Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sending your work to an editor is an act of bravery, leaving you vulnerable to critique of something near and dear to your heart. While a good editor will work with you to make your edit less stressful, the nature of editing means that a lot of criticism is going to be flying at you at the same time. It can be overwhelming if you’re not prepared, but with a little foresight, you can look forward to your edited manuscript as the tool it is.
To help you make that happen, I’ll be taking a look at how authors can engage with the editing and delivery of their manuscript in a way that benefits them throughout the process. Here’s how to minimize the pain and maximize the benefits, beginning even before the manuscript reaches your inbox…
(P.S. If you came here wondering whether it’s time to hire an editor, Is My Book Ready For An Editor? 10 Ways To Know For Sure is what you’re looking for.)
Give yourself some space
While the editor is working with your document, take a break. Don’t look at the work for the duration of the edit. It helps if you have other projects going, so you’re not tempted to do this and so that you keep your writing muscles limber.
There are a couple reasons why this break is valuable. First, and simplest, you’re not spending double the hours (yours and your editor’s) on the same revision. You’ll have to go through the manuscript again when the editor is finished anyway, so save some time now and give it a rest.
The second, more important reason is that it will be far better to read your edited work with fresh eyes. It can be terribly difficult to read your own work with objectivity when it’s been edited by an outsider. Yet it’s important to do so – to create a saleable piece of writing, it’s vital that authors are able to detach themselves far enough to see the reader’s perspective. When your own thoughts are still spinning hot in your mind, they battle against an editor’s suggestions, making it difficult for you to maintain objectivity and enjoy the polished work. Things that just aren’t you? They’ll stand out, don’t worry.
If you’ve done a little digging, found a reputable company or a freelancer with a cache of favorable reviews, perused editor profiles, requested editing samples, etc., you’ve laid a good foundation for trust. Still, it’s important that you and your editor ‘fit’.
You’ll probably get a feel for this during early communications, and you can continue to recalibrate along the way. Once you’ve commenced a positive working relationship with your editor and you believe they are a good fit for your work, trust them. Remind yourself that this is the editor’s job, that they have readers’ tastes on their radar, and that they care about your work. They are there to support you and nurture your writing, not sabotage it. Perhaps most importantly, remember that you are in control. If you don’t like an edit, change it. Not in a sneaky, ‘never let them know’ way – ask how they’d recommend it be reworked given the choice you’re making.
A good editor is your friend and teammate. They want your success. In the case of a publisher’s in-house editor, they’re paying themselves to refine your work and see it succeed. Good money = good book, for you and your readers. Of course, this doesn’t mean that your editor can take control, rewrite your book, or override your final choices – but unless you’re seeing overly controlling behavior, it does mean you can trust them to do right by you and your work. Feel free to ask for an explanation if you’re unclear on something – the editor should be able to offer a clear, constructive explanation when asked – but make it a rule to assume the best.
Think of your editor as a reader
When you’re not sure about your editor’s choices, remember that they are not only a professional but also a prospective reader. Editors are great beta readers, because they’ve read a ton. They basically read for a living. They have high standards, good taste, and loads of ideas to draw on. Therefore, even if you don’t like a particular edit, still consider it through the editor’s eyes as reader. There was something about that word or section that didn’t work for a reader (a careful, attentive reader who’s invested in your success,) and it’s worth considering why.
Happily, editors are also trained to explain whythey felt a certain way, so their feedback can be useful even if you don’t implement it. A good way to get a second opinion is to give the edited passage and the unedited passage to a few blind readers (i.e., don’t tell them which is which) and gauge their opinion on each.
When to get a new editor
Hopefully you have a trustworthy, supportive editor who you work well with and who always has time for you. There are a lot of good editors out there who love what they do and will make your work shine. There are also a few bad eggs. Here’s how to spot them.
