When to Ignore Your Editor

I’m not a member of any elite editorial clubs. I don’t dine with editors who have touched the Manuscripts of the Gods. I don’t have an MFA or a PhD or a WtF in Writing/Editing/Pontificating. I don’t play tambourine in an all-editorial band and I haven’t been contacted by the The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or NPR to do an interview on what it’s like to walk with literary giants or play the tambourine in an all-editorial band.

So please feel free to take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt. Or a bottle of wine, whichever puts you in the proper mood for receiving questionable wisdom. Ready? Okay, here you go:

Your editor isn’t always right.

A good editor is mostly right, of course. And it practically goes without saying that a bad editor can be mostly wrong. But even the very best editor – the one who plays lead guitar in that all-editorial band – is wrong sometimes. So how do you know when your editor is missing the mark (or making unnecessary ones with her red pen)?

*Listen to your editor’s language. If she says “This doesn’t work” that means she’s certain about the need for change. If she says “I think this might work better” that means she’s reasonably confident with her suggestion, but is open for discussion. If she says, “Does this change work? Do you have a better idea? Do I look fat in this dress?” she’s probably just received an unsettling text message from her boyfriend and is suddenly questioning everything she does and you probably should too.

*Look for clues that your editor is truly invested in your story. If she comments that Blargh the Wanderer needs to tell Hiccup the Occasionally Pretty he loves her in order for the exchange on page 93 to make sense, and you know Blargh does this seven chapters earlier, this could be one of those clues. It’s possible that your editor merely missed that exchange or that you didn’t write it as clearly as you thought you had, but her error could indicate she isn’t reading your novel as closely as she ought. If you find numerous inaccuracies (of the factual kind) in her notes, she might be (gasp) skimming your book. This is the mark of a Very Bad Editor or at least a Very Sloppy One. Go back and read the section where Blargh proclaims his love and if you’re confident it satisfies the editor’s concern, ignore her comment. And by “ignore” I mean politely point your editor to the page where Blargh carves “I love you” into the dead orc and Hiccup faints at his declaration. Or at all the blood. This gives your editor an opportunity to say “oops, missed that” or explain why that particular declaration of love doesn’t cut it. (Did you see what I did there? With “cut it”? I know. Hilarious.)

*Be clear about the story you’re trying to tell. A good editor is loyal to the story first and you, second. As long as the story you’re presenting on the page is the story you’re trying to tell, that’s not a problem. But sometimes the story you want to tell is not the story that wants to be told. A good editor will see this and offer suggestions that favor the story’s needs above your desires. If you don’t mind telling a different story, do what she says. She’s wise, your editor. But if the new direction isn’t somewhere you want to go, then boldly say “no” and look for a way to write the story you want to tell. Keep in mind this could mean starting over, or risking putting out a less-than-stellar novel. But ultimately it’s your book. Your name is on the cover, not the editor’s. If you have a good editor, trust her, take her advice as seriously as she did in the writing of it, then follow your heart.

*Know your voice. This one is tough for inexperienced writers. It takes a lot of words for most writers to find their voice and if you’ve only completed one novel, you’re probably not there yet. When you do find your voice, you’ll know it like the back of your hand. [Really Steve? You went with cliché? "The back of your hand"? Who really knows the back of their hand? I suggest you change this. Clichés really don't fit your voice unless you're being ironic or sacrificing them for a greater good. Wait...er...never mind.]  Good editors learn your voice and wear it like their own throughout the editing process. But not-so-good editors and inexperienced editors (and, okay, even good editors on a bad day) sometimes reshape your writing so it sounds like them. This isn’t always intentional – they like what they like and expect you should too – but it’s almost always wrong. You’ll usually see this in the little things – changed words and phrasing that seems almost arbitrary. Now, if you like the changes and they still sound like you, go ahead and accept them. If you don’t – if they don’t sound like you – change them back. And if you’re unsure, ask a friend who knows you (and your writing style) to weigh in. Your voice is important. Find it, and then fight for it.

*Count the number of times the editor references her own brilliant novel in comments about yours. If that number is greater than zero, ignore all her notes and find a new editor.

A good editor has a reason for everything she does. If you aren’t comfortable or clear about an editorial change or suggestion, ask. Give your editor a chance to explain and campaign for her change. Or a chance to admit she was wrong.

The editor’s job is to help you tell your story the best way possible. Most of the time, she’s right. But not all the time.

Learn to know the difference.


16 thoughts on “When to Ignore Your Editor

  1. “A good editor is loyal to the story first and you, second.” Bazinga. Reverse that loyalty and you have a devoted fan/friend but a rather lousy editor. In my opinion, anyway.

  2. The only thing I trust my editor with without question is grammar. Everything else, I analyze and look at from different angles and ask for reasons behind all the changes. How else am I going to learn?

    1. Content editors should indeed have good grammar skills, but their most valuable skills are in the areas of plot, character, pacing – all the things that make for a great story. It’s always okay to ask for reasons behind the changes, but if the editor has done his or her job well, most of those changes will be of the “why didn’t I think of that?” variety.

      1. That’s for sure…a writer friend of mine always balks whenever I mention his hiring an editor for his work. His argument: it won’t be mine when I get it back.

        I have yet to convince him that this won’t be the case…if he does his research on the editor first.

  3. Good points. Very often, when an editor tells you something isn’t working, they’re right. But when they make a specific suggestion how to fix it, at best that’s going to point you in the right direction. Other people’s solutions don’t usually work because only you know your story perfectly, and only you know where it’s coming from.

    1. If the editor has done a good job of putting on the author’s voice, those suggestions can be more than a point in the right direction. But even if that’s all they are, it’s usually enough for the author to make things right.

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