I did a talk on edits and editing for NECRWA (which looks like it ought to be a necromancers’ club but is in fact a regional RWA chapter) and this has spurred me to commit some thoughts to keyboard. Thanks to Tamsen Parker for inviting me to speak!
The editor-author relationship can be a fraught one. It doesn’t have to be, and when an editor ‘gets’ an author, is in sympathy with her voice and intentions, and helps her nurture the book into something bigger and better and more wonderful, it’s magic. Nevertheless, it can be a scary world for new authors. There’s a range of people insisting you must get an editor, but they’re expensive, they all seem to offer slightly different things, you hear all these horror stories, and then there’s Chad in the writing group who says he wouldn’t dream of letting an editor change his vision or get their mucky paws on his text. Are you being messed about? The editor has suggested sweeping changes that made you feel like throwing up; do you have to do them? How do you cope?
So here’s a few basics of what an author ought to be able to expect from an editor, and then vice versa.
Editors owe authors the appropriate edits for the stage of the book, from a position of sympathy for what you’re trying to do.
The development edit should be a development edit: concentrating on plot, character arcs, pacing, story shape, the high-level stuff that the book is about. The development editor should not be picking up typos in text that might well be rewritten anyway; conversely, the copy editor should not be putting in their tuppence worth about not finding the MC sympathetic enough. (Exception: sometimes a copy editor or proofreader will call out something disastrous—racism, a huge plot hole–that’s got through the development and line editors. That’s an emergency service, though.)
There should be edits. A development edit that says “nothing to suggest!” worries the hell out of me. There’s no book that can’t be improved, and if you tell me your book has gone through edits without a single change, I’m going to draw conclusions about your editors rather than your genius.
Those edits should ‘get’ the book, even if the editor proceeds to gut the book. If an editor hates a book they need to hand it on. As a freelancer I refuse all books including noncon, dubcon and eroticised torture not because of a moral stance but because I would do a really bad job of it. (“Consider inserting explicit consent on pages 41, 67, 99, and 140-176 inclusive.”) If an editor declines to work on your book, that’s not an insult, but a professional assessment that they don’t feel they’re the right fit. Be glad they said no.
The editor should look at what your book wants to be (which may not be exactly what you thought it was going to be when you started, but that’s the fun of writing). They are not there to make it the book they want it to be, or to impose their voice. Editors who are novelists manqué are bad news.
The editor needs to respect your style (and, let me say here, I think there needs to be an incredibly good reason for house style to override authorial voice or intention).
Editors owe authors courtesy.
Having come to writing after twenty years in UK publishing, twenty years of being told that author management is one of the most important editorial skills and publishing is an author service industry, I have been gobsmacked by some of the lack of courtesy I’ve seen. (I will observe here that anyone can sell their editorial services, including people who feel qualified to call themselves editors because they’ve read a lot of books and hold opinions such as “you should never use the passive tense because ‘I went’ is much stronger than ‘I was going’.”* Ask for references or work history, is my advice.)
*Yes, I have seen this. Don’t get me started.
The editor may not leave snide remarks on the MS, or make jokes about whatever dumb mistake you made. All authors make silly mistakes; it’s the editor’s job to fix them, not point and laugh and belittle. The editor may not rant about how much they hated an aspect of the book: they need to point out why they think it will be problematic for the readership.
The editor may not take to social media to mock author mistakes. When an editor tweets laughing about the book they’re working on and the author sees that? Relationship destroyed. (That doesn’t mean never talking about work in progress, which can be done in a fun and engaging way, but the editor needs to think three times and tweet once.)
The editor ought to be on your side. They ought to be able to gut your book like a herring and make you feel better at the end of the process because you’ve achieved something better together. If the editor gives you the impression she’s cleverer than you and out of patience with your fumbling, you need a new editor because that one isn’t very good at her job.
Editors owe authors a timely response.
This is one of the commonest complaints. Editors in publishing houses are all overworked, freelancers are all trying to cram in as much as possible, and people don’t tend to go into the book trade because of their amazing administrative skills. Nevertheless, you ought to be able to ask for an ETA on your edits, get one, and be notified if it slips.
If there is slippage from the editor, they must not make it your problem. It is all too common for authors to wait months for overdue edits and then be told they only have a week to turn them round in order to keep to schedule. That is unacceptable behaviour, and publishing needs to deal with it.
