Jon Kolko on How an Editor Improves the Book Writing Process

In Chapter 8 of 21 in his 2012 Capture Your Flag interview, design educator Jon Kolko answers "How Did You Learn to Work More Closely with Editors to Refine Your Writing?"  Kolko, who has written three books, meets an editor, Ronni, working on a book with the publisher Oxford.  His editor helps carry his voice when telling his story about design and do so in a positive way. 

Jon Kolko the founder and director of the Austin Center for Design.  He has authored multiple books on design, including "Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving."  Previously he has held senior roles at venture accelerator Thinktiv and frog design and was a professor of Interactive and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).  Kolko earned his Masters in Human Computer Interaction (MHI) and BFA in Design from Carnegie Mellon University.


Erik Michielsen: How did you learn to work more closely with editors to refine your writing?

Jon Kolko: So I have a great editor. I first encountered her.  Her name Ronnie and I first encountered her writing with Oxford. My second book was with Oxford and then I was like, “I'm never working with publishers again!” and the one piece of that process that I retained was hiring a professional editor. And so we were joking about this before. I submit my manuscript to Ronnie and it comes back and literally 50 percent of it is redlined out, like cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. 

In many ways, the first time I experienced that, I was extremely taken aback. It was like “Woah, wait a second, what's going on here?” But in fact, it turns out that having that sort of objective perspective is of huge importance. 

I don’t actually think I'm a writer. I think that I'm a fairly okay person at putting together a book. But I'm not a writer. I'm not a writer in a way that I think like somebody like Steven Johnson is a writer. But because I have I think a different story to tell about design and I'm an okay writer, there is something special that comes out of that but because of that, I think an editor plays a much stronger role in my process. 

Typically, an editor doesn’t give you a voice and they try not to take away your voice. I don’t think my editor gives me a voice or takes away my voice. But anything that she helps structure, what are overly argumentative reasonings into something that’s much more absorbable by someone who just isn’t in the mood to get in an argument. I feel as an academic, like I need to defend the things that I'm saying, and I think one of the big points I learned from an editor is these are your points. You don’t need to defend them. Yeah, you need an academic trail and sure you need to cite your sources but go into it assuming that your reader agrees with you rather than assuming your reader is there to disagree with you. And the book will be much more positive and strong and she’s exactly right.