The common thinking has it that if you can write well, you can edit well. But taking someone else’s (or your own!) creative outpouring and helping to shape it is very much a discrete art form. This course is open to editors looking to step up their game; those wanting to prepare themselves to break into the editorial sphere; and, especially, writers interested in learning to self-edit, so that the work they submit is already clean, compellingly organized, and aimed at reader impact. Self-editing—adding layers of polish to what you’ve got on the page, to maximize beauty and coherency—is a step distinct from the composition process, and one that’s necessary for writers in its own right.
Being a capable, thoughtful essay editor isn’t just about mastering the rules of grammar; it’s about designing a gripping reader experience. In this four-week class, we’ll consider the spectrum of strategies available to editors or self-editors of nonfiction essays, and the ins and outs of the writer-editor relationship. Students will come away with big-picture techniques for improving a piece’s structure and flow, and line-editing techniques focused on tone, clarity, consistency, and style at the sentence level. They’ll apply these tools to a piece of their own written work—an unedited, long-form rough draft, preferably—and practice on assigned passages of narrative-driven and argument-driven writing. And they’ll submit their edit notes each week for detailed instructor feedback.
- an understanding of the diverse ways in which an editor might help shape or restructure an essay draft into a convincing—and, depending on the piece, emotionally potent—reader experience
- methods for sharpening an argument, advancing a narrative, adding necessary detail, making language clearer and (if necessary) more concise, and styling and streamlining sentences, while remaining faithful to the writer’s unique voice
- self-editing tools, which students will get the hang of as they consider their own rough drafts in the goal of highlighting their strengths as writers
- the opportunity to practice on several unedited nonfiction selections, and participate in instructor-led group discussions about possible ways forward
- familiarity with a range of effective edits that exemplify the craft lessons from lectures
- personalized feedback and guidance based on students’ editorial career goals, via live text chat and phone call, from a magazine editor-in-chief with close to a decade of experience
- ideas re. communicating changes and explanations for edits to writers, ensuring that those writers remain comfortable in the editorial process, and what to do in instances of pushback
- the confidence to edit others’ work and your own in service of the bottom-line editorial priority: making writers look good!
Hillary Brenhouse is co-editor-in-chief of Guernica, the award-winning magazine of global art and politics; a writer focused on women’s issues; and a senior editor for The Guardian. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker online, TIME, the Daily Beast, the New York Times, Roads & Kingdoms, The Oxford American, Slate, and on PRI’s “The World,” among others. She has also edited multiple books of essays and journalism. You can find her on Twitter here. (Photo credit: Benoit Paillé)
“I've had fantastic experiences with Hillary: she's sure-footed and has an uncanny ability to bridge that gap between what I've actually written and what I hope to say. I've been asked many times if the editing process is painful or difficult. In reality it's a relief when you're working with someone like Hillary—a brilliant reader and gifted communicator who understands how to bring a piece to its full potential.”
“What a delight it was to work with Hillary on my essay about the boundaries of nature for GUERNICA. Her devotion is to word, and not merely as a factual unit, a conveyor of particular and precise meaning, a tool—but also as a component of the melodical structure of a sentence, of a story. That requires perfect pitch. It requires, too, a kind of patience that in more than twenty years of writing I have discovered to be quite rare. I suspect that Hillary reads the stories she edits out loud, tries out minute differences, microscopic alterations that way. Or else she has an all-grasping eye. No matter: it works. I would love to hear her teach.”
“I've edited alongside Hillary at GUERNICA and I was lucky enough to work with her on edits for my most recent book. Beyond her technical skill, which is extraordinary, and her speed, she has a remarkable ability to take stock of structure and flow and locate ways that a piece can be tightened, clarified, or otherwise improved. What astonishes me is how subtle her suggestions are—it's almost like she's an engineer and she can immediately see into the inner workings of a thing, then suss out that shifting the weight or pressure in one sentence or moving a paragraph or adding a thread will alter the function of the work at large. While she is very direct, she is also one of the kindest editors I've encountered.”
“After leaving Hillary’s editing masterclass, I felt that I had a much better understanding of the tools you need to become a great editor. It was so helpful to hear firsthand what the process is really like, where the challenges lie, and what editors are looking for in a draft. Hillary was open about every step of her process, from the initial email she sends to a writer, down to the way she comments on a document. She gave thoughtful career advice and answered every little question we could think of, with keen insight into the editor/writer relationship. As a hopeful editor, it's so encouraging to see the veil lifted.”