There is an industry tale about a novelist (no longer with us) who fought tooth and nail with her publisher if they dared to alter a single punctuation mark in her manuscripts. The situation was – how can we put this? – challenging. On the verge of despair, the publisher finally found an editor who could work with the author. The books were published to wide acclaim, and enhanced by clever editing. So what happened?
Some unfortunate misconceptions exist out there about what editors actually do. One is the dystopian – and frankly scary – view that editors will rip your writing to shreds. Another is radical interference with your work. Another still is that if your writing is good enough, it doesn’t need to be edited.
Thankfully, understanding what really goes on between author and editor helps to dispel these myths.
Editing means letting go
I’m an editor by trade, but my own writing is on creative life and aimed at wonderful wordsmiths like you. I understand exactly what you go through every time you sit down at your computer. It’s hard – and feeling protective of our work is only natural.
Over many years working with successfully published authors, I’ve learned that personality is a key element of the process. Good editors are empathic: we listen.
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Every writer has their own idiosyncrasies, cares and concerns. Every writer has different needs. And one thing always remains the same: at some point, every writer will experience some feeling of trepidation over letting go of their manuscript to a complete stranger.
It’s your ‘baby’ – and it’s no coincidence that in publishing circles we talk about ‘birthing’ a book!
Of course, as a writer you will need to be prepared for suggestion (and alteration) if your manuscript is out for development or structural work. The same goes for querying a publisher or agent.
No manuscript ever reaches publication in exactly the same state as it was originally submitted: there is always some work to do, if only a thorough copy-edit and proofread. Hopefully, in the process of examining your writing, you will have identified if there might be any areas needing attention, and be seeking appropriate help with that.
“Good editors are empathic: we listen.”
However, when it comes to crafting your work, the bottom line is preparing yourself for critique. Exposing your writing comes with the artistic territory – again, it isn’t always easy. While beta readers and writing groups are well positioned to feed back on your writing, editors are also well versed in the industry – they know your genre inside out.
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The critique experience might also mean being prepared to understand that sometimes, what we feel about our writing may not actually be the case to take it to market. It’s relevant not only to know our genre but our audience, and how a book needs to be presented to meet them.
Resistance isn’t uncommon, but if we’re serious about publishing, acknowledging expert input and why editing might need to happen is often part of the process.
Editors treat your writing as a bespoke project – their guidance can result in a book that’s all the better (and more saleable) for it.
As for the proverbial machete hacking your carefully constructed prose to pieces, no editor worth their salt should do this! Editing skill is acquired over time, and relies on nuanced judgement. It requires a balanced, careful and intelligent approach.
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When you’re with a proficient editor, you’re in safe hands: they want to create trustful rapport. The important thing is to find someone who fits, both with you as a person and with your text.
If you’re self-publishing, it’s good to take your time and commission well. Think about your needs, explore the options, discuss them with different people, and ask for short samples – especially if you’re writing fiction. Some editors will do this for free, while others might charge a nominal fee, but investing effort in this initial selection process is worth it to find the right person for you.
If you have a book deal, you can trust your publisher’s in-house team to guide you from commissioning and contract, through editing and production, to finished copies.
A good fit between author and editor should be a positive experience. It’s supportive enough to allay anxiety, while robust enough to handle whatever the manuscript brings up.
Trained editors understand your vision and voice, and treat both with the respect they deserve. You’ve worked tirelessly on your writing, so sensitivity and candour are the order of the day.
Be reassured: editors operate from the position that this is your book.
Edit and detach yourself
When we create, all those hours of sweat and toil come from our source – which makes for a pretty intense relationship with our writing.
When you begin working with an editor – and indeed even earlier, during the process of self-editing drafts – the emphasis shifts from creation to analysis. It moves from why and how the work has been made, to how your audience will receive it.
At this stage, there’s an unshakeable truth that every author has to face: your drafts are for you, but the finished product is for your reader.
This means detaching from your work.
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Editors read from a dual perspective: yours as author, and the reader’s. If anything is unclear, missing or conflicts, if the narrative is fuzzy or structure illogical, you can be sure that your audience will notice.
On this point, your eagle-eyed editor is your friend. We read for these aspects, providing a window on your words. This neutral vantage point also gives you an opportunity to hone your craft and apply laser-like focus.
Many writers complain of being caught in revision hell: no longer seeing the wood for the trees, even beginning to fall out of love with their manuscript. By this stage, brain fatigue is likely to have set in too.
So, a fresh eye – and encouragement just to hang in there and keep going – can definitely help.
Dealing with the details
There’s one more thing to bear in mind. When you’re with a publisher, copy-editors work to the house brief. (Much of the following also applies to self-publishing.) This means that the text has to be clear, in a consistent style, grammatically sound and error-free, and that any legal issues such as copyright, libel and so forth are picked up.
“Your drafts are for you, but the finished product is for your reader. This means detaching from your work.”
When you publish, asserting your rights as the author over the work, you are responsible for its content morally and legally. Addressing the finer details is a simple but crucial step to be covered.
Your editor will raise queries for these aspects, so it’s best just to be patient on this score and accept that it’s all part of the job of getting into print.
Essentially, the relationship of writing and editing is one of honesty. It involves being honest with yourself, which can be the most challenging aspect of authorship. It also involves being prepared for honest feedback from others.
Above all, the author–editor relationship is a collaboration of authentic creatives. No two people can ever produce anything the same. Each of us brings something unique to the table, and that’s what makes the finished product – your book – so special.
Your writing is your legacy, and it matters. Editors want the best for you, no question – and collaborating with them can result in truly exciting work.
Lisa Cordaro is a non-fiction editor who loves helping writers achieve their dream of publication. She writes regularly on creative and freelance life at her blog, The Serialist. Find her at lisacordaro.com, and on Twitter: @Lisa_Cordaro