Terrible Editors and Why You Shouldn’t

I read this blog post and it made me go full Steaming Professional Fury.

The editor who was assigned to work on my manuscript was one of the unkindest people I have ever come across. For some reason, my story brought out the absolute worst in this lady. I don’t know what struck her core but something sure did. She did not like one thing about what she was reading. She hated the heroine, the hero, the premise of the book, and even the villain was too villainous for her. Yep. She said that. […] Nasty comments abounded which made me hate my own work that I’d been so happy to submit and have accepted by the publisher. […] A couple of examples: “You must not have worked very hard on this book as I’ve read one of your other books and it was better.”; “You must not like your characters.”; “I want to cold-cock your heroine.” (AND this was not meant in a sexual way); “I want to tell her to go screw herself.” and, after highlighting most of a chapter: “Rewrite this as it’s nonsensical.” No guidance, nothing – just rewrite it. And one comment was just, “You’re kidding.”

I tweeted (extensively; I was cross) about this and had a horrifyingly large response from people saying they’d had similar experiences. Consequently, I rageblog.

As I have discussed before, there are small presses who apparently feel that editing is not a skilled job. They pay $50 a MS for an edit, or give editors a small royalty on the book rather than an upfront fee, and since obviously professionals can’t work for that, they use amateurs who will do it ‘for love’. As far as I can tell, this means keen readers and reviewers.

Now, as I have often said, I support the right of reviewers to write whatever they like about a book, however vicious and snarky. You know who doesn’t have that right, not even a little bit? Editors.

The editor’s job is to make the MS better in partnership with the author. The editor is the author’s ally. She may hate the author’s guts (welcome to the club); she may hate the book (in which she needs either to suck it up or to ask to be reassigned). She may not, ever, take out her feelings on the author in spite, hyperbole, snark, bitching and malice.

You may be great at identifying what’s wrong with a book. You may have the rarer skill of seeing how to make it right. But if you can’t convey those things to the author in a professional manner that keeps the author onside and engaged, you aren’t fit to be an editor. And if a publisher employs an editor who lacks that skill, I’m not sure where they get off claiming to be a publisher.

The problem is not just unprofessional editors and publishers, it’s inexperienced authors accidentally enabling them. If you’ve never had good editing, you may not know what it looks like, and you may not know how to draw the line between a tough, close edit and a horrible abusive experience. (Because, let’s face it, the first can feel like the second in the heat of the moment.)

Nobody likes taking criticism. Authors have been known to complain vociferously about the most carefully phrased editorial letters because they suggest any changes at all. So I am not saying that adverse criticism = horrible incompetent editor. Quite the reverse, in fact. An editor who scatters compliments like sunshine and daisies over a flawed MS may be a temporary joy, but she’s not doing her job either. What you need, what the publisher’s cut of the receipts buys you, is an editor who can identify problems, explain what you need to do, and convey that in a helpful, respectful manner.

Example time! Let us say you have a minor character, Trevor, of whom you are fond, and with whom you have been self-indulgent.

Terrible Editor: Trevor is a total waste of space. Are we supposed to like him, because he was a walking cliché and I felt like screaming whenever he turned up. There was no point in him being in the book anyway because he didn’t DO anything, he was just boring.

Bad Editor: I love Trevor! He’s so funny! I smiled whenever I saw him!

Useful Editor: You need to consider Trevor’s role. He takes a lot of page time but he doesn’t actually play a part in the plot. I’m afraid I think his role needs to be very substantially cut back to improve the pacing, eliminating the conversations in chapters 7, 9 and 10 altogether. I realise that’s going to hurt but if you read with an eye to structure, I think you’ll see he’s bringing the action to a halt without adding anything new to the otherwise tightly-constructed plot. Might you be able to use these conversations (which are very lively and enjoyable in themselves) as bonus features for the blog tour?


