Many aspiring authors often ask, “What’s it like to work with a book editor?”
The short answer to this question is: It depends on which editor you’re working with.
For instance, some editors would strike that last sentence because it ends with a preposition.
Some editors would strike this entire introduction because I’m not getting to the point fast enough. In fiction, this is akin to belaboring the backstory before getting to the real action. (Free tip: unless you’re an experienced writer, you can often kill the first 10 percent of your first draft to find the real beginning of your story.)
One of the hardest characteristics to gauge when it’s your first time to work with a particular editor is knowing where they draw their editorial lines.
In other words, how severe will their edits be?
Of course, this depends on the kind of editing you’re looking for. A developmental editor, who looks at your manuscript as a whole for big problems like plot holes or poor narrative flow, may suggest massive changes. A copy editor may only ask that you delete a few commas. (You’ll be lucky if that’s all they ask of you.)
But even moving a few commas can cause an author to fight back.
This is where you, as the author, learn what your editor’s line is.
The kind of editor you want
You don’t want an editor who relishes their power over your manuscript.
These are the kinds of editors who never compliment your work and believe it’s their life’s duty to point out how very, very, very wrong you are. Their lines are hard and unforgiving.
Fortunately, I have to think that their work dries up in due time.
But neither do you want an editor who’s unsure of their line. If their comments are full of hedging statements –“I think you should put a comma here” — they’re putting the onus of editing on you. When it comes to editing, the editor should be the expert.
That’s what you’re paying an editor for, right?
You want an editor whose line is firm, yet not dogmatic. Experienced, well-read editors should be able to tell when you’re flaunting the rules of English on purpose. And if they’re not sure what you’re trying to accomplish, they should be able to ask you and receive a fair and reasoned answer.
Their edits may be short, direct and bereft of personality, but that concision and clarity prove their expertise. In most cases, they can make a definitive edit because they know it’s correct, or, at least, they’ve verified that it’s correct.
Finding your editor’s line
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way, especially if you’re flying blind when it comes to selecting an editor.
The best way to know what kind of editor you’ll be working with is through a referral from a trusted writer friend. At least that person can give you a firsthand report of their editor’s style.
(For more on finding an editor, see “How to Find a Book Editor You Can Trust.”)
If you don’t have this benefit, you could ask your chosen editor for a sample edit, though many of the busier and more experienced editors don’t offer sample edits. If you’re intent on seeing a sample edit from a particular editor, offer to pay and ask what proper compensation would be for their time.
Lastly, you could contract with an editor to only edit one chapter of your book. Of course, this works better with copyediting but could be used for developmental edits, as well. That way you’ll be able to see the extent of your editor’s edits without having committed yourself to a full manuscript of edits that may not live up to your expectations.
Working with an editor: practically speaking
The best writer-editor relationships are relationships, not fly-by professional transactions.
For instance, I try to speak with each of my possible editing clients before sending a contract so I can learn more about them, their book, their audience, and their goals, both for their book and themselves. These calls help assuage their doubts (I hope) about working with an editor they likely don’t know. I provide my experience, listen to their needs and offer suggestions for next steps.
Then I create a contract and a first invoice, both of which can be taken care of online. The client sends me their manuscript and I begin editing their baby. If the client requests it, I’ll provide feedback on a preset basis, which can mean relaying how much I’ve edited or sending each edited chapter as they’re finished.
At other times, the client doesn’t want to see their marked-up manuscript until I’m finished. Before sending that final edited version, I send the final invoice. Once that’s paid, the client receives their manuscript.
This is the typical process for copyediting, which requires much less back-and-forth than developmental editing. When I’m developmentally editing a nonfiction project, I’m often in weekly, or even daily, conversations with clients.
Working with an editor isn’t necessarily fun, but neither should it be frustrating, confusing or disheartening.
The best editors serve their clients in service of their books in service of their audiences.
If your editor has you feeling discouraged (beyond the inevitable writer’s discouragement of seeing your book bleeding) and you don’t believe that you’re learning anything new or growing as a writer in the process, it may be time to find a new editor.