What It’s Like To Work With An Editor

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You’ve done everything you can with a piece, but now you’re running up against your biases. You need fresh eyes, professional insight, and a sustained dialogue to show you new paths. You need all that, but you’re still hesitating to involve an editor. Why?

Probably because you’re not sure what working with an editor is like. Will they understand your work? Will they try and take control of the project? Can they be trusted to see what you’ve written? Well, it depends on the editor, but here, at least, is the primer you need to understand what it means to work with an editor.

Types of editor

Different editors work in different ways, and often the experience you have will be defined by what you hire an editor to do. One thing I won’t be covering in this article is working with an editor at a publishing house – they’re more enmeshed in an existing structure and company, and that can mean a radically different philosophy. It’s also unlikely that you’re dithering over whether to work with them, as they’ll be introduced as part of the larger publishing process. Dedicated editors, however, come in a few flavors.

Generally, the big difference is between content and form. A developmental editor will help you work an idea into a story, advising on content as it’s created, while a copy editor will help correct objective errors in the form of the story – things like grammar and punctuation that have ‘right’ answers. In the middle, there’s a grey area, what we at Standout Books call a comprehensive edit, which involves working on the phrasing and presentation of an existing story. Here, an editor might help you with issues like varying your sentence structure or ensuring all your characters don’t speak in the same voice.

Figuring out what you need an editor to do is key to finding the right editor, but a business that provides a dedicated editing service should also be able to talk to you and recommend the ideal edit for your needs. They’re the experts in the field, so don’t be put off by not knowing exactly what you want – a good editor knows the questions they need to ask to figure out the right service.

Editorial philosophy

One of the things writers tend to worry about when working with an editor is what tone their relationship will take. Is an editor going to grab the wheel and insist on changes the author doesn’t want? Well, they shouldn’t, and that’s because of editorial philosophy.

This is what makes an editor hired by an author so different from an editor attached to a publishing house. The latter works for the publisher, but the former works for the author, and they work according to a hierarchy of priorities.

When hired by a writer, it’s an editor’s job to help them attain their goal. That goal is generally to write the best form of a book, and that best form is generally understood as the form that does the most for the reader. This is the hierarchy behind editorial philosophy, and it’s what stops any decent editor from getting bossy. We’re here to serve the author, first and foremost, and offer advice on how best to attain their goals. Those goals are what defines the service.

To that end, a good editor will begin by ascertaining what your goal is with any given project. Who you’re writing for, what emotional journey you’re trying to send them on, what your personal goals are for a project. If they don’t do that, they’re incapable of doing anything else, because there’s no perfect version of a text, just the ideal version of the author’s vision.

A good editor begins by understanding your goal, because that’s their North Star.Click To Tweet

It’s this philosophy more than anything else that prevents an editor from being a co-writer. A co-writer follows, to some extent, their own whims; they’re trying to create the version of a project that meets their own goals. An editor, meanwhile, is there to suggest how a project can meet the goals of its author.

Subjective and objective feedback

Because an editor is serving the author’s goal, the vast majority of their feedback will come in the form of suggestions. For subjective issues like phrasing or story content, a good editor will make a clear recommendation that includes their reasoning. The idea here is that the editor is providing potential changes – tools you can choose to either utilize or ignore – rather than saying how things should be.

Editor feedback isn’t just suggestion in practical terms, but also in spirit. Good editors shouldn’t be precious about their recommendations, because it’s not their job to finish or change the book, but to provide you with options and insight. If their recommendations are thorough, their job is effectively done. They should, of course, be happy to discuss their reasoning with you, but good editors are like greengrocers; it’s their job to give you the best fruit available, and if you ask their advice they can certainly recommend what to do with it, but it’s none of their business once it’s in your possession. It’s a deeply unprofessional greengrocer who insists you must use their apples in a pie. After all, they’re your apples.

Editors aren’t co-writers; they make suggestions, not demands.Click To Tweet

Generally, editors will make it practical for you to identify their advice. If they’re rewording sentences or changing around the order of a story, they’ll track those changes in some way. Not only does this show what’s been done, but it allows for suggested changes to be accepted, rejected, or adapted by the author they’re actually for. Your book shouldn’t come back to you unrecognizable – it should always be clear what an editor has done, specifically because their recommendations are there for you to apply as you see fit.

Similarly, if an editor provides advice and you decide not to take it, there’ll be no bad blood. Again, they’re there to give you insight and options, not to change your work to their liking. Sometimes, especially in a copy edit, an editor’s feedback may look like correction. Editors work from incredibly detailed guides to grammar and style, and these provide objective, consistent answers to many technical issues that appear in the majority of writing. Even here, however, these alterations are suggestions. They’ll be as clearly marked out as everything else, and if you decide you want to deviate from the objective rules of grammar, your editor will let you know how you’re doing so, and why they’d recommend you don’t, but they’re not there to stop you.

If the relationship between an editor and an author turns antagonistic, something has gone badly wrong, because an editor’s mission is to help the author find the ideal form of the book they want to write.