When an editor consistently prioritizes their own voice or style over yours, making changes that are preferential and acting as though they are unequivocally better, you’ve got a problem. This doesn’t mean a good editor won’t occasionally make a change that you feel strays from your natural voice (in which case, revise or ask them for a better solution.) It also doesn’t mean a good editor won’t ever make preference-based suggestions, though they should always present them as such. Ultimately, it’s a matter of attitude. You can usually tell the difference between “I think this will sound better” and “I want to turn your writing into my writing.” Inaccuracies or multiple edits that change the meaning of your work are worth calling to the editor’s attention. Do this with humility
Editors who never
explain their changes, or who don’t have a good explanation when you ask
why a particular revision was made, are a little dubious. There should be
logical, widely applicable reasons for changes, whether grammatical or
If your editor is rude, ditch ’em.
This should go without saying, but an editor who makes lots of mistakes or misses a lot of yours isn’t worth keeping around. Your editor can’t catch every error in a manuscript, but they should catch most of them, and they definitely shouldn’t be adding any.
You may simply have a personality mismatch. If you’re writing highbrow historical fiction modeled after the Russian greats and your editor’s shelves are stocked with smutty romance paperbacks, they might not be the best fit for you. An editor who doesn’t work across genres should be upfront about this fact, though, and hopefully you won’t get into a working relationship without establishing this.
If you’re unhappy with your editor’s work, try being more explicit about your needs and preferences. If they are unable to accommodate you, it’s time to – graciously – move on.
What to do when you review your edit
Through asking a lot of questions and assuming your editor’s best intentions, you should be able to build a healthy foundation. With that under your feet, it’s time to consider the practicalities of an edited manuscript.
Hide tracked changes
When I get a piece of writing back from an editor, I always read it with the tracked changes hidden. Try it. Read the whole manuscript this way, default mode set to ‘trust.’ During this phase, don’t make any changes; just read it as a book. Try to read it as someone else’s book. At this point, you want as much distance as possible so that your own assumptions and habits don’t impact your assessment of the edited version.
Highlight any parts you don’t feel comfortable with
You can add your own comments if you think it’s necessary, but try not to do too much of this. At this point, you want to read as fluidly as possible so that you can get a feel for continuity and the whole product. I find that when I highlight something and come back to it, I sometimes don’t remember the reason for the highlight and feel newly comfortable with that passage in light of the whole chapter or book.
Bring back tracked changes
See if any of the editor’s comments correspond with your highlighted portions. Consider their explanations. Sometimes, the explanation will answer your concerns. Other times, there may be no comment and you’ll need to ask for clarification. I do not advise merely reverting to a previous version if something has been edited. There are two parts to any suggested change – the alert that something isn’t working and a suggestion of how to fix it. Disagreeing with the latter isn’t a solution to the former.
During this phase, accept the changes you like, revisit the
ones you don’t like, and take notes along the way – preferably in the form of
marginal comments or in a separate document.
Have a conversation with your editor
Prepare for this conversation in advance, using your notes. Consolidate any questions and have page numbers ready to hand. Highlight or take note of specific areas you’d like to rework or revisions you’d like to discuss.
Email your editor to set up a time to talk. If you prefer email or phone communication, make that preference known. Even if you prefer a phone call, I suggest sending a brief bullet list of the things you’d like to cover so that your editor can prepare.
During this conversation, you can also establish preferences for future edits and ask for anything you felt was lacking in the present edit.
Take (another) break and then dive back in
When you’ve gone through all the editor’s comments and suggestions, take another break. Come back, then tackle the developmental issues. Take another break, and revisit the whole manuscript with fresh eyes.
Manuscript to masterpiece
After you’ve been through the whole process, take note of what you liked about working with the editor and what you might like to see change. These notes will help you express your preferences when working with future editors.
Learn from your mistakes. If an editor made the same type of revision multiple times, practice several sentences incorporating the principles they drew to your attention. Keep a file of bad writing habits you’re trying to overcome and review it before beginning a new project. Finally, in working with your editor – and in life – assume the best, ask a lot of questions, and never stop growing.
Have you had a good experience with an editor? What made it so great? Or do you have a horror story from which other authors can learn? Let me know in the comments, and check out You Can Save Time And Money By Choosing The Right Editor and What It’s Like To Work With An Editor.