Saturday, August 2, 2014

No Fighting, No Biting: Arthur A. Levine on Communicating without Pissing People off

Arthur Levine and
Deborah Underwood
started off with a song.
Arthur Levine is something of a legend in the children's publishing industry. He's published many beloved books, including Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, and the comic novels of Lisa Yee.

He founded his own imprint at Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, in 1997. The imprint publishes everything from picture books through young adult novels. His authors and illustrators include Shaun Tan, Dan Santat, Markus Zusak, Francisco Stork, Erin Bow, Mike Jung, and Jaclyn Moriarty.

What's more, Arthur is the author of several picture books—A VERY BEARY TOOTH FAIRY, illustrated by Sarah Brannen, is the latest. So he knows about communicating from both sides of the email server.

He talked to us about things that can derail communication between editors and authors, using principles that work in critique groups (and in real life).

Here are three of the thoughtful, helpful tips he shared.

1. Don't leave anything out. The person you're writing to doesn't necessarily already agree with what you're trying to say. For example, if you describe something as a "circular story shape," does everyone know what you mean?

"The narrative was hurt by Jordan's snide remarks" might not be the best feedback, for example. The writer might not feel the remarks were snide. The writer might feel attacked.

A better way to say that might be to give a specific example, perhaps like this: When Jordan says his mother's kindergarten class is full of party poopers, he was less sympathetic. Did you intend for that to be the case?

The shorthand might feel insulting. The more specific reaction, built off positive reactions, is more clear and ultimately more helpful. 

2. Leave some things out. He shared an exchange from a cover discussion where an author tactfully expressed preference for an earlier sketch, where an agent chimed in with something that sounded harsh and critical.

Don't assume everyone agrees with you. Inflammatory political commentary on Facebook can be off-putting, for example.

3. Be respectful of people's boundaries. A fellow editor told him the story of someone showing up with a manuscript at her home office. (Yikes!)

If you sense someone getting defensive or upset, back off, or apologize, or find a different way of communicating. When someone gets upset, it's natural to want to respond with equal anger. But the anger is a someone setting a boundary. Instead of charging the boundary, try retreating and apologizing, he said.

He talked also a bit about email, which gets a bad rap as a communication medium, but isn't always bad. Calling people when you're angry is a bad idea. Taking the time to think and compose a thoughtful email can be very effective.

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