Editing Principle 08: Don't Panic

Seven times out of ten, the context for a book is much larger than the author initially imagines it to be. The author only discovers how big their topic is, and what will it take for them to deal with it comprehensively and ethically and artfully and so on, once the project is well underway. Then when the realization hits them, they despair and want to quit. Or just talk about quitting. They don’t really want to quit. They just need help recalibrating their expectations. They feel suddenly incompetent—they should have known! they think—and want to feel in control again.

As an editor, you’ve been through this process with other writers. I would also say that ideally, you the editor have also written a book before, so you’ve experienced this “Oh f*ck” moment firsthand. So you don’t panic.

But also don’t say, “I knew it.” Instead you help the author by empathizing with them, and when appropriate, i.e. not right away, start calmly talking through various ways forward, i.e. the what’s next, the small next steps that make the book feel finishable again.

My son loves the book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, and it’s mantra on encountering obstacles—rivers, mud, dark forests, deep fears of being unequal to the task in front of you—pertains here: We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no, we’ve got to go through it.

That “we” is important. Don’t attempt the going through it alone.

Megan Hustad