A Teen’s Editor in an Adult World
I was nervous about my upcoming interview for an editor position at the publisher Doubleday Broadway. I wasn’t only concerned about what staff at the corporate publishing group might think of my long dreadlocks—some dyed navy blue—and the piercings I sported on each ear and below my lip. I also worried how they’d perceive my current profession: I worked with teen writers.
Yes, I was a youth media educator. I belonged to that group of talented, conscientious folk who sometimes feel like outcasts from the rest of the adult working world because the scope of what they do often isn’t understood by others. A group who not too many would readily use the term “professional” to describe, maybe because so much of their day looks like they’re just “hanging out” with the kids, even though they’re really transforming lives.
I edited New Youth Connections (NYC), a publication written by and for New York City teens that is distributed in the city’s public high schools and libraries. Whenever I told this to folks at professional meetings or social functions, it was hard for them to grasp just what I did. To be fair, it was hard for me to explain. My job editing New Youth Connections was unique, requiring me not only to develop and edit nonfiction narratives on a tight deadline, but to teach, mentor, and manage the teen staff. (My earrings and blue hair were definitely an asset there.)
I got used to saying the job was like being an editor and a teacher all rolled into one. But even that explanation went only so far. Most people aren’t clear about what an editor actually does, and, alas, because teachers work with a population that routinely gets dismissed or ignored–our children—too often their profession gets diminished as well. On more than one occasion, after explaining my job, I was met with blank stares and then asked, “Well, do you like what you do?”
So I worried how explaining my work would go over at Doubleday, and whether they would understand how my experience working on youth media was relevant to the adult publishing biz. These concerns lingered behind my smile as I met with my interviewer, Doubleday Vice President Janet Hill.
Janet seemed extremely curious about the editing process at NYC, and listened closely as I explained how working with young, developing writers requires a very hands-on process involving multiple drafts, lots of questioning, and intensive line editing. I told her it had taught me to be a consummate diplomat, since young people often need an editor who can offer comments and criticisms without bruising fragile egos. “But of course, I know that’s different in the adult publishing world,” I added, thinking that adult writers wouldn’t need someone to be so tender.
“Actually, it’s the same,” said Janet.
I stood corrected (and slightly embarrassed) as she explained that adult writers often require the same type of encouragement and care with their work as do young ones. It was a relief to hear someone besides me making the connection between my work with teens and the adult writing world.
Adult writers often require the same type of encouragement and care with their work as do young ones.
I got the job and have been working at Doubleday for the last three years. Now when I tell people what I do, that I’m a book editor, I get immediate respect, recognition, or at least intrigue. It’s nice to feel that razzle-dazzle smile from folks, yet it also bothers me a bit. It bothers me that I didn’t get it when I worked with teens, yet my skills as an editor were primarily honed by my work with kids.
My teen writers’ ability varied wildly. Some of their early drafts were clear, precise, and organized. Others lacked any sort of cohesiveness or focus, requiring me to really work with them and delve deeply to figure out what the story they wanted to tell truly was. (And yes, I did sometimes rant in confidence to my fellow adult editors about certain stories—“What exactly is this supposed to be about?!?”) Because of NYC’s emphasis on printing only stories that were in the best, most nuanced shape possible, students sometimes wrote eight, nine, ten successive drafts before their stories ran. This could take months.
It was with those teen writers and the accompanying lengthy editing process that I developed a lasting patience that has proven critical in my current job overseeing books that take at least a year to see to fruition. Working with my young writers I also developed the ability to deeply scrutinize manuscripts that lacked focus and set them on track. One manuscript I worked on recently has chapters with too many ideas presented in a hodgepodge structure. My training in how to edit youth played a large role in helping me see past the manuscript’s tangents to what each chapter should and can be. It has also helped me come up with strategies on how to get a very talented writer to focus.
Two of my other adult writers (one being Professor Heather Neff, whose novel about alcoholism, Haarlem, hit the shelves last year) have told me that I’ve given their novels the closest read out of anyone who has read their work. Again, I attribute much of this to my experience working with youth.
And I’ve found that adults appreciate having an editor give them suggestions and feedback in a clear, comprehensive way, something essential to editing teens.
Some of you editors and producers reading this might be ultimately left asking that tell-tale question of a media maker: “Well, what is this story really about?” It’s my hope that folks wanting to leave the media world to work with young people won’t be scared that it will stall or sideswipe their career. I did just that. I left a newspaper editing job to work at New Youth Connections, and far from stalling my work as an editor, it got me jumpstarted.
I also hope that youth media workers who want to explore pastures outside of the youth work world can feel fortified knowing that there are indeed people in traditional media circles, like Janet, who understand what we do, and get that the skills we acquire working with teens are applicable to the processes involved in the adult media world. It’s an understanding that can hopefully help to bridge the gap between two worlds that can, at times, feel unnecessarily far apart.
Clarence A. Haynes is an associate editor at Doubleday Broadway books and works on various titles for the African American imprint Harlem Moon. He is also a freelancer who’s written for various publications, including Newsday, The Source and Publishers Weekly. He lives in Brooklyn and, though he’s no longer a full-time youth worker, still loves the kids.
Above left: Clarence Haynes in his days of of youth media and blue dreadlocks.
A Doubleday editor explains how working in youth media jump-started his career.