Editors are there to provide insight, not to decide how it's applied. Click To Tweet

The limits of editing

We’ve said before that, even if you’re going to hire an editor, it’s still important to edit your own work. This is because an editor can only do so much with any given draft. It’s not that there’s only so much time that can be dedicated to a single edit (although that’s true too), it’s that an editor can only deviate so much from the draft in front of them. Few writers want their work totally rewritten, which means that suggestions about fine details often have to fall by the wayside if there are glaring issues to fix. The latter problem is more urgent, and that big change creates a new version that needs to return to the author.

It doesn’t, for example, make sense to vary the way characters speak if there’s a huge plot hole that means they may need to be having entirely different conversations. First, a good editor suggests ways to fix the plot hole, and that’s something that the author needs to decide on before the editor can set to work suggesting improvements for the resulting character interactions. Editors make things better, but there’s no perfect version of a book, so progress is defined by where the manuscript begins.

It’s like sending your dog to the world’s greatest trainer – they could feasibly teach it to do anything, but with limited time and resources, they’re going to teach it to ‘sit’, because that’s what it most needs to learn. It’s when you’ve taught your dog to sit, lie down, and beg that the trainer can move onto teaching it to do a backflip. Or, at least, the trainer can teach it all of the above, but it’ll take far more time and resources.

Editing workflow

Generally, editing is more effective when it’s divorced from writing. This is the case when editing your own work, but it’s also usually the case when working with an editor. Trying to improve and create simultaneously gives neither enough room to breathe, and they end up tripping over each other. The need to keep creating means that good advice quickly stops being applicable, while the desire to improve means that scenes are endlessly reworked rather than becoming part of a developing whole.

For this reason, editors will usually take a piece and perform their edit over an appropriate period of time, providing the author with an edited document that includes an exhaustive set of suggestions and the reasoning behind them. The author can then study those suggestions, apply them at their discretion, and either return to the editor for further feedback or else keep on creating before contacting them again.

This methodology generally means that working with an editor is more a series of spaced-out meetings than a constant back-and-forth. Again, this comes back to the philosophy of editing; in order for the editor to help you create your ideal version of a project, you both need to understand what that is, and that insight can take time to develop (and can even change as a project continues). If your editor is in constant contact, it’s easy to start treating the book as if it has an innate best form. It doesn’t, it has the form you want for it, and back-and-forth feedback helps keep that at the forefront of the relationship.

Of course, you may disagree, you may want a more immediate relationship with your editor, and many editors will be happy to accommodate you. After all, they’re there to help you out.

Professional conduct

Above all, what an editor owes a writer is transparency. What they intend to do with a piece should be clear from the outset, as should the protections available to the author. As a rule, communication between editors and authors is private, including all files sent back and forth. Even within an editing firm, details are only shared for purposes of the best possible editorial service. Authors need to know who’s seen their work, and editors take privacy very seriously.

Editing should be a transparent process.Click To Tweet

Likewise, the way you interact with your editor, and the way they present their advice, is something to discuss upfront before your service begins. While editors aren’t there to fight the author on anything, some writers actually prefer this approach, and they can get it if they stipulate that that’s what they’re after. At the end of the day, an editor’s pride lies in applying their professional insight and acumen to discovering the most effective ways to meet a client’s goals. If that means a unique approach, many are happy to accommodate, and all should be honest about what they can offer. If you want an editor who’ll fight you to the mat for the version they think is best, be sure to make that clear. Either they’ll be willing to adopt that style to help you or they’ll let you know that it’s not the way they work, and you can find someone who suits you better.

Greengrocer logic

Left to their own devices, however, most editors prefer the greengrocer approach. They offer you their advice, and what you do with it is entirely your own business. That doesn’t mean they’ll give up on you if you reject their advice, but that they’ll adjust to giving the new best advice based on the parameters your decisions have set. Perhaps, here, a financial advisor is a better metaphor; they can tell you where best to invest your money but, if you’re absolutely set on investing in emu farms, they’ll switch to finding you the most profitable emu farms. ‘Best’ is a relative term, and it means that whatever your personal rules and goals, there’s always something an editor can do for you.

If your worry is an editor swooping in like your old English teacher and correcting everything with a red pen, rest easy. We’re here to help, and our definition of success is the version of the book that meets your goals. Every suggestion should be clear, the reasoning behind it laid out for your inspection, but ultimately, it’s your choice how to proceed.

If you’re ready to work with an editor, head to the top of the page to browse our services or get in touch. Alternatively, find out more about working with an editor with Why Your Editor Should Be Multifaceted and How To Be (And Keep) A Highly Effective Critique Partner.


8 thoughts on “What It’s Like To Work With An Editor”

  1. Hello, Rob. Long time reader, first time commenter. Love the articles here. I read them all the time. I’m nowhere near the editing stage yet but I do have questions. I apologize if I’m out of line.

    At what stage is it recommended to begin engaging with an editor? Should I edit my own manuscript numerous times until I’m not so dissatisfied and then seek out professional service? Or is reaching out after my first draft something that’s ever done?

