Working with an Editor

Recently I've been reading a lot of posts from indie writers about working with an editor. There are a lot of moving parts here:

  • Your genre.
  • Your writing style.
  • Your goal.
  • Your temperament.

Many of these posts are about a writer not getting along with an editor and asking for advice, or a writer trying to justify not accepting edits.

Here's my take.

As I see it, I'm here by myself, writing. I like my stories, but I realize it all came just from me. There are no checks and balances between my head and my keyboard. An editor is a person who is not me, reviewing my work. I'm paying this person to perform quality assurance work on my writing, not to like my story or my writing, congratulate me on my writing style, or beg me to write more. I want cold, hard, ruthless edits.

As a matter of disclosure, I should note that I am the son of an editor. My father worked as a copy editor at the New York Times when he was young, and later edited everything from school papers to translations from the original Latin of the works of Swedenborg. I'm also married to an editor who is currently working with a team of writers and managing an online technical journal. So this isn't a new thing for me; it's kind of a reality of everyday life.

Oh, and just to nip in the bud those snarky quips forming in your mind, let me point out that I don't hire anyone to edit my blog posts. (As my high school science teacher used to say when we complained about his bad jokes, you didn't pay to get in.)

Here are a few basic suggestions, to consider or ignore, as you wish.

Choosing an editor

Don't hire your wife, your father, or your best friend to edit your work. This should be obvious, but it needs to be included in the list. In my case, my wife doesn't have time to edit my writing, anyway. I would definitely ask her to do an early editing round if she had the time, but it's not a substitute for the work of a disinterested editor.

Hiring an editor is like hiring an employee. It's appropriate and necessary to learn about the person's skills, work history, and results. Ask for references. Look at some of the work this person has done. Confirm that this person has the skills and experience for the job.

Don't assume that someone who has done book editing is therefore good at it, or that someone who claims to specialize in your genre is an ideal choice because of that. This is going to sound horribly cynical, but in my experience, excellent editors are a rare breed. It requires an exceptional amount of knowledge and experience to be really good at it.

Working with an editor

Your editor is not there to make you feel good. Well, if making your writing better makes you feel good, then I take it back. But don't look to your editor to tell you that your writing is fantastic. Your editor is not there to validate your writing career.

Be thankful for the edits. You're paying for edits. If you get hundreds and hundreds of them — if the pages are marked up like crazy — that's good. That's what you want. If you see page after page with hardly anything marked, then either you are a writing god, or your editor isn't being thorough. Probably the second one.

Don't argue with your editor. Don’t send your editor long explanations of why he/she is mistaken, and why your writing is perfect as-is. You don't have to accept the edits, but either accept them or don’t. You're paying this person to make editing suggestions, not to love your work or to adopt your ideas about writing.

Do explain things that you think your editor might have missed — but (a) keep it short, and (b) understand that if your editor missed it, you need to fix something. You will not be on hand to offer explainers to your readers when your book is in print.

Start by assuming your editor is right, about any given edit. Your editor made the proposed change because he/she saw something that seemed to warrant being changed. Don't jump to the notion that your editor didn't "get it." First make sure you understand the rationale behind the edit.

Make the edits, and move on. Accept/reject the edits as you see fit, celebrate, and move along to the next project.

Working with an Editor