The Importance of Having an Editor – And How to Work with One

24 Feb

A change from politics here …

A few months ago, I was having a chat with another author at a convention (a few details have been changed to protect the guilty.) We were comparing notes on editors and she told me that her editor was an absolute pain in the posterior. She talked about the editor as one might talk about an abusive partner, a nagging gas-lighting manipulator who enjoys making you second-guess yourself and (eventually) give up completely. This was clearly a relationship that had gone deeply sour and I advised her to contact the publisher, explain that the editor wasn’t working out and request a new one.

(Most publishers, like most managers, tend to assume there isn’t a problem if they don’t hear anyone squawking.)

But what struck me was her insistence that she didn’t need an editor. Her experience with her editor – and a string of bad editing suggestions – had convinced her that editors were worthless. And while I tended to agree that this editor was clearly a poor choice, I had to disagree that all editors are worthless. Writers need editors.

No writer ever born can avoid making mistakes. The human eye is lazy and tends to skip over mistakes because it knows what it should say. Each page of the manuscript is the result of considerable effort, even for the best writers. They need someone to take a look at the manuscript with a fresh eye and point out the mistakes.

This is not a pleasant process. I have often reminded myself, after receiving a manuscript covered in MS Word edits, to love the editor even when I hate the editing. No writer enjoys even the simple copy-editing process, let alone the more substantive rewrites that are sometimes suggested. But it has to be done. The editor may see your mistakes, but if you remove them before the book is published no one else will see them. (And you don’t get reviews that say “this idiot made hundreds of mistakes.”)

Why is this important? There are authors, some of whom you can probably name, who are such big names that they are effectively ‘editor-proof.’ These are the authors who can force a publisher to accept a manuscript without major edits, even when the manuscript requires major edits. The publisher may not realise that there is a substantial problem until the sales start to drop, by which time it is too late to fix the problem. An editor might well have been able to keep the problem from turning into a nightmare.

The thing authors have to bear in mind is that they, not the editor, are the one who will have their name on the cover. They are the ones who are credited with writing the book. And they have the final say, in a well-run publishing house, on which changes actually make it into the final manuscript. The editor is meant to point out potential problems. You – the author – are the one who has to decide if the author has a point.

(Have a look at the above line. See the mistake? I nearly missed it …)

So … how to deal with editors?

If your book is picked up by a publishing company – small or large – the company will probably have a stable of editors they’ve worked with before. These editors will be familiar with the type of books the company publishers – they’ll be familiar with the conventions of the genre and suchlike. In this case, all you have to do is establish the ground rules (see below.)

If you’re self-publishing and you don’t have anyone to refer you to an editor (there’s a list of people I’ve worked with here), you need to be a little more careful. Word of mouth will probably lead you to a few possibilities. Otherwise … if you find an editor’s website, ask them directly what sort of books they edit. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or for references, or even for them to do a free sample. Most editors I’ve met are happy to prove they can actually do the work. If they refuse … danger, danger, indie author.

(If you’re written a series, you want the editor to be familiar with the series too.)

Sort out payment first, including details like how the payment is to be transferred and what sort of timetable you want. (Most editors will skim the manuscript, then give you an estimate.) Be careful of non-standard requests – money is quite understandable, but co-author credit or future favours is not. Do not make any profit-sharing agreements. They tend to end very badly.

(Regarding co-author credit, that’s a very unusual request unless they’re literally rewriting the entire book. In that case, you might consider it worthwhile.)

Once you have an editor, sort out the ground rules. Most people have a preferred way of doing things. (I prefer to get a manuscript with all changes clearly marked so I can check them, one by one.) Make sure you get this done before any work is actually done because editors tend to get annoyed if you ask them to do something again. You may have to argue with the publisher, if they have a different way of doing things. It has to be done.

(Tip – get them to do a little editing, then sent you the edited manuscript. It’s useful to make sure you can actually see the changes before they start work on the whole thing.)

