Every writer needs a good editor. But not all editors are created equal, and having a website and a business card is not proof that someone knows that they are doing. I sat down recently with Los Angeles-based Kristen Havens, one of the most respected nonfiction editors in the business, to talk about what she brings to the table, the pros and cons of ghostwriting and how she often does as much coaching as editing.
Open Mic: According to your bio you graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in anthropology. How did you end up becoming an editor?
Havens: It’s something that evolved over time. I started out in documentaries and filmmaking, and I worked in advertising for a couple of years. I moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast, and somewhere along the way I got connected to a small press based in Hollywood. About half of their books were related to the film and TV industry and the other half were novelty books, memoirs, and children’s books. It was a very small press, four people plus myself, and they initially hired me to read through their slush pile. I did that for five years, but the position gradually evolved to include some marketing and editorial duties as well. I coached a few of their authors and potential authors through the development of manuscripts, and my interest in editing just evolved from there.
Open Mic: You are a developmental editor, which is a specific aspect of the editing process. For those aspiring authors who might not know the various kinds of editing a book goes through, tell me about what you bring to a project.
Havens: I focus on the big picture. My authors are almost entirely non-fiction writers who come to me at different phases of the development of their projects. Some have an idea or an outline and a few notes. Others will have a full first draft, and some have written a few chapters. What they’re looking for is somebody to tell them if they’re on the right track. For example, does the book make sense and is the project flowing? Rather than correcting grammar and punctuation on every line like a copyeditor would do, I’m focused on issues like are whether authors are proving the points they’re setting out to prove. Are they building a strong argument that readers can follow? Is the tone of the project suitable for the audience that they’re trying to reach? Are the chapters in the right order, and the paragraphs? It’s structural work, mainly. I make sure the pages are building toward something that coheres.
Open Mic: You offer a lot of services, including coaching. How much coaching do you find yourself doing? Sometimes it’s a grey area, especially when somebody is giving you a chapter at a time. I would say 25 percent of my current clients are receiving coaching. It’s a fluid process for me. I’ve been working on making coaching a separate service because when you’re an editor, especially of self-published books, you wear a lot of hats for clients. It’s nice to be able to explain to people the different phases of developing a project.
Open Mic: You are also a content strategist. First, tell me exactly what that means and then maybe how that differs from the straight editing you do.
Havens: When I worked for the small press they asked me to take on book marketing, which involved creating a unique internet strategy for each book. I trained all our authors in blogging, which was huge at the time, and eventually on Twitter. For a number of years after I went out on my own, my primary business was helping both independently-published and traditionally-published authors build their online platforms. Creating online content always began with a written content strategy. I would show authors how to pull ideas from their books and turn them into tweets or Facebook posts or topics to blog about, and I’d put them on a schedule and teach them how to amplify their messages, optimize for search engines, and network with fans and other authors.
Open Mic: You focus on nonfiction. How did you decide to put your energies there rather than on fiction?
Havens: I have a strong base of knowing how to communicate persuasively and instructively, so nonfiction just felt like a good fit for me. I like to help authors draw from their professional expertise and translate their knowledge for lay readers. For me it’s a very straightforward process, to build an argument and present it in a way that is essentially teaching readers or guiding them through something.
Open Mic: You specialize in helping tech experts get their point across to more general audiences. I have a number of highly educated tech people in my family so I know this is not always an easy task. How receptive are your clients to what they might consider “dumbing down” their expertise a bit so we non-technical folks get it?
Havens: Fortunately, I haven’t had much push back on this. Most of the authors I’ve worked with come to me because they’re looking for someone who can bridge that gap between technical expertise and speaking to non-technical audiences.
Open Mic: Many agents and editors I know lament the lack of understanding by most fiction writers about the publishing business as an industry. Are corporate folks and businesses any better prepared in that regard?
Havens: I think it’s 50/50. Fortunately, the people I’ve worked with understand that for their purposes, the business value of a book is not necessarily tied to book sales. For example, an author might be writing a book because they want to establish themselves as a subject matter expert in a particular area, and they use that book as leverage to get speaking engagements. If you’re getting paid thousands of dollars to speak to a group of people for one hour at a conference, you’re coming out ahead. Business people who have a platform and are experts in their fields understand that a book is about more than fame and fortune. It is actually a tool they can use to get opportunities and contracts.
