Editor’s Note: This spring, Associate Editor Esther Namubiru asked her students in her Editing for Style and Voice class to listen to a Slow Agency podcast episode where she and her fellow co-editors spoke with WLN editors Karen Johnson and Ted Roggenbuck about the editing experience. Esther’s students had questions for Drs. Johnson and Roggenbuck and these questions were sent to Ted and Karen who offered to respond in the form of this article. This article not only reveals unique opportunities and issues for editors across fields but also demonstrates the collaborative spirit that the WLN editorial team embodies. The article also shows what can happen when we listen to aspiring editors and encourage their ideas and questions. We give special thanks to Esther’s students, Cara, McKenna, Margaret, and Stefano, and to Drs. Johnson and Roggenbuck for collaborating and bringing this article and its ideas to life.
How do you know when an article is through with revisions? How do you decide when it’s “good enough”?
Karen: I know an article is good enough when I finish reading it and don’t get tripped up with wording, can easily follow the writer’s argument and logic, experience good flow with the reading, and know that the writer has sufficiently supported their claims. Since I think we can continually revise an article over and over again, I’m hesitant to claim that an article is ever “through” with revisions, but an article can get to the place where it is sharing valuable insight to the readers.
Ted: What Karen describes matches my process as the guiding editor for a piece. Prior to that we first have two outside reviewers evaluate the manuscript and provide feedback to us and to the writers. When the reviewers have signed off, I go through the process Karen describes, and when I feel the piece is nearly ready, I send it to the rest of the WLN team to vote on whether or not they agree that the manuscript is publishable and to get their feedback for the writers.
How do [you] maintain a positive, collaborative environment in situations when the writer’s opinion on the work differs from the editor’s opinion? When revising a piece, does the editor have to put the interests of the writer or the audience first?
Karen: It may surprise you to know that I don’t consider my opinion when reviewing a writer’s manuscript. Instead, I try to position myself in the writer’s place and understand their unique perspective. I may not agree with a writer’s claim because it is either not supported or because the writer hasn’t provided enough context for me to understand it. I may not agree with a writer’s focus on a manuscript simply because they are missing other opportunities to highlight areas where research is lacking in our field. And I might not agree with the writer’s use of sources simply because there are better ones to use or the ones they are using do not apply to the rhetorical situation the writer presents. When these situations arise, I try to encourage the writer to understand where they can make positive changes and why those revisions can strengthen their argument. Sometimes the writer convinces me to retain their claims by presenting information that is not discussed in the original manuscript, and at that point, we discuss how to integrate those new ideas in a way that convinces readers and me of their argument. In short, it is a discussion where an exchange of ideas to understand each other’s perspective takes place, and those conversations occur either through email, the manuscript itself, or a Zoom meeting.
Ted: Often with authors, collaboration seems almost effortless even though it involves a lot of work for us and for them. Sometimes, though, manuscripts require several rounds of revision, and it can be a fine balance between helping writers hone their work and them losing confidence or getting frustrated during the process. In addition to what Karen describes above, we occasionally have writers offering manuscripts that are well written but don’t seem to add much to the current conversation. That’s often where the strategies Karen describes are most important. As I train my writing center staff to do, when working with a manuscript, I always try to occupy the role of reader first and foremost. I learned from our Editor in Chief, Muriel (Mickey) Harris, who is an amazing mentor and scholar, that an important part of my role is to always think about WLN’s readers and what they might want and need. So, I have to say I put the audience first. We want to provide a venue for writers to share their scholarship, and I think we especially value supporting writers who are entering the field and may be newish to academic publishing, but for a manuscript to make it into an issue, the editorial team needs to feel that it is adding something of value to our ongoing scholarly conversation.
Knowing all that you do about editing, and doing it so often for others, do you find yourself to be a good editor of your own writing? I can equally imagine a satisfying experience of self-editing, where revisions take place after considered reflection, but I can also imagine editing your own work to be a painful process—perhaps you’re worried you caught lightning in a bottle and don’t want to cut it down. I believe an editor’s opinion on this might yield some insight.
Ted: I love writing with Karen. I think we’ve both generated language that the other has then made more effective. When writing with Karen or on my own, I rarely feel as though I’ve caught lightning in a bottle, and so much of what I write anymore has such an immediate exigency that my focus is always on what the writing is trying to accomplish. For example, I’m often writing to administrators to try to help them make important decisions for our students. Although I don’t want to leave out any important points that may be convincing, I also need to be efficient, so I can’t afford to be too attached to any particular lines of argument, rhetorical gestures, or language. I have to fit the situation and expectations of my readers, so to get there, I usually have to write a lot more than what eventually reaches the eyes of the people I’m trying to affect. William Faulkner is credited as saying that “in writing you must kill your darlings,” and I think that is essential not just for literature. One of those darlings for me would be the idea that my voice as a writer has some value in and of itself. It doesn’t. What matters is what I can accomplish with it.
