I think the first thing is to reject the common assumption that you can EITHER be a great editor OR you can be pastoral. These two things are 100% compatible…
Sarah Saxton-Frump is a Story Team editor, freelance editor, and the Director of College Completion at PelotonU. Sarah came to Texas from the east coast and has been a great addition to our team. This weekend Sarah answered a few questions about her work editing our latest story, Filled with Grace and Peace. You can find Sarah on Instagram and Twitter.
Story Team: Describe your role as an Editor on Story Team. What are your duties, and why is your role necessary?
Sarah Saxton-Frump: Every written story has a writer, first editor, second editor and photographer assigned to it. As the first editor, my role is to partner with the writer to best tell and convey God’s powerful movement in his children’s lives. If I’m using my skills well, then we end up with an incredible, moving story with God at its center, and the writer has grown in his/her love of God and skill in storytelling and communication.
Practically, that looks like two cycles of feedback: one focused on storytelling, and one focused on copyedits, syntax and style. I think of this a lot like building a house—or at least, what I think it’d be like! Before you can paint and decorate (copyedits), you have to ensure the house was built right (storytelling). This means I submit one round of longer form revisions and suggestions focused on exalting God, clarifying plot and engaging the reader. After the writer has finished their structural changes, we go through another round of copy edits. Both rounds obviously include changes, but it’s important to note that all changes are accompanied with notes and explanations. I never offer a change without explaining why.
The role is necessary emotionally and practically. When God sends the Holy Spirit to Bezalel to design and build the temple, God also appoints Oholiab—and then a whole team of workers. Creativity is often sneakily collaborative, but obviously lonely; we think we can do it on our own, but God has designed us to need each other—for ideas, for subject matter, for help when we get stick, for seeing what we can’t see. I have yet to find a writer who isn’t overwhelmingly grateful to have a thoughtful, kind, smart editor as a partner. The results are the most beautiful, God-glorifying stories we can write, writers who have grown their skills, and children of God who live out the church as body.
What is the first thing you do when you receive the initial draft of a story?
Read it! I know, I know—seems obvious. But the temptation for editors can be to simply dive in without stepping back to look at the whole story. When I read it the first time, I note my reactions to parts mentally. Where am I confused? Where do I get goosebumps—or do I get goosebumps? How do I relate with the story? Do I finish it having learned about God? Do I love him more? There’s probably a million-and-one other “active reading” questions that race through my mind, but those are the main ones. Once I’ve mentally catalogued my initial response, I also ask myself a few more questions… Who’s driving the change in the story—man or God? Has the writer chosen breadth at the expense of depth? Does the conflict seem surface-level or have we gotten to the messy, deep wrestling-in-the-mud-with-God stuff?
Then, I note where the story is strong, and I think about how the writer could capitalize on those strengths to improve the weaknesses. From there, I write up feedback at the top of the story. I share my goals for the writer as their editor, I describe the strengths (if I’ve worked with the editor before, I’ll also note growth in previous weaknesses), and then I detail my questions about and/or suggestions for the story.
What are your goals with the writer as an editor?
Mark up the page with as much red as I can… Totally kidding!
My goal is to help create an honest, compelling story that glorifies God, reminds his children of his faithfulness, and enables the writer to grow.
A large part of your role is providing feedback to Story Team writers. What is challenging about this, and how do you balance being helpful with being pastoral?
I think the first thing is to reject the common assumption that you can EITHER be a great editor OR you can be pastoral. These two things are 100% compatible, and if you were catching me on a sassy day, which you are, I’d actually say you can’t be a great editor without being pastoral.
That being said, there are certainly some challenges, and the first is running all our feedback cycles online. Providing difficult feedback (like “hey, so, you kind of left the gospel out of this story…”) entirely online to writers who you may not actually know in person is incredibly difficult. You don’t know them, their prior experiences with editors (Good? Bad? Ugly?), their personality, how they respond to feedback, etc—and they don’t know you, your heart, your intentions, your skill level, etc. The opportunities for hurt, miscommunication and resentment abound; God has been incredibly gracious, thus far, to have allowed me to balance this well.
The primary way I do this is by just straight-up stating my intentions: “my goal in this round of editing is always to develop the story into an even more beautiful version itself.” I also leave an open invitation for push-back, questions and feedback. Writers make themselves incredibly vulnerable by opening up to feedback on both the structure of their story and the words which compose it. Editors rarely do. Reciprocating the vulnerability creates trust and allows the editor to grow in his/her craft, too. After all, if the writer can’t hear your feedback because you’re abrasive, unclear or unkind, then you’re really not doing much good as an editor.
If I’m really unsure how to give a piece of feedback, I will reach out to another lead editor (another role I serve in— see Lindsey’s post) and ask for their feedback on my planned approach.
The second major challenge is figuring out how to offer feedback which preserves the writer’s voice, but also complies with effective storytelling techniques or correct syntax. In the first round of feedback, my approach is to state the issue or ask a question, and then offer a possible solution. Writers can then decide to incorporate the solution I offered, or they can choose to solve it their own way. But in either case, the issue in the story is resolved. During the second round of edits, this is a little trickier, as I’m doing more direct changes to the story. When making syntax changes, I often ask myself if is this really necessary for clarity and understanding, or if this is this just my preference. If it’s the former, I make the change, add a comment as to why, and ask them to confirm that it sounds like them. If it’s the latter, then I’ll add a comment with the text of how I’d rewrite it, and let the writer decide if it helps the story or not.