I generally divide editing into two subsets – conceptual editing and line editing. The former is correcting mistakes in the storyline itself or suggesting improvements. The latter is spelling and grammar mistakes (etc). Most editors will prefer to do them together unless they have some pretty serious conceptual edits to suggest. If you want to take them separately, however, make sure they do it. This might, of course, cost more.

Once you get the edited manuscript, read through it from start to finish, then go for a long walk. You’ll need to calm down. Some of the changes will seem like pointless nitpicking, others will seem unbearably stupid. Do not send back outraged justifications, insults or anything else. Think about the suggestions first. Generally, I find that:

-I’ve written something that doesn’t make sense.

-I’ve left out a piece of information that readers need to understand what’s going on.

-The editor is wrong because [whatever].

With the first two, fix the problem. With the latter, write back and explain – calmly and reasonably – why the editor is wrong. Bear in mind that even if the editor is wrong, you may have a problem because someone read something you wrote and got it wrong.

Remember, the editor is on your side! No matter how mind-numbingly stupid his remarks may sound, they have to be taken seriously. Don’t dismiss his remarks without a solid reason why you’re disagreeing with him.

But at the same time, remember … the editor is not your boss.

Go through the manuscript, make the changes, then send it back for another look. It may pass muster or there may be other issues. Deal with them. Hopefully, by that point, you’ll have a far better manuscript.

We all talk about wanting people to tell us the truth, the unvarnished truth. And let’s face it – most of us are liars. We want people to sing our praises. That’s why most authors run into trouble when they show their work to someone who doesn’t feel obliged to be nice (i.e. a reader who thinks he just blew thirty minutes on a useless book) and tells them precisely what they think of it.

Think of the editor as the guy who always tells you the truth, the guy whose job it is to point out the problems in your work. He is the epitome of ‘good is not nice.’ He isn’t there to flatter you. His job is to make your work better by making you aware of potential problems …

… And learning to work with editors is one of the keys to a writing career.


8 Responses to “The Importance of Having an Editor – And How to Work with One”

  1. Steve Callaway February 24, 2017 at 9:52 pm #

    Good read. Milo might need your advice.

  2. Mike February 25, 2017 at 2:47 am #

    Excellent write up. It’s glaringly obvious when an Indie author doesn’t have an editor of any kind. Not only are there lots of misused words but there will often be continuity issues, punctuation, or my favorite, rotating character names, among other issues. As an avid reader I’ve found my way onto a team for one author that helps spot some of those mistakes, but none of us are, to my knowledge, professional editors. This lack of editing is one of the biggest frustrations with indie books, especially when the story is otherwise great.

    Keep up the good work, both in your books and insightful observation blog posts.

  3. Lawrence Thomson February 25, 2017 at 7:52 pm #

    Re: the mistake in the line “You – the author – are the one who has to decide if the author has a point.”

    Line should read “You – the author – are the one who has to decide if the editor has a point.”

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard February 25, 2017 at 8:15 pm #

      And Chris left that error to make a point. 😉

  4. Anarchymedes February 26, 2017 at 1:14 am #

    Finding a good editor is as hard as finding a true friend (not the Facebook fake one). In 99.9% of cases, editors are salespeople who will take what you’re trying to say, and beat and torture it into something they think they can sell. But then again: some professional-highly professional! -writers don’t care what they say, so long as it sells well. If for you, it’s the other way around, then an editor must be someone who understand what you’re saying, and helps you to say it better, clearer; helps you to be more imaginative and more succinct at the same time (I wonder why the standard 80,000-word size of a sci-fi novel has recently exploded into 120,000-word range). And then, of course, there is the grammar, and the punctuation: some readers out there will take a great pleasure at pointing out every typo.

  5. georgephillies February 26, 2017 at 1:25 am #

    For my short stories, I found that my best final editor was my voice. I read the tale aloud and found all sorts of issues. I also learned why good prose often approaches blank verse.

    • georgephillies February 27, 2017 at 6:33 pm #

      It was a Dark and Stormy Night therefore beats out It was a Stormy and Dark Night.

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