What to Expect From Your Editor

I hear you’re interested in hiring an editor. Smart move. So what are you waiting for? Grab your checkbook (do those still exist?), your manuscript, and your realistic expectations and get to it.

What’s that? You don’t know what to expect? Here. I’ll help.

Ten Things Your Editor Can Do

  1. Your editor can see what your novel could be someday, no matter what it looks like today.
  2. Your editor can show you all the little pet phrases and words you repeat to distraction.
  3. Your editor can solve plot problems that would make readers want to throw your book into a woodchipper.
  4. Your editor can point out all the ways your characters are acting out of character, and suggest ways to remedy that.
  5. Your editor can help identify, refine, and celebrate your unique writer’s voice, or explain why you don’t yet have one.
  6. Your editor can tell you when your novel is nowhere near ready to share with the world, then point you toward additional resources that could help you change that reality.
  7. Your editor can make you feel like a gifted writer while simultaneously providing ample evidence you’re a hack.
  8. Your editor can listen patiently to arguments about why you made certain narrative choices, then offer wisdom about why those choices suck.
  9. Your editor can remind you that writing is a long game, and that the hard work of re-writing is worth the pain even if the book never finds a publishing home.
  10. Your editor can comfort you when the hard drive is corrupted and you forgot to save to the cloud.

Ten Things Your Editor Can’t Do

  1. Your editor can’t make your book a bestseller. (Editors aren’t in charge of market conditions, sales trends, or readers’ whims.)
  2. Your editor can’t turn you into a brilliant writer. (That’s a function of hard work and genetics.)
  3. Your editor can’t fix everything. (We try, or at least try to identify all the problems, but we miss some things. And frankly, some things just aren’t fixable.)
  4. Your editor can’t write your book for you. (You’re looking for a ghostwriter.)
  5. Your editor can’t pretend your book is wonderful when it isn’t. Okay, we could, but prefer not to. (There is no benefit to the writer when the editor lies.)
  6. Your editor can’t edit faster. (I’m editing as fast as I can, current clients. Like pretty much every available minute. Except for the few it took to write this post, of course. I know. Sorry. I’ll get back to your book right now. Well, not right now, but in a few minutes.)
  7. Your editor can’t get everything right all the time. (Just most of the time.)
  8. Your editor can’t force you to accept all his/her changes. (But a good one never makes a change or suggestion without careful thought, so you might want to discuss those reasons before clicking “reject change.”)
  9. Your editor can’t explain why great books get rejected and awful ones get published. (I mean, we can try, but let’s face it – we live in a crazy, unpredictable world. I don’t need to elaborate on that, do I?)
  10. Your editor can’t move into your basement so you have access to his/her brilliance 24/7. (Not without a decent salary and benefits, anyway.)

You’re welcome.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Freelance Editors. Okay, Just 13 Things.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t particularly like numbered-list blogposts. They just feel artificial to me. So…um…here’s one about editors. Sorry.

1. We edit because we love books and writers but also for the money.

2. It’s a good thing we love books and writers. (And Ramen noodles.)

3. We don’t laugh with maniacal glee while slicing and dicing our way through your manuscript. We know how hard it is to write, and how much harder still it is to share that writing with a virtual stranger – especially someone whose job it is to find all the things that don’t work. We do, however, cringe and swear a lot. This is not because we hate you. It’s because we like you and want you to succeed and are frustrated because you aren’t there yet. (Or may never get there. Yeah. We do think that about some of you. Thankfully “there” is a subjective place that doesn’t necessarily mean lack of publishing success.)

4. We have nightmares about your stories. Sometimes this is because the story is scary. Sometimes it’s because the writing is.

5. We fall in love with some of your characters. The best ones move into our brains, just down the street from Katniss and Hermione.

6. We drink a lot of [coffee, tea, Diet Coke, wine, whiskey]. Pick one. Or five.

7. We understand and fully endorse the health benefits of a standing desk. We sit anyway.

8. We frequently feel invisible. How often do you hear published authors talking up their editors? Yeah, it happens. Just not very often. We’re mostly okay with this, because we sincerely welcome an author’s success. But every once in a while we’d like to be recognized for the role we play.

9. We read a lot. Not just the manuscripts you send us, but also the books that pile up on our virtual and/or actual nightstands. Reading good books is how we get better as editors. Yes, I know. It’s how you get better as writers, too. See? We’re not so different.

10. We do our level best to know and wear your writing voice when editing so the notes and changes not only resonate with you, they sound like you. Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes it’s nearly impossible, like when you haven’t written enough to establish a voice yet.

11. Once in a while we get things wrong. Editing isn’t a science; it’s an art. We have off days just like you do. Listen to our advice, consider it carefully, but don’t ignore your own inner editor. Because it’s your book. We’re just trying to make it your best book.

12. There is no twelve. I deleted it because it didn’t add anything to the narrative. Sometimes we do this with your manuscript too.

13. We respect you a lot. But we respect your story just a little bit more. Don’t take it personally.

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.