Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Editors: Why We Love/Hate Them

Page from World's End

There are all kinds of editors, good ones, bad ones, and many in between. A good editor is one who will give you a run for your money. She will not only correct all your grammar errors, but will question you on every detail, find logical inconsistencies, hold your feet to the fire. Odds are, she will write, “Show, don't tell!” somewhere on your manuscript.

A bad editor will not do anything at all. Increasingly, editors – who are generally underpaid and overworked – simply don't want to put any time or effort into a manuscript. Like a homeowner who doesn't want to fix up a house before putting it on the market, they want to publish a book “as is.” 

Writers may think such a "hands off" approach is sheer heaven. After all, editors who do nothing are great for an author's ego. But, believe it or not, there are errors in your manuscript – of internal logic, of grammar, and of sense. There always are. Trust me, you don't want your readers (or reviewers) to point out your mistakes.

Good editors are a dying breed, but great editors – ah, those are the ghosts of the past. A great editor not only gives his authors a run for their money, he brings out the best in them. A great editor puts his own ego aside (a rarity), and instead of adhering to a rule book (“Show, don't tell,” “Only one POV allowed”), follows the author's lead. Great authors break the rules, and great editors let them. 

I had a good editor at RH. She forced me to examine everything in my manuscript – every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence, every word, every punctuation mark. I fought her every step of the way - and sometimes I was right. When I caved in to her insistence on following the rule book it robbed something from my story. But, more often than not, she was right. The trick to working with her was to understand what she was getting at, and then adjust my manuscript – slightly. In editing my first book - and this will always haunt me - I deleted too much. This is a common mistake for first-time authors. They throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I have learned through trial and error that the best way to work with editors is to walk the middle path. When they say “Jump,” don't ask “How high?” Don't slavishly follow every suggestion. Use your judgment. 

On the other hand, don't, don't, don't tell them to sod-off – even mentally. They may be right. Take a step back from your manuscript, take a deep breath, and then exercise your skill as a writer. Make your manuscript shine as only you can – with their guidance. If the editor is good, the final product will be well worth it.

Along these lines (and good for a laugh):

Building Character (for Writers)

Rejections of Famous Authors: Gertrude Stein


  1. No, don't trust them. I remember how I got the final proofreading printout of "Corous Sacrum" from out publisher, amended a couple of things, went to my source file to adapt it to the printout and was bewildered to find that many of my amendments were already in the file. Had I done it when I was asleep or what? Then, slowly, it dawned on me that my subconscious memory had simply undone many of the editor's rephrasings.

  2. Great advice. I love it when I get a good editor, someone who helps me learn but also challenges me. I had one edit recently that just seemed to pull my voice out of the writing. I am still on the search for a great editor.

  3. As an editor, it is a pleasure to read a balanced piece on the art of editing. The job of an editor is to keep YOUR voice and style and craft, but take out all the things that get in the way of the way you are telling the story, like getting the static out of a radio broadcast. I am pleased to see the authors I work with consistently getting great reviews and winning awards for their books!

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