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.

How To Be a Good Editor

Ever wanted to be an editor? No? That’s probably wise.

But just in case all your other options suddenly fall through (ie: the bowling alley installs an automatic pinsetter, the crash test dummy program stops accepting applications from humans, the professional dog walker eliminates her “Assistant Dog Walker In Charge Solely of Scooping Poop” position), here are some tips on how to be a good one. (If, perchance, you would rather be a bad editor, just do the opposite of what I suggest. And good luck with that.)

Be selective. Edit the books you love; work with writers you like. This makes the job of editing embarrassingly enjoyable and reduces the likelihood that you’ll be cursing your career choice before you even get to page 27. Some good reasons to say no: scheduling conflicts; lack of familiarity with the genre (to avoid having to say this, read widely); discomfort with the author him- or herself (the relationship is a bad fit); you can’t see how you could help (the book has too far to go, or is already so good your contribution would be minimal). Note: It’s easy to be selective when the bills are being paid.

Read between the lines. Most writers suffer from low self-esteem and fear the Red Pen. But generalities aside, every author is an individual with specific needs and expectations. Ask lots of questions before you agree to work on the writer’s book and listen carefully to their answers. Some want to be assured they aren’t pursuing an impossible dream. Others believe they’re just one step away from achieving it. Knowing the author before you even look at the manuscript helps you to anticipate the sorts of challenges you may uncover in the editing process.

Immerse yourself in the story. Read it through as if you just bought the book from your soon-to-be-shuttered Borders bookstore. (Sorry Borders. I still love you. I did earn a paycheck or two from you a few years back.) Don’t open to page one and begin editing, be a reader first. Spend time in the world and with the characters. The big issues will reveal themselves as you read. The smaller ones will simmer in the back of your head and pop up just in time for the Red Pen once you get down to the business of editing.

Let go of your own writer voice. If the writer already has a strong voice, this isn’t difficult. Once you’ve immersed yourself in the story, you’ll become intimately familiar with it and editing in that voice will be second nature. But if a writer doesn’t have a strong voice – as is the case with most inexperienced writers – this can be a challenge. You may be tempted to edit using your own writer’s voice. Don’t. Instead, make it your goal to help the author discover his or her original voice. Find the seeds of that voice (word choice, tone, rhythm, etc.) and water them. This is the best thing you can do for a writer. (Yes, I just used a gardening metaphor. I’m allowed one gardening metaphor a year. This was it.)

Respect the story. You have two masters when you’re an editor. (Three if you’re being contracted by a publishing house to do the edit.) The most obvious master is the writer. She’s the person paying you, so it’s important to respect her desires and concerns. But a happy writer with a bad story really isn’t a happy writer at all. Let the story guide your editorial notes. Communicate those notes in a way that doesn’t disrespect the writer’s hard work, but don’t shy away from saying the hard things when the story and the writer disagree.

Say encouraging things. Editing isn’t all about noting what’s wrong. It’s also about revealing and encouraging a writer’s strengths. If you find a particularly brilliant sentence or description, say so. You can even use exclamation points in your comment. However, be honest. Don’t make up things to praise. That just feeds false hope. If you have a hard time finding nice things to say, you can always say (with absolute sincerity): “You wrote a book. You have done something many people only aspire to. Good for you!” (Note use of exclamation point.)

Don’t edit with a jackhammer. If you find bad habits, point them out. Be direct, but avoid hammering a point more than necessary. Show the writer why the habit is bad, offer suggestions on how to solve it, then let the writer make the appropriate application to the rest of the occurrences. This gives the writer a chance to practice a better habit.

Exude confidence, but never arrogance. You’re an editor because you know books. You know characters and plots and how to show instead of tell. You have a sixth sense about what works and what sucks. So edit with confidence. However, you’re not God. Not even close. Have a good reason for every editing note and every change you make or suggest, but don’t presume your suggestions are the only ones that work.

Invite discussion. The writer will initially be intimidated or discouraged by your notes. (Even those who say “I love being edited!” experience some measure of one or both of these feelings.) We’re trained at a young age to fear the Red Pen. You’re not here to tell the writer she’s an idiot or a fool or a failure. You’re here to help the writer discover more of the writer inside. You’re not here to dictate, but to encourage and shape and direct. Talk with the writer. Explain your choices. Listen to her disagreements, concerns, fears. Then together, learn.

A good editor is a writer’s best friend – the kind of best friend who tells you when you have spinach in your teeth. Or adverbs.