it’s hard to follow. If it’s fiction, here in Chapter Two, there’s this really long stretch where we lose the thread of the story. Why don’t you move this part there, or why don’t you develop Harriet? Or did you really mean for Harriet to be a wimp?"

I once heard an editor’s job defined as bridging any existing gap between the author’s intention and execution. It certainly does not fit all situations, but sometimes what you can do, and it’s an awful lot of fun, is help the writer get to their intention.

You work on it and you apply a little craft, and it’s interesting. How can writers not think it’s the interesting part? It’s a different part, but that’s also why it’s real important not to edit while the initial flow is happening. Then the critic does get in and tells you this isn’t good enough, and that can really bog you down.

Q: What about the editing companies that don’t have the background and just take your money and disappear?

Renni: There are an awful lot of good people out there, but there also are a lot of con artists. One of the hardest things we’ve had to deal with is the image of editing companies, and we were the first company.

If there’s any way to sample the person’s wares, or the company’s wares, you should do so. What we do is anybody who comes to us by way of, then they can submit five pages of any work in progress for a critique without charge. This is an advantage to them because they get to judge the quality of our work, and it’s an advantage to us because we encourage people where we see there’s a spark. We do not want everybody as a client. We have to read it to determine what it is, but beyond that we won’t take on a client that we don’t think will ever get published, no matter what we do to it, or what God does to it, or what they do to it.

So I think you have to use judgment. Is there any client they can name to you who has been published? There are some Internet sites that have alerts to con artists. So many people hire independent editors now. It isn’t as hard to find one as it used to be.

Q: So most larger publishing companies are doing very little editing these days?

Renni: There are three types of editing that people need to understand. Most publishing houses have their books copyedited, which takes care of clarity, consistency, and style in that sense. Line editing is the careful attention to sentences to make sure that they do what the author wanted them to do. That is much more creative. It also involves cutting.

Then there’s conceptual editing, when you get into things like the problems with Chapter Two. Houses are more likely to do conceptual editing or developmental editing than they are actually line-editing and giving loving attention to sentences.

I think where very few publishers get involved anymore is with the prose style. So the book had better be edited, and in fact pre-edited, before a publisher ever sees it. If you’re an established writer, you better keep it up, and if you’re not established, the best way to get a contract in the first place is to make sure the prose sings.

That gets us back to where we started. You’re not going to be able to get it to sing from beginning to end all on your own, most likely. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a professional editor. Sometimes you are fortunate enough to have someone who can do it who is close by. As long as you’re not married to them, you didn’t give birth to them, or they didn’t give birth to you, sometimes someone who shares your literary taste can give you some valuable feedback simply because they didn’t write the darned thing.

And then you can do a lot of style editing for yourself. That’s why I wrote Self-Editing For Fiction Writers. I’m perfectly aware that everyone can’t afford to hire their own editor.

Q: When does a writer make that decision to go for it?

Renni: I think you save money and are better off by getting a book or a story as far as you can take it on your own. You make it as good as you can, and that’s when you get help.

Q: Why do you think your book will help every writer?

Renni: Even if you can afford to hire an editor through several drafts, the more you do for yourself, the better you become. If you hire the editor at a higher level, you’re going to get more out of him, of course. That’s the whole point of the book: to make you look like a pro before you are one.

That means that the editors will take over at a much higher level, and that means more subtle and more literary issues can be addressed by the editor. It can really be a matter of getting prose to its complete potential. And that’s a lot fun for an editor, and for a writer.

Writing is a very lonely business. You write something and you think it’s terrific, and there’s nobody to say to, "Hey, look what I did."

We don’t do anything that didn’t used to be done by publishers. It’s not complicated. It isn’t rocket science.

Q: What’s your view on the current state of the publishing industry?

Renni: I think it’s easier to get published than it’s ever been. That’s not received wisdom, but I know it’s true because my son’s company always maintained a fifty percent track record of getting published, assuming the writer took the book to the max with us. But that record has been running better in the last few years. There are a whole lot more avenues for publication now, and I’m not talking about the Internet. There are a whole lot more small publishers.

What happened was the technology changed, and it became so much cheaper to publish a book. A publisher like my own, I happen to know what the break-even point is. On a $25,000 advance, they have to sell 15,000 hardcover copies priced at $20. That’s a lot of copies, if you think about it.

Squeedunk Publishers somewhere can probably make money on 1,000 copies or perhaps even 500 copies. That puts a tremendous advantage to the author.

The author’s going to do all the promotion anyway. Don’t kid yourself. The author hires their own person to do promotion, or, far more common, they do it themselves.

It’s just the way it works now. You get the editing taken care of yourself before they even see it, and after it’s published, you get to promote it yourself. But I don’t think this is bad news for writers. I think it’s easier to get published, but you have to do more of the work. The competition is much tougher. It’s hard. But the first thing you have to do is finish the book.

-- contents copyright 2001 by Scott Nicholson. Contact for reprint permission.


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