Karen: I think I’m a fairly good (not excellent) editor of my writing once I’m at the proofing and editing stage of the writing process, BUT there’s a part of me that does struggle with accepting if my writing is “good enough” in terms of my wording, clarity, focus, and flow. I don’t ever think I’ll ever be a saucy, overconfident writer. Truth be told, I love to write collaboratively with Ted and value his feedback on my writing.
How many editors are also writers themselves? I’d assume it’s actually a fair amount, and in that case I wonder if it’s difficult to switch back and forth between the mindset of writer vs. editor.
Karen: I think all the editors are writers; the challenge we face is finding time for writing since we devote so much time to WLN. I don’t think it’s hard to switch between the roles of writer and editor, maybe because editing does involve a great deal of writing. I can definitely say that since I became an editor for WLN, I have become a better writer because I have learned so much from the other editors, the editing process has made me more aware of weaknesses in my own writing, and I have become even more acutely aware of the components of good writing, which I try to follow when I write for publication.
Ted: I can’t add much to what Karen has said. I struggle to find time to write for publication because I spend so much time writing within my job on campus and as an editor for WLN. I can say that in addition to learning from other editors, I also learn from our writers. Part of editing is learning to look at how other writers’ strategies help them or don’t help them. I see a lot of really neat ways of working in text that I’m paying closer attention to than I might otherwise if I weren’t responsible for helping to support the writer.
What is by far the greatest obstacle you have ever faced in your entire career?
Karen: The greatest obstacle I have faced in my career is my current situation. In 2020, my department’s teaching needs increased, which meant that I could not continue to direct the undergraduate and graduate writing center, which was combined at the time. I needed a reduced administrative load so my teaching load could increase. I also knew that it was time for graduate writing support to become a stand-alone center, which I enthusiastically embraced. I stepped down as the director of the undergraduate and graduate writing center and started a stand-alone graduate writing center. Mistakes were made in funding, and I was not granted sufficient tutoring staff. It’s been a two-year battle to get sufficient funding and staffing, and it has not been solved yet. Sometimes, I feel like giving up, but I love the work too much and I believe in the mission too deeply to cave into the defeats that don’t seem to stop.
Ted: It’s probably not great for students to hear that I’m probably also currently facing my greatest obstacle. Our university is being “integrated” with two other universities that don’t have writing centers. For almost two years, I haven’t known whether or not my current center will exist in the new university that emerges, and I’m not sure when I will find out.
Beyond that, I would say that my most persistent obstacle has been imposter syndrome. When I was younger, that meant that I never thought I could reach the next step–graduate school, PhD program, degree, publication, tenure, promotion,…. With each step I goaded myself into taking, and with each accomplishment, came the feeling that I really wasn’t qualified to be there. That voice hasn’t gone away, but it’s a bit easier most days to not pay so much attention to it.
I would want to know what makes someone choose to be an editor. What was their ‘aha’ moment that resonated with them, and led them down the editing path?
Ted: I’m pretty sure that neither Karen nor I set out to become editors. She contacted me with an idea about guest editing a special issue of WLN related to tutor education. We’d collaborated before, so I jumped at the chance to work with her again, but it was not because I wanted to be an editor. I just like working and thinking with Karen. Putting together a special issue (and then another one and then a digital edited collection) presented that opportunity. The WLN regular editors at the time, Mickey Harris, Kim Ballard, and Lee Ann Glowsenski, were the supportive people we’ve come to know them to be, and our project went well, so we were invited to become regular editors. During that process there was kind of an “aha” moment in that I realized that editing is by far my favorite form of scholarship. It’s not always fun because sometimes you have to write to authors rejecting their work after you know they’ve put in a lot of time and effort, and the amount of work often feels overwhelming, but you also get many opportunities to help writers shape or improve their manuscripts and sometimes even their scholarly projects.
The biggest surprise for me was how much I enjoy the copyediting at the end. I never copy edit my students’ work, so this is a different activity for me. I don’t know that I would enjoy it as my full time job eight hours a day, but it’s a strangely fun diversion from my other work.
Karen: I LOVE this question, because I never dreamed of being an editor and would have never volunteered for an editing position. Working with Ted on the special issue and later on the DEC as editors was such a rewarding experience, and one in which I experienced tremendous growth. I learned much from Ted, Mickey, Lee Ann, and Kim. But working on the journal seemed to be entirely different, and my imposter syndrome kicked in at full throttle. Though scared to take on the work for fear that I wouldn’t measure up, I observed the other editors, asked questions, and slowly started to work with authors and reviewers. The “aha” moment for me was when my first writer’s work was accepted by the other editors and I realized that I could guide writers as a WLN editor. I am glad that I didn’t allow my fear and imposter syndrome to immobilize me because the shared experience of working with reviewers, the WLN team, and writers to shape an initial draft into a publishable manuscript is immensely gratifying. For those who enjoy working with writers through many drafts and who have the ability to see potential in a promising draft, they may want to learn more about editing opportunities in their field.