“Empathic Editors”: Wednesday Work Day Interview by Hillary Leftwich

Wednesday Work Day is a series started by editor Hillary Leftwich to showcase and support creatives who offer services, both in-person or online, and are impacted by the pandemic and the shutdowns both statewide as well as in other countries. The series will showcase one business or individual that is still able to provide a service during the shutdown, whether via remote service or some other way. The hope is to overcome the struggle creatives are enduring through these times and have you, dear reader, get to know some folks who might be able to help you or someone you know with their services. First up: Empathic Editors’ Founder, Line Editor, and Exposure Guide Jason Brandt Schaefer.

The son of a Wiccan fighter pilot from south Texas, Jason was born into an eccentric, traveling family. He grew up hunting, fishing, SCUBA diving, playing music, telling stories, and building lots of fires. He studied saxophone and guitar alongside the craft of writing, and in addition to finishing his debut novel, he is currently at work recording an album of original songs. He’s an avid climber, a budding mountaineer, and a restless explorer. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA from Southern New Hampshire University and is a talented line editor with a passion for helping people write what they mean. In former lives, he has worked as a newspaper journalist, a copywriter, and a college-level composition and creative writing teacher. He currently resides in Boulder, Colorado, and his work appears in print in The MacGuffin and online at Past Ten.

Hillary Leftwich: Tell me about Empathetic Editors and how this organization came into being.

Jason Brandt Schaefer: Sure! So it’s EMPATHIC editors, but don’t worry about the mistake. We’ve been getting this a lot, and it’s because I’ve chosen to brand our editing cooperative not only to the ideal of empathy but to the fantastical identity of being an empath. Hence, we are “empathic,” not simply empathetic. We’re well aware that no one can read minds, but we edit and understand the writer, the writing process, the difficulty of finding a good editor, and the challenge of working through feedback well enough that the client should be able to say, “Wow! They know how I feel.” We want to share our expertise in the way we serve our clients—editing their work with a high degree of sensitivity to their writing as well as their experience in working with us.

We’re also based in Boulder, Colorado, a community that celebrates empathy and the metaphysical, and a hippie town from way back where you can get a reiki massage and purchase crystals and incense to steer your energies. Up here at around 5,700 feet, people do believe in empaths, and we wear that identity as a badge of honor.

But that’s just the branding and the idea. It became a reality when I finished building our web site on SquareSpace last June and posted the link on Facebook. One of my literary friends shared it in the Facebook group for Vermont College of Fine Arts, the MFA program I attended, and about half a dozen friends came out of the woodwork so impressed with the branding and excited about the ethos, they wanted to become a part of helping build this organization.

HL: Thanks for pointing that out, Jason! I love the idea of empathy paired with editing and feel it can be lacking in the field. Many people lack trust with editors unless they have worked with them before. It’s a hard choice to make as well as a scary one. How did you rest on “empathic” as part of your team’s primary motivation for editing?

JBS: I’d been working as a freelance editor for about two years, and I was editing a marketing loss-leader on brand differentiation—very dry, very technical stuff for someone with a background in the arts, but incredibly instructional—while sitting at the table on my back porch beneath one of our apple trees. I thought to myself, “How do I differentiate our brand and pay homage to my hometown and the sense of peace I feel here?” That loss-leader also advised that every new business position itself around the steps it takes to guide clients toward a positive sales experience. In those first two years, I had gotten hundreds of questions about how writers work, and more about how editors help writers, what the typical editor should cost, and what a writer should expect, so I strongly felt empathy in understanding how difficult it is to navigate the publishing world would be a strong marketing position to take.

Out of that idea, spun more connections to how I prefer to live my life: with concern for wildernesses in distress and the advance of climate change, advocacy for equal rights and equal opportunity, and a genuine interest in the lives of others.

HL: It is incredibly difficult to navigate both the writing world as well as editing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on that world as well as your insight. How do you think the typical experience working with an editor plays out? How do Empathic Editors challenge that experience?

JBS: I hope that as we continue to expand, our customers will be so delighted in how easy it was to work with us, how we had eyes sharp enough to catch what ought to be corrected, but that we also explained why and offered the simplest solution, how we talked through issues with clients and taught them something valuable about writing and the writer’s life, and how their experience with us wasn’t merely transactional but based on caring for the client and their needs. Sure, we’re in this business to pay our mortgages, and we take our work seriously. Still, we all became writers in the first place because we wanted to become better people and were interested in how others see the world, so we want to improve our culture through our work as editors, too.