    In my current WIP my first point-of-view character is a little sluggish in terms of intelligence. I’m writing as this character and I’m considering a stylistic approach whereby I intentionally input grammatical errors: missing dialogue tags and quotation marks, incorrect spelling and maybe even lower-case lettering where it doesn’t belong. Have you ever encountered such a thing, and if so might that be an issue when attempting to get my work “fixed?” About two thirds in, the point-of-view shifts to a new character, one with far more mental acuity and I plan on shifting the prose accordingly. I’m hesitant about this idea, because for me personally I find it jarring and immersion-breaking when I encounter typos in published works. However, those were unintentional and infrequent.

    Thanks for your contributions.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks very much for commenting. You’re not out of line at all, so I’ll get to some answers!

    The stage at which you should contact an editor differs from author to author. Some authors like to have access to an editor from idea to publication, while others prefer to get as far as they can before bringing someone else in. Of course, there’s also all the stages in between – I’ve worked with people who prefer to write a little, get my input, write a little, etc. A good editor will consciously avoid injecting themself into your story (as I say above, it’s their job to offer advice, and for it to FEEL like advice), so there should be minimal danger to getting an editor involved ‘too soon’. Basically, when you need someone else’s input and can afford it, that’s when to contact an editor. It’s best to do everything you can beforehand, but mostly so you’re not wasting time and money – let an editor focus on all the things you need help with, not 60% things you need, 40% things you could have addressed with time (perhaps after a little break to clear your head).

    As regards deliberate ‘errors’, editors are flexible, so you should be able to say ‘I’m deviating from traditional grammar here on purpose’, and the editor should reply ‘okay, I’ll let you know where I think that works and where I think it hurts the work as a whole’, which is still going to be a concern.

    With this kind of thing, there’s an art to ‘mis-writing’ without actually getting in the reader’s way. Incorrect spelling and deliberate punctuation/grammatical errors are pretty easy to make workable, you just use them where the reader has the context not to trip up. Lack of dialogue tags is going to be harder, because they serve to make the work clear, and you want the reader to get a sense of poor communication without actually struggling to parse it, especially if it’s for a sustained part of the book. Malapropisms may be a good thing to look into here; they tend to retain clarity while making the reader feel smarter than the character since they effortlessly ‘translated’ what was meant.

    As regards examples, Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy and Alan Moore’s Crossed +100 (and the Beat poets, kind of), do this kind of thing with language, and might be worth checking out, each for a different reason. Palahniuk is depicting a first-person narrator who doesn’t speak fluid English but has to be clear enough to guide the reader through a whole novel, Moore is depicting a futuristic language that the reader has to follow without being directly taught, and the Beat poets strip away standard punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure in an attempt to communicate emotion and mood more effectively. I’m not saying they all work all the time, but even where they fall down, you’ll be able to study why and avoid falling into the same traps.

    Hope that was useful, and thanks for the questions.

    Best wishes,

    1. Daniel LaCombe

      Thanks a whole bunch for that comprehensive reply.

      Right after typing out my first question I realized how I felt about it. For me, it would feel more natural to submit my most final draft to a professional editor. Part of me felt like this was sort of inefficient as I’d have done a lot of the work myself and made the editor’s job easier. But the way you explain it gives me relief. In the end, it’s about optimizing and refining the story as much as possible.

      Also, I’m broke.

      I was bracing for a nice serving of polite admonishment at my second question. I already love the concept of malopropisms and will surely find a way to naturally include them. I may have already done so and just not known what they were called.

      The examples you give are insightful. I never knew about the novels. Those tasks seem ambitious. It’s interesting you mention Palahniuk, as I’ve also found Fight Club to be sort of an inspiration in terms of structure and misdirection.

      I do still have a couple admittedly conceited concerns about this stylistic approach. I feel like language and words are being disrespected these days and too many people are too lazy to use the right terminology or spelling. I wouldn’t want my intentionally sloppy first act to influence or vindicate one of these abusers. And my primary concern is losing any readers once they see numerous, interminable mistakes, especially if I self-publish.

      Thanks again for taking the time to answer.

      1. Hi Daniel,

        My pleasure. One thing to try, in regards to not driving away readers, might be a prologue that doesn’t include these deliberate mistakes. That way, they’ll be assured you know what you’re doing and trust you with the new style.


  3. I love this article Rob, it really helps to understand the philosophy of an editor and how the relationship between editor and writer works. To any writers out there who are worried about it, all I can say is having started out terrified, I have found the whole editing process a joy and the end result so much better than I could have imagined. No matter how many times I have self edited, or indeed how soon I gave up on our third manuscript and sent it off with a cry for help, our work has benefitted tremendously. Another bonus is I’ve gained confidence in our content through editorial support and I’ve learned some great techniques to take forward in my writing. It’s money well worth spending, no matter how polished you think you’re manuscript is. It’s been an essential step for us.

    1. Hi Jenny,

      Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your own experience. That’s certainly the service a good editor should provide.


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