So. Eight points for authors…

  1. Make sure your contract includes the following: A clause specifying that editing takes place in consultation with the author, and the author has the right of approval. A clause saying you will receive professional editing. A breach of contract clause.
  2. Abusive ‘editing’ is not professional. A professional editor will never insult your work or demand rewrites without guidance. A professional will be thinking about your feelings, not about venting her own. A professional works with you to help make the MS better.
  3. If you get an edit that is full of snark and spite, first have an experienced published author look at it to make sure you’re not overreacting. If she agrees that this is a hatchet job, go to the managing editor and say that you’re not happy and you don’t think the edit is appropriate or professional. Ask that you should be assigned a different editor who doesn’t hate the book.
  4. If the publisher’s response includes words like ‘extremely sorry’ and ‘reassign immediately’, great. If the publisher doesn’t seem bothered that they’ve employed a non-professionally-competent person, or fails to listen to you, consider very hard if these are people you want to work with again. (Hint: They aren’t.) The publisher accepted your MS; they should have faith in it.
  5. Don’t be scared to cite the contract clauses mentioned in point 1. That’s why you have clauses in your contract: to use them as needed. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you’ll be blacklisted by all publishers in your genre for being ‘difficult’, that’s hilariously untrue. To quote author/editor/publisher Aleks Voinov, “Enforcing an industry-wide blacklist would be akin to creating a global cat union.”
  6. If you haven’t got the contract clauses mentioned in point 1, stop signing crappy contracts. Have someone else look over the next one first.
  7. Remember that you are better off self-publishing than having an incompetent editor make a dog’s breakfast of a book that comes out under your name.
  8. See 7.

One for whoever it is doing this so-called ‘editing’:

  1. Being able to read and spell does not make you an editor. If you have been let loose on an author’s MS without track record, training or supervision, and you think you can just wander through it saying whatever you like, you need a humility check right now.

As for the publishers that don’t pay for actual editing but still take a nice big cut of your book’s receipts…I can’t even. Just stop signing contracts with these people. Please.


KJ Charles is a freelance editor with twenty years’ professional experience, thank you, and an author. Her next book is The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, coming 16 June. 


31 replies
  1. Lotta
    Lotta says:

    Good post! I wonder if this is related to e-publishing and smaller publishers now being more common? With self publishing etc., more people are saying “I could be a writer,” and, I think that means more people are also thinking “I can be an editor,” and not having a clue what that means. I think editing sounds fab, but I know I don’t have that skill set. I’m a professional translator (non-literary), and it’s been a similar trend there, with (what I can only assume are) unskilled translators coming in and taking on work to rock bottom prices (20-50 percent of what you need to make a living), and people not generally knowing how much time, effort and skill is needed to do the job well.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Exactly that. I’ve seen small publishers defiantly saying, “we’re a start-up so editing is an unpaid position.” You wouldn’t see a car company say , “we’re a start-up so engineering is an unpaid position”, but these people just don’t understand it’s a crucial part of the process. I imagine editors, translators, proofreaders, any word people are in this boat. 🙁

      • Jordan L. Hawk
        Jordan L. Hawk says:

        If I could tighten my belt and cough up the dough for a professional edit for my 1st self-published book, someone who calls themselves a publisher surely can. Suck it up, buttercup. That’s why they have little things called business loans if you don’t have the cash on hand.

      • ladytiferet
        ladytiferet says:

        Arguably, cover artwork is less crucial to the story, but it does make a reader pick it up, and what’s more, decide if they should treat a book seriously or not. And yet we cover designers have similar experiences. I’m starting to wonder which position and part of the process *is* considered essential by those companies…

  2. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    Wow, I feel lucky now that I’ve never experienced this. Even at the smallest publisher I’ve worked with the editors have always been professional and helped me improve the book or story. I’ve had smaller issues now and again but never a hatchet job. Some tough edits for sure, but as you point out, that’s what you need to improve!

    Inexperienced writers often seem to be much too in thrall to the publisher who is “taking a chance” on them. (Don’t get me started on that “taking a chance” thing. That’s a whole blog post by itself!) And because of that they’ll accept any treatment without question, thinking they have no power in the relationship at all. Takes a while to gain the confidence to stand up and object to unprofessional behaviour.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Yes, exactly. It really makes me wonder where the ‘blacklist’ rumour comes from, because that seems to be another way of telling authors not to rock the boat. And take a chance my arse. That decision is done and dusted when the offer’s made, you don’t need to be grateful thereafter.

  3. Kara Jorgensen
    Kara Jorgensen says:

    This was so painful to read. It reminds me of being in a writing group and having one angry writer in your class/group who hates everyone and everything (usually except one person). They tear into everyone out, eviscerating the work of others yet holding themselves and their work on a pedestal. I had this experience last semester in my MFA program and am already feeling anxious that this nasty woman will be in my thesis class in the fall. While I love my program and professors, I hate that I already am dreading a class that should be fun because of one rotten apple. There’s no reason that you should be made to hate your work or to feel inferior just to feed another person’s ego or whatever sick need they’re hoping to fulfill.
    Whether it’s a fellow writer or an editor, being cruel and unprofessional like that is ridiculous and speaks volumes about their character.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Absolutely. The lack of empathy alone should disqualify them from working on fiction. I am sorry, “that person” ruins many a writing group but it’s far harder to get rid of them from a course.