Open Mic: You edit many kinds of writing for corporate clients. How is your approach different for those projects than it might be for a book for an individual?
Havens: Corporate clients usually have a marketing person who will dictate what they want, and I often just work off the brief. But with an individual it tends to be more of a collaboration. We may have some initial conversations about tone and goals. There’s leeway for me to make style or content suggestions, and sometimes I will have advice if authors are writing in an area where I have some familiarity from past projects.
Open Mic: What is the biggest challenge for you as a ghostwriter? Conversely, what do you like best about it?
Havens: What I like most about ghostwriting is that I really enjoy collaborating with clients, whether that be in the writing or the developmental editing or book doctoring. I enjoy learning about different subject areas. The biggest challenge for me is the business end, because as independent contractors, you are representing your own interests most of the time. Because I work a lot with independently published writers, there’s no publisher contract, there’s no book advance, and there’s no specific schedule with hard deadlines. I become a project manager at times. I have to determine the schedule of deliverables, keep the author on track, and determine the best method for us to work together. And then, of course, ghostwriters handle their own contracts and negotiations because there is usually not an agent involved on your behalf.
Open Mic: Is there a common mistake you see from your authors? Do you find yourself working more on structure or the actual writing? Or something else?
Havens: Something I run across a lot is a lack of transitions between ideas, and the connected issue of sequencing sentences or paragraphs. The metaphor I use is that nonfiction writing is akin to working as a tour guide. When you’re writing a descriptive nonfiction or how-to book where you are teaching people about your subject area or describing a process that you’re recommending to them, you really need to take charge and be very clear. You need to hand-hold and pull the reader through your thought process. I think the reason people forget or overlook doing this hand-holding is because they are so familiar with the subject matter. They work with it in so many different forms, outlets, venues and styles that they’re not accustomed to thinking of their big, broad subjects from start to finish, the way you have to when you’re introducing a concept to unfamiliar audiences.
Open Mic: It seems more writers are warming up to the idea of having a freelance editor on their work before seeking publication. When do you think a writer should seek out an editor like yourself?
Havens: It depends. Some people feel more comfortable getting all their thoughts completely down before they show a project to an editor, and that’s fine if you’re okay with the possibility that the editor might say you’ve got some work to do. I think the key is to remember that if you’re working with a content or developmental editor specifically, expect that person to look at your content and your structure. They may find places where you need to add or delete material. Be ready for that possibility, that your book may need more time before it’s ready.
Open Mic: In nonfiction, we’re told all the time that platform is everything. From your perspective, is there still even room for a book from someone with a great story or idea but only a middling platform? And if not, what are the best ways that person can grow their platform?
Havens: Yes, you can find an audience with a smaller platform, but probably not with no platform at all. I’ve always felt that if you want to use social media to grow your platform, you have to do it yourself and you have to be authentic about it and be consistent with your practices. The best use of an author’s time is to pick one venue and really make that their hangout. If it’s Twitter, just get on there and start talking to people who are adjacent to what you’re doing. Make friends and contacts. Be friendly with people who may be willing to cross promote. For non-fiction authors, definitely have an email capture form on your website. That’s huge because while you are in the process of writing your book you can start building an email list. If you go to conferences and events you can give the elevator pitch about the book that you’re currently writing. Get people interested in that way – hand out a business card, hand out a brochure, or maybe a mock-up of your book cover with a little copy describing what your book will be about, anything to get people excited about the book. Get them to sign up for your newsletter list so that when your book is ready for preorder you can send out an email and say, ‘Remember when you met me at that conference? That book I’m working on is coming out next month.’
Open Mic: I like to end on what I hope is a fun question. Let’s say I had the power to put you together for dinner and a conversation with just one of the following three people. Who would you choose and why? Your options are: famed actress Elizabeth Taylor, Dr. Robert Jarvik (the creator of the artificial heart) or Montana Rep. Jeanette Rankin, the first woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (in 1916).
Havens: Wow that’s a tough one! Jeannette Rankin intrigues me because I did not expect the year, 1916. Since we were just talking about platforms, I would be curious to discuss what her platform was and to talk to her about how she got her ideas across to people — because it is so important in politics to be super concise with your message. I work with my clients on messaging all the time, so I would love to talk to her about that.