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Virginia Durksen

Interview With Dr. Suzanne M. Steele

Part 1: Dr. Suzanne M. Steele, scholar and editor

Dr. Suzanne M. Steele

Dr. Suzanne Steele has built her career on words as a librarian, a war poet, a librettist, a teacher and an academic editor working with ESL writers who are often translating their ideas across cultures as well as languages. Virginia Durksen is the editor for Suzanne’s upcoming project, Riel: Heart of the North, an undertaking that requires Suzanne to work in five languages. In a series of interviews for the Editors’ Weekly, Virginia and Suzanne explore the relationship between writing and editing, as well as between one author and her editor.

Poetry is how I first encountered you, and you are increasingly known in Canada for your work as an artist. Yet editing plays a big part in how you make a living. How do you manage the balance between the two?

All artists are ultimately editors. We take the raw data of the world and of experience and emotion and we edit. The art is in the editing. And in getting out of the way so that the words on the page can speak for themselves.

How has your experience as a writer and war poet influenced your work as an editor?

It makes me a kinder editor. As a teacher and mentor and editor, I never say, “That’s wrong, that’s bad.” Instead, I name what I see and I say, “That’s an interesting idea; have you thought of X, Y or Z?”

I edit scholars as their equal. I belong to the scholarly community, so we could just as well be sitting down and having coffee and discussing our ideas.

Do you take any special precautions to avoid having an undue influence on a grad student’s ideas?

First of all, I have permission from their supervisors to engage with their grad students’ ideas in draft form. Without restrictions.

We teach each other all the time in cross-disciplinary programs. There’s nothing untoward in learning from someone else. I look at the overall value of the scholarship. I recently worked on a dissertation on Saudi feminism that allowed me to take off my editorial hat and put on my scholarly hat. PhDs from around the world are working on really interesting and challenging topics. There’s great work going on and it’s well worth being engaged, especially with writers who are working in English as a second language.

These massive projects are exhausting. That’s another job of the editor — to act as cheerleader as much as anything else. I learned this in writing my own dissertation. I hired editors with the full blessing of my supervisors, and a huge part of their role was cheerleading.

One editor worked on just one chapter and gave me just that little push I needed to keep going. As editors, we start learning our clients’ habits. She helped me see what I was doing and taught me a simple trick to fix it. I actually think quite differently from the classical English essay style. She noticed that I needed to cut the last line from the previous paragraph and put it with the next paragraphs. That’s all it took to bring the chapter back to life.

I’m used to being asked if I’m more of a writer or an editor. But with you, the question seems to be more complicated: librarian? scholar? writer? editor? Is it possible for you to choose one?

I love editing. It is such a glorious break from the creative work, so I guess I’m not really choosing. Editing is creative in a different way. It’s not usually as gut wrenching as creative work. Marjorie Rawlings, who wrote The Yearling, refers to the anguish of writing. That’s true, except when I’m in flow. Then the anguish lifts.

You also can’t separate the librarian from the editor in me. My clients get a lot of bang for their buck. I don’t treat them any differently than if I was working at a reference desk. Good editors learn to point their clients in the right direction.

And the writer in me is a multimedia artist. I work with composers and singers and actors and even that rarest of editing types, a dramaturge. As editors, I think we need a more multimedia definition of what an editor is. We are no longer working in the Times Roman era. It’s an exciting time for artists and editors to work together.

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Part 2 coming soon!

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Previous post from Virginia Durksen: The Inner Editor: Please Allow Me To … Interrupt You.

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9 Comments on “Interview With Dr. Suzanne M. Steele”

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    I am going to have to read this post four or five times! Such a lot of information packed into a little space. Thanks, Virginia and Suzanne.

    • Uh oh! Re-reading! Just wait until we get to the nitty gritty stuff in the next few pieces. One of the best things that happens when Suzanne and I are working together is the conversation that unfolds after the writing and editing is done. I wanted to capture some of that exchange in these blog posts. I’m hoping other EW readers recognize their experiences in ours. I’d love to read about how you all (y’all) build great writer-editor relationships.

  • The necessity of editors to creative writers cannot be underestimated. In this current project one of the most helpful things Virginia did for me was to do a critical literary analysis of the work in a fairly early draft. By doing this I was able to see the strengths and to actually understand what I was doing with the work. I could see what was working structurally and what was not. Thanks Virginia Durksen for helping me keep sane.

    • That’s the stage where many authors would benefit most from a certain kind of editor. Not the proofreading or continuity kind of editor, but the kind who simply takes an hour or two to read and notice things. To say what’s there. And perhaps to wonder out loud about what’s missing. Creative editing is arguably the most fun an editor can have. It seems to be missing from the usual definitions of things editors do.

  • Glenna Jenkins

    says:

    I really enjoyed reading this interview, particularly as I do similar editorial work—revise for ESL scholars— and am also a writer of fiction. It’s such a privilege to read and work on scholarly research. It’s also interesting to see how scholars whose first language isn’t English shape their writing according to the norms of their own language. As such, it’s a learning experience for an editor. When I work on these types of papers, I try to explain to the author why a particular edit was necessary. That is, I note the point of grammar addressed or why rephrasing a particular passage gives the reading better flow. Anyway, it would be interesting to see what Virginia Durksen has to say about how she balances her own creative work with the difficult, detailed and time-consuming work of editing scholarly papers.

    • It’s good to know that you recognize similarities (challenges and rewards) in your work, Glenna.

      I’m at the point in my career where I work intensely for two or four days a month, and then have wide stretches of time free for creative work. And I would include editing in the « creative » work category, much as Suzanne does. Sometimes the fresh ideas come from providing support for another writer’s creative struggle. I studiously (pun intended) avoid the dreadful demands of detailed scholarly editing. I don’t do citations or fact checking, for example. Or proofreading.

      If I knew what the pattern was, I might also add something about the pressure of deadlines. But sometimes the looming deadline makes me more insightful as an editor, and sometimes the freedom from time constraints helps me lighten up enough to see what the author is missing.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Re: writer-editor relationships. I decided to retire when the writer/author didn’t want to meet me and all the work was done via email. Signed, Fogey.

  • Lynn Carter

    says:

    Virginia says: ( to read and notice things). Looking at something whether it is landscape or art in a gallery is different to every viewer because some simply look and some notice things.

    • How true. There are all kinds of readers and viewers. I would add that an editor who doesn’t notice things is probably not editing.

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