  4. Kate De Groot
    Kate De Groot says:

    It is true that badmouthing goes on among the small publishers, just like it does among all human groups. There are water coolers, of sorts, in this mostly virtual community, and it’s where I learned the term “special snowflake” for a demanding author.

    But. It takes a lot more than one assertion of one’s rights to tick off a decent publisher. The default I have seen is “author first”, even among the smallest. Small publishers are permanently desperate for content. If they liked you enough to pick you up, you’ve already made their life easier. You’ve got credit to spend if you need it.

    A blacklist won’t work for the simple reason that most snark goes on in the publisher v. publisher space. If one publisher *were* to try smearing an author–and yes, I’ve seen this firsthand too–there are at least five other publishers who hate that one publisher enough to pick up the smeared author just on principle. Not the way an author wants to go, certainly. But “you’ll never work again!” is a bully tactic. In every field of endeavor.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I used to work with probably the most hated author in a very large field. I know of two publishers who separately decided the author was too intolerable to bother with, after putting up with years of tantrums and abuse. The author is still being published by plenty of other people.

  5. Fiona Pickles
    Fiona Pickles says:

    Love this, KJ! There were people who tried to talk me out of paying for professional editing/proof-reading when we started Manifold Press, but that’s something I absolutely will not compromise on. OTOH there are sometimes authors who Just Won’t Listen, and there’s a very delicate process of negotiation involved when it’s necessary to explain – carefully – that this is not an ego trip for the editor but the comments are being made in the service of the story. The story is what’s important here; it needs to be as good as it can possibly be, and that way everybody benefits.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Oh yes, it’s absolutely crucial for the author to take criticism, and that can be very hard. Which is why the editor must be an ally, letting we know ‘we’re on this together’, not ‘you were wrong, do it right’.

  6. Sarah_Madison
    Sarah_Madison says:

    Brilliant post–well-said! I haven’t had this kind of experience from professional editors with contracted publishers, but I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of similar comments about my work before by someone calling themselves an editor. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this and letting people know they aren’t alone!

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      The sheer number of people with this experience made me feel that it needs to be shouted from the rooftops, for those who don’t have experience of good editing to compare with!

  7. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    I have been living this nightmare. About a year ago my MS was accepted by a publisher (who shall remain nameless). It was given a publication date of 22 July… which obviously didn’t happen. The editor I was assigned was 1)obviously uncomfortable with m/m fiction and 2) the rudest person on the face of the planet. She spent a month trying to convince me to make one of the characters female… when that didn’t work she pushed back the publication date so we’d have ‘time to discuss it.’ After 3 months (with the publication date being pushed back twice), she conceded her agenda, and I thought I was in the clear. No such luck. She then decided that if I was going to have a m/m book, it should include at least two sex scenes (which I didn’t want, and which didn’t fit anywhere because of how I’d written the book). Enter another 3 month battle where I’d get the MS back with edits that included sex scenes (which, obviously, I hadn’t written) and I’d return having cut out the sex scenes, and the next edit would have them again in a different spot. Finally, after SIX MONTHS of someone trying to completely change my writing, I asked the publisher for an indefinite hold, and spoke with a solicitor friend. Just last month I finally was able to void my contract because of ‘creative differences’ due to a clause that stated that if the MS hadn’t been published within 12 months of acceptance, all rights reverted to me. However, that’s only the ORIGINAL MS which I submitted and had accepted. Which means I have to do editing, etc ALL. OVER. AGAIN. before I can publish.

    Lesson learned, I guess. I’ll be self-publishing from now on, and hopefully Shortbread and Scones can be out by September (14 months after the original publication date).

    ps: I had to purchase the rights for the cover, too, on my own. That was also a fun experience /sarcasm.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      That’s absolutely unspeakable. I’m so sorry. I did wonder what had happened, because I’d seen you talking about the book and then nothing. That’s a total, shameful disgrace. What does it even mean if a publisher ‘accepts’ a book, particularly a romance, and then wants to change the gender and sexuality of a protagonist?! How dare an editor write additional scenes? I’m utterly disgusted and I’m so sorry that happened to you.

      Generally I have no truck with the rather pathetic publisher tactic of not letting authors use the edited MS. In this case, though, you probably dodged a bullet because if that’s a competent editor, I’m a kangaroo.

  8. Damon Suede
    Damon Suede says:


    Thank you, thank you for posting this and offering such spot-on, actionable advice, KJ.

    Vicious, unprofessional edits are a weird scourge upon genre fiction, especially on niche romances for all the reasons you mention. We have to do everything in our power to protect the innocent, eager, and unwary from their inept predations.



Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Terrible Editors and Why You Shouldn’t KJ Charles about what the writer should do if they find themselves in a toxic editing relationship. […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.