If you’re using a freelancer, get a schedule at the beginning of the process. Life happens, so don’t be a jerk if there are problems, but if a freelancer fails to deliver and doesn’t keep you updated on delays, do not use them again or recommend them. A one-line email is a doable courtesy.
NB: A publishing contract should have editorial and publication schedules built into it. For example: the book will be published within 18 months of delivery of the completed MS/the date of the contract; the edits will be done in a timely fashion and the author will have four weeks to respond to edits, two weeks for proofs. Make sure your contract has these clauses. Do not accept a contract that says the book will be published within X months of edits being started, or of a completed edited MS being agreed. Make sure you have a solid inarguable date from which the failure to publish clause starts counting down. More on this here.)
And now let’s look at your obligations to the editor, because this is a two-way street.
Authors owe editors a MS that is completed up to the stage you’re at.
Don’t send the first nine chapters and promise you’ll deliver the rest soon unless by prior agreement (and if your editor agrees to that she’s nicer than me).
Don’t send the MS with [INSERT SEX SCENE HERE]. If you have done this, take a moment to hang your head in shame, and don’t do it again.
Don’t send rewrites mid edit, because the editor will end up wasting work or having to interpolate new stuff. This is a recipe for mistakes and misery. Finish it first, and save your changes till you get the edit back.
Authors owe editors a reasonable MS.
Editors are paid to clean up your MS but that doesn’t make them garbagemen. If you send your MS full of stray mistyped charact!@ers, missing chunks of text, unfinished sentences etc because you couldn’t be bothered to read it over, it’s pretty unprofessional. And if you send that to a freelancer, you will be paying good money for her to tidy up your trash. If I, as a freelancer, have to spend two hours fixing your ‘“Yes.” said Jim’ punctuation throughout the MS, that’s fine but it will cost you $80 plus and I will look upon your work with a jaundiced eye because it’s really very boring to do.
Plus, editors are only human. If I’m cleaning up your garbage, stitching up the big holes you left because you didn’t finish a paragraph, or retyping the two paras that go into dp,r yrcy yjsy ;ppld ;olr yjos because you were touch typing while watching TV and your fingers slipped*, there is every chance I will miss something else.
*Yes this did happen to me as editor. Two full paragraphs.
You will save time, money, and stress for everyone if you deliver a professionally competent MS to the best of your ability. You can learn a lot of this stuff. I have done two blog posts on self editing, here for devs and here for lines, and two on punctuating dialogue, here for basics and here getting fancy.
Authors owe editors a fair hearing.
Edit letters can be very tough to read. Authors are generally highly invested in their work, not to mention reluctant to strip six months’ work down for parts and do it again. But digging your heels in and rejecting everything outright, or throwing a fit across social media, is not an appropriate response (unless the editor is a catastrophic mismatch with your book).
By all means feel overwhelmed by an edit letter. Then take a walk / a deep breath / a drink, sleep on it, and come back to make a sensible list of changes that you agree will strengthen the book. Look at ones you disagree with and see if you can work out the underlying point. (Example: the editor says “this scene with Clarissa serves no purpose, suggest cutting.” If you say “NO I NEED IT GO AWAY” you get nowhere. If you say, “I think we need it to establish Clarissa’s relationship with her father because of chapter 30”, then you can work out whether you can do that elsewhere, or whether you can amp up the scene to make it earn its place in other ways.)
It is possible and sometimes right to reject edits (see here on the power of stet) but you need to do it after rational thought, not in a spirit of high dudgeon that the person you’re directly or indirectly paying to edit your book has, er, edited your book.
And remember, it is better to see your book professionally done over by an editor in private than to see it get a kicking from 200 reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads when it’s too late.
Authors owe editors a timely response.
What goes around comes around. Tell people in good time if you’re going to be late, warn about holidays, don’t leave edits to the last minute and then go silent for three weeks, and don’t expect to do any of the above and still have the editor keep to the original schedule.
Authors owe editors money.
Ahem. But seriously, if you’ve had the work, pay your freelancer, and do so on time.
KJ Charles did twenty years as an editor before becoming a full time author. Her next release is The Price of Meat, a Victorian penny dreadful short, details here.