Lower Mainland editors have probably heard of the Vancouver Public Library’s Blue Pencil sessions but may not know what they involve. At January’s Editors BC meeting, moderator Wendy Barron and a panel of editors who’ve participated in them—Sarah Robins, Erin Parker, Meagan Dyer, and Nancy Tinari—set out to demystify the program and encourage other editors to volunteer.
Writers interested in a Blue Pencil session can sign up for a free thirty-minute consultation with a professional editor through the VPL. A week before the session, the author submits a writing sample of five to ten pages—or a chapter—along with a summary of their story, their plans for it, and a brief bio. The VPL forwards the manuscript to Editors BC, which sends it out to an editor who has volunteered. Right now, writers are matched with available editors by chance: the program doesn’t have the resources to pair people based on interests, genres, or specific skills.
All the editor is expected to do in preparation is to write one to two pages of feedback, which they give the writer at the face-to-face session. There is no expectation of copy editing, “and most of the manuscripts I’ve received aren’t ready for copy editing anyway,” said Barron.
Barron asked the panellists why they got involved with Blue Pencil. Tinari, a freelance editor who works on memoirs, websites, and academic manuscripts, said, “It’s a great way to get experience and exposure to different genres… I love reading, and I consider it a privilege to look at someone else’s writing. I’m aware of how sensitive people can be about their writing.”
Dyer, who works at Ronsdale Press and has a freelance business, usually edits mostly literary fiction or nonfiction, and Blue Pencil sessions give her the opportunity to work on genre fiction and memoirs and to interact in person with people who write.
Face-to-face interactions are what Parker values about the sessions as well. Most of her work as a freelancer involves email correspondence, and the opportunities to meet a writer in person are limited.
Robins is a technical editor in her day job and signed up for Blue Pencil sessions to “get a different worldview,” since most submissions are fiction. Volunteering to edit also helps her fulfill some of the credential maintenance requirements of certification.
How do the panellists manage their time in the short face-to-face? Parker writes her feedback as a letter, opens with a compliment about the work to put the writer at ease, gives them a few minutes to read the letter, and spends the rest of the session answering questions or talking about points she didn’t cover in her written comments.
Tinari said that you can’t come close to covering everything in half an hour, so she uses her written summary to cover the most important points and then leaves the session open for the writer’s questions. “It’s important to start with something positive. You want people to build upon their strengths.”
Dyer takes time to learn about the writer’s background, which helps her frame her feedback. For instance, one writing sample she worked with was bogged down by too much passive voice, but when she found out the writer was a literature major, she knew she didn’t have to take the time to explain what the passive voice was. That aspect of the feedback could be brief, and they could move on to other issues.
Robins lets the writer know what level of intervention their manuscript might need and focuses on common issues such as usage and grammar.
Creating a rapport with an author you’ve never met is a challenging aspect of the sessions, but Barron tries to set the tone early by conveying to the writers that she’s on their side. A lot of the writers coming in for the Blue Pencil sessions are younger “and they are terrified,” said Barron. “You might be the first person who has seen their work that they’re not related to or who isn’t marking it for school.” She tries to make it clear to the writers that she’s not there to eviscerate them or their story and that hers is only one opinion.
Both Dyer and Tinari tell the writers a bit about themselves, to show that “an editor is just a person,” said Tinari. Robins wishes she could send the feedback via email before the session, because thirty minutes isn’t enough time for the writers to digest the comments. Parker likes that the face-to-face interactions remind her that “We’re working not just with words but with people who create the words.” The importance of being sensitive and tactful is more apparent when you have to sit down with someone in person. Dyer says that it can be easier to establish a rapport in person because email isn’t great at conveying tone.
All of the panellists’ sessions were with fiction writers (and one poet). When asked if nonfiction editors would have anything to offer, Robins answered that the submissions she’s seen had enough immediately obvious issues that there was enough to talk about over the session. Even if you don’t normally edit fiction, most editors read enough fiction to understand the problems with the sample manuscripts that come in.
The panellists have found that they are often the first person in publishing the writers have had contact with. Some want to know what next steps to take or where to find an agent or where to get their work published. Many of them don’t know the difference between an editor, publisher, designer, etc. They can have a lot of publishing-related questions. Managing those expectations is a tricky aspect of the Blue Pencil sessions. Robins described one of her writers as someone quite young who came in with his mother expecting to be able to publish right away.
Most writers are aware that their manuscript needs work, but some of them may be unrealistic about their level of writing, their talent, or the stage their manuscript is at. A lot of people Barron has worked with didn’t know about writers’ groups, critiquing partners, local conferences, professional development opportunities for writers, and other resources. The further people are in their writing careers, the less likely they are to rely on free public services like the ones the library provides.
Tinari has found the sessions helpful for her growth as an editor. “It can be a challenge for someone starting out in editing to put on different editors’ hats. You can’t just say ‘This is poorly written’—you have to analyze what would make it better.” The panellists use the sessions to educate people about what editors do and why their services are worth paying for.
Barron asked the panellists what they would change about the Blue Pencil process. Robins reiterated that being able to send feedback earlier via email would make the face-to-face time more productive. All of the panellists agreed that it would also help them to know more about the person they are meeting. “Last meeting, I had to guess an author’s age based on their name and the quality of the writing. That makes it really hard to decide how to frame the feedback,” said Barron. The programs asks writers to submit a write-up about how their writing sample fits into the rest of their story and their plans for their work, along with a biography, but because those fields aren’t mandatory, they often don’t get filled in. All of this information would save time during the actual meeting.
Editors can be expected to spend a couple of hours preparing for a session—reading the sample and preparing the feedback. “You don’t try to do everything you could do,” said Tinari. The panellists all said that the writers have been grateful for the editor’s time. “They do recognize that you’ve made an effort to come out,” said Parker, “and they’re excited that someone is reading their work.” Some writers may be defensive at the outset, but they become more at ease “once they realize you’re not going to cut them to shreds,” said Robins. With any kind of feedback, Barron hopes that the writers leave “excited to go back and revise their work.” You can always find something positive to say about each submission.
A couple of the panellists have had work come out of the sessions, like manuscript evaluations. But most of them see Blue Pencil sessions as a way to give back to the community, broaden their editing experiences, and establish human connections.
Anyone interested in volunteering for future Blue Pencils can email the branch’s communications and social media chair (firstname.lastname@example.org).