Writing, by nature, is emotional. Truly wonderful pieces of writing always come from a genuine and engaged author. Authors and their writing are so intertwined that it is nearly impossible to edit your own book—which is why editors are so integral to the publishing process. William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” A good editor knows that this process is sometimes painful to the author because their words are their babies. How, then, is an editor to approach nonfiction trauma manuscripts when an author’s words are their nightmares? When submitting a story that includes traumatic events, especially real-life events, an author bares their soul on the page. It can be a form of therapy for some; a way to get their truth out to the world. But it still needs to be edited if it is going to be a published piece of work.
Publisher and founder of Forest Avenue Press, Laura Stanfill, shared her experiences giving and receiving feedback about traumatic events with me. There are ways we can edit trauma with kindness and without lowering our standards. Based on our chat, I’ve divided this post into two sections: the mechanics of a trauma scene and what to look for, and how an editor should deliver feedback on a traumatic scene.
The Mechanics: An editor must consider how the traumatic event or scene fits within the narrative structure of the story. According to Stanfill, sometimes a trauma scene can be really “loud” if it follows a key plot point. It can overshadow other events that the author might not intend it to.
Another consideration is the pacing of the scene. Does it match what is happening to the character? As an author herself, Stanfill said that pacing is hard because memory can slow or speed things up, and the velocity of the read needs to guide the audience through a similar pattern in order to feel authentic.
Details are an important factor as well. There needs to be enough detail to convince the reader that it is the author’s story to tell, but they also need to mind the “gap” that trauma creates in a person’s memory. Too confident of a retelling can feel like someone else’s trauma or, even worse, trauma sensationalized. There is also the question of chronology. How an author chooses to tell the story can make it feel truer to the experience because memories can sometimes come through in fragments and flashes.
The Delivery: An editor needs to have some sort of trust built between them and the author before offering feedback on their darkest secrets. The author needs to feel like they can be open and vulnerable throughout the process in order to add what details may need to be added, or to cut details that could stir legal trouble. This honesty and vulnerability happens when both the author and editor start from a place of respect.
As an editor, Stanfill starts building that trust and respect in the acquisitions phase by telling the author everything she loves about the manuscript. Then, during the developmental editing stage, along with notes on structure and plot, she reiterates how she sees the book as a whole and what positive qualities she sees. As far as what doesn’t work, Stanfill shared that she makes notes in her margins to look back on when giving feedback. This is to make sure it is consistent, author-centric, feeling-driven (concerned with how the writing makes her feel) feedback. Stanfill added that she gives notes—through email or sometimes a phone call—with an awareness of the toll dredging up old, repressed memories takes on the author.
Sometimes it’s as simple as saying: I see you. This doesn’t work. This does work.