This semester, I helped edit photobooks as a student of the Professional Writing and Editing Associate Degree at RMIT. I worked with two photography students on projects that were interesting and challenging in their own ways. My experiences taught me a few first-hand lessons on editing and collaboration.
Be the editor
‘We must always remember that we are only midwives — if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own.’
The responsibilities of an editor are not set in stone. What you are assigned to do can vary from one job to the next. One of my projects required me to research the subject, conduct interviews and transcribe the audio, rewrite a large amount of text, and copyedit and proofread. And yet, the creative inspiration was not my own. I am not the author. I was always facilitating the work of another.
Make sure roles and expectations are clear, and put the objectives of the artist in the forefront of your mind when making suggestions. Ultimately, creative decisions should be made by artist. Step back if you are taking on too much and make sure you both know where the boundaries are. If your collaborator wants you to take on more of an artistic role and become the co-artist, then that’s a different animal altogether and proper attribution is required.
Tip: Especially in the early stages, try not to ‘fix’ things. Highlight where problems may be, make some general suggestions and see what the artist comes up with as a solution (rather than deciding for them). Your input may steer them towards great ideas that only they could think of.
If you’re not sure about something, ask!
Agree on a general project timeline with the artist, and track progress with them as you go along. It is important that you are clear about the direction of the project and clarify any issues that arise. You should be on the same page (pun intended!) as your artist, so encourage your collaborator to speak up as well.
Tip: If you are reaching out by text or email, keep it short and simple.
When it was difficult to organise a time to catch up in person, I found it tempting to discuss editorial issues by email, but this was — more often than not — wasted energy (lesson learned!).
A succinct message will move things forward, so leave more complex queries to talk through in person.
It’s up to the editor to keep the ball rolling. My classmates and I found that the photographers were less likely to initiate meetups or query issues. The artist is usually busy being the artist! If your collaborator disappears on you, check in with them. Reach out with a short message to keep communication lines open.
Tip: Get your artist writing! At the beginning, ask them to write an introductory paragraph explaining their project. This will get them into writing mode and reveal any hang-ups. It can also help you understand their aims and initiate the editing process at an early stage.
Throughout the project, anticipate what needs may arise and do your best to meet them. This is especially important in the final stages of a project. Expect to put in extra time around the deadline. The artist may be working up to the last moment (sometimes as a result of editing, which may highlight necessary changes). It can be hard if the project goes off schedule, but try to be flexible because the creative may not be factoring in a realistic time for a good edit (or any time at all!).
Sometimes you have to let go.
By the very nature of the job, editors tend to work around someone else’s schedule. Projects may blow out beyond deadlines and you won’t be able to help it. Sometimes you work really hard and there are still errors in the final print (The horror! The horror!).
Try your hardest, know your boundaries and take comfort in knowing that you have done the best job you could.
Find the silver lining
Everything is a learning experience. Take stock of the successes as well as the hiccups, and apply all of what you have learned to the next project!
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