Sunday, May 17, 2009

A View from the Water’s Edge: Judy O’Malley

For more than thirty-five years Judy O’Malley has worked with such talented writers and illustrators as Eve Bunting, Chris Raschka, Liz Rosenberg, Kathleen Krull, Nikki Grimes, Janet Wong, and Peter Calanatto.

As a former competitive swimmer in high school–and a former editor at Charlesbridge, Houghton Mifflin, and Cricket Books–O’Malley views her role of editor as a swimming coach, helping to encourage, correct, and fine-tune the writer's strokes.

Currently, she offers workshops for writers to help them find their “authentic voice” and “learn how to achieve internal logic and emotional truth” in their writing, along with various strategies to help them hone their craft, working one-on-one as a freelance editor with writers and illustrators, as well as with leading children’s book publishers.

The way she describes her work as coach, she helps writers “see the rocks below the surface,” and warns her swimmers to navigate past them.

O’Malley also offers seminars on children’s literature and workshops for teachers and librarians on using trade children’s books to support under-served areas of the curriculum, such as arts and music education, global understanding, and inquiry.

She was kind enough to dive into the pool (near her home on the north shore of Massachusetts) and take a moment from a busy schedule to share her thoughts with Wordswimmer on the relationship between editor and writer.


Metaphors of the writer as a swimmer in words, a sailor riding on the waves of ideas, and a diver venturing into the deep seas of story suggest the role of editor as swimming coach.

Writers, like competitive swimmers, work hard to perfect the strokes of their style, the racing dives of first pages that instantly submerge them and their readers in the safe pool of story, and their precision turns that create smooth transitions for readers from scene to scene.

But, from inside the pool they can only know their progress subjectively.

A talented swim coach spots gifted athletes and helps them to develop their strength and endurance through drills and practice sessions.

An experienced editor also needs a good eye to identify writing potential. As coach, the editor then stoops over the edge of the pool with whistle and time-watch, helping each writer as they work to revise pacing, refine characters’ actions and reactions, and detect small strokes that slow the story’s progress toward the goal.

Like any good coach, the editor also holds a bullhorn to encourage and loudly cheer each improvement gained through the hard work of successive revisions.

Both swimmers and writers need training, discipline, and perseverance in order to achieve their personal best in their respective fields. For swimmers, that may mean breaking a record or winning an event. For writers, it is finding their story, their voice, the inner truth they need to express through writing.

Coaches and editors gladly remain on the sidelines, but they take great pride in the accomplishments to which their efforts contribute.

And they continue to support– and exhort– the swimmers to move more skillfully, whether they glide through water or words.

For more information on O’Malley’s work with writers and publishers, visit her website:

To read an interview with her, visit:

No comments: