Michael Melgaard On Being a Writer/ Editor
MICHAEL MELGAARD is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His fiction has appeared in Joyland, the Puritan, and Bad Nudes, among other publications. He is a former regular contributor to the National Post’s book section and has written articles and criticism for the Millions, Torontoist, and Canadian Notes & Queries. Pallbearing is his first book.
I only became a decent writer after becoming an editor. Ten years ago, with a drawer full of rejection letters and only one published piece, I started looking for a way to actually make some money while remaining writing adjacent. I took some courses at Ryerson University’s publishing program, which led to an internship and then a job. I was lucky in that the job was at one of the better publishing houses in the country — I got to be around the best authors and editors and learned a lot from them.
Learning to edit well is a lot like writing — you have a document in front of you, you stare at it, you think of ways to improve it. (And, I should say, by editing I mean substantive [structural] and line [style] editing, not copyediting, which deals with grammar and which I remain shaky on.) When it comes to editing, the difference is that you can’t just jump in and change the text yourself; you have to justify your reasons. So, I learned how to communicate exactly what was wrong to authors. I learned what to look for to make a book flow right. I learned what publishers expect out of their writers. I learned a lot, but time for my own writing was hard to come by.
Publishing jobs require a lot of you, especially editing. So much of the day is spent on administrative tasks — dealing with authors, writing copy, readying sales presentations, checking proofs, meeting endlessly — that a lot of the actual editing work has to happen on evenings and weekends. This is especially true when you’re just starting out and hoping to find a manuscript in the submission pile to champion to the senior editors in the hopes of getting to work on your own project (and justify your continued employment). I didn’t write much, but I worked with books, which was close enough that I didn’t feel like I’d given up on anything.
In my fourth year in publishing, I went to a launch for a book whose author had turned to writing after retiring from her career as an editor. I asked her about her career after the event, and it turned out she had spent decades at the same publishing house I started at. We talked about mutual acquaintances for a while, and then I asked about how she liked being a writer after all those years of editing. She said something like, “Editing exercises a lot of the same creative muscles as writing — you are working in the arts, you are helping to produce books, and you get a lot of satisfaction when an author you have championed is praised. I loved being an editor. But, it’s always someone else’s work. And I do wish I’d done my own thing a little sooner.”
That weekend I opened my story folder for the first time in months. With years of editorial experience, I could see the faults of the stories in a way I hadn’t before, but, more importantly, I could see that some things worked. I booked myself a week of vacation and spent that time working over the stories I thought were best, and then, for the first time in years, I submitted to magazines.
After two of those stories were published, I set up firmer boundaries for work: evenings and weekends were no longer for going over manuscripts, they were for my own writing. After a couple of months of this, I found myself falling behind at work — there were not enough hours in the day to keep up the quality of my editorial work while producing my own writing. I came up with a plan to quit my in-house job and take select freelance editing gigs while writing, with the hope that, eventually, I would be able to write more than edit. This has happened, slowly.
My first book is out later than I thought it would be, but I do not resent the time I spent editing; my stories are the product of being an editor — I am much better at revising and cutting work than I am at creating it from nothing (and I can’t stress enough how much knowing the business end of publishing has helped my writing career). However, I’m glad I realized when I did that it was time to go back to writing; it would have been satisfying to spend decades working on others’ words, but I think I will be happier, ultimately, working on my own.