Clients have often come to me with horror stories about how an editor took their money and offered useless feedback or feedback that was so harsh, and it made them cry or doubt themselves as writers. I had a friend who paid a famous writer (I won’t name names, but they are quite renowned) upwards of $500 for a critique, only to receive nothing more than this message: “This looks great. I wouldn’t change a thing.” Now, I don’t believe that advice for a second, and I highly doubt any writer is interested in paying someone just to tell them they’re excellent. Most of us want to earn it through hard work and valuable, insightful feedback from an editor they trust. We want to be that editor, and we want to earn that trust.

HL: Horror stories are legitimate and unfortunately a part of the editing world. It’s scary to trust yourself with someone you’ve never worked with! What made you want to found Empathic Editors?

JBS: I founded Empathic Editors for the reasons above and because I was also tired of more conventional jobs for English majors—marketing, journalism, education. I’ve held full-time positions in news writing and copywriting, and those things aren’t really for me. I’ve come around on education, partly because I feel now more than ever a deep understanding of the arts and their value can quite literally save our country and even the world. Art makes us all more empathetic people (and possibly more empathic), which can only mean greater interest in equality and, where there is none, advocacy. Art is a method of managing stress and unpacking trauma, and it teaches us how to find original solutions to problems through trial and error, how to think critically, and make decisions more intentionally. Editing, and doing it in a way that helps a burgeoning artist conceive and deliver a thing of real beauty, is a high calling for me.

HL: I think we all need to pay attention to what a higher calling may be, and if we are able to help others, should try to do so, however that might look. What do you think is the hardest thing about being an editor?

JBS: For me, there are two hardest things—first, reminding myself that when there are many instances of the same mistake in a manuscript, it’s not a reason to get exasperated. It feels like you’re educating a student who just won’t learn, but the reality is that student hasn’t had the opportunity to respond to feedback yet, and it’s the job of the editor to identify pet mistakes and decide whether to help the writer to make that mistake consistently, as all exceptional writers do, or to edit them all out. With a few quick tricks using the find/replace tool, many of these issues, like two spaces between the ends of sentences and the beginnings of new ones, can be edited out simultaneously, making that task less of a hassle.

Second, and perhaps more difficult than wrestling with the manuscript, is convincing writers that their work needs editing and that my editing expertise is worth the money. Most clients understand that they need help, but believe their work is better than it is, or that editing should cost less than it should. Still, at Empathic Editors, we’re eminently professional, each of us holds a terminal degree in creative writing, and our time is money, too. We have bills, also, and our work is very, very hard and extremely niche. Any editor worth their salt is worth the money.

HL: Listening and taking suggestions are a necessary part of being a writer. It isn’t something we should take personally, yet, hearing feedback on our writing still remains something many writers struggle with. Editing is very necessary! Tell us about your editors and backgrounds.

JBS: It would take too much time to go into every editor, but you can find profiles of each of them on our website. I will say that each one of our editors holds an MFA in creative writing, is a working author engaged in their creative writing career, and is proven through a questionnaire or conversation to be a “highly sensitive” individual.

HL: The future: tell us what you all have planned!

JBS: Grow, grow, grow! In our first year, we’ve focused on building capacity, and now with eight editors hungry for manuscripts and currently acquiring, we’re pivoting to getting the word out about our fantastic, specialized editing service. We’ve identified independent publishers and small presses who work with freelance editors as a target market we haven’t yet broken into, and we would also love to partner with any educational organization interested in sending writers with fresh manuscripts our way. Of course, we’d also love our brand to be in the mouths of more writers individually, and that means building a more significant, SEO-driven web presence. We’ve done about seven manuscripts in the past ten months, but we have enough personnel and desire to do between 50 and 60 books a year.

That’s the business side of things. In terms of fun stuff, we’re currently offering virtual generative writing workshops for free, which you can find on our Facebook page. We have also made significant steps toward the development of a small, experiential writing retreat in Boulder, Colorado called EXPOSURE: Adventure for Writers. This week-long retreat, running from July 26 to August 1 this year, blends outdoor hiking and rock climbing experiences with a generative workshop model, and connects young and new writers with a diverse array of published authors of travel, nature, culture, and sport. This is a pet project of mine, and while I’m excited to hold our first retreat this fall, the COVID-19 crisis is threatening to keep us kicking that can further down the street. We’re still taking registrations and applications, and we still have five distinguished faculty interested in teaching at the workshop. Still, we’re advising all new registrants to wait until six weeks out to purchase plane tickets and lodging. This will be when we make the final call to either refund those deposits or keep them on file for when we do hold that first program.

Read more about Empathic Editors at their website.

Hillary Leftwich earned her MFA in fiction and poetry from the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver. She is co-host for At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Her writing can be found in print and online in such journals as The Missouri ReviewHobartSmokeLong QuarterlyMatter PressLiterary OrphansSundog LitNANO Fiction, and others. Her first book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, was published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in October 2019. Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com.

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