What It’s Actually Like to Work With a Book Editor

What It’s Actually Like to Work With a Book Editor

Many aspiring authors often ask, “What’s it like to work with an 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.

Traveler and blogger Chris Guillebeau

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17 comments

  • Great article, Blake!

    I especially love the bolded line: “The best editors serve their clients in service of their books in service of their audiences.” At its core, editing is not an exercise of power, but of service.

    Because my niche is in books related to spirituality, I sometimes put it another way, paraphrasing Saint John the Baptizer: “The author must increase, and I must decrease.” That is, I do not transform the manuscript into the book I myself would have written if this had been my story to tell, but into the book the author would have written if (s)he’d had the best possible writing skills. Even when (at the author’s request) I substantially rewrite a passage, it must be in the author’s distinctive voice.

    In that sense, every editor is at least part ghostwriter. When the reader encounters the final version of the book, the ghost’s presence should vanish like smoke on the wind, and the author’s story should shine clearly through each word.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services
    epiclesisconsulting.com

  • Judith Haran says:

    I found my editor through the classifieds in P&W magazine. However, I spent hours going through 17 websites, one for each person who had an ad in that column, and looking at their clients, what their clients had published, and even the look/feel/graphics/fonts of the websites themselves. I narrowed it down to 2 based on all of this, and I’m very happy with the one I chose.
    I should add that 18 mos earlier I chose one based on word of mouth, and it was a disaster from day one. I don’t recommend word of mouth!!

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Glad to hear you ultimately found a good editor. No process is foolproof, but if you put the work in—as you did—we should all hope that the result would be beneficial.

  • You are writing about editors that authors hire for themselves. There is a big difference if you sign with a publisher. In those cases, you have very little choice as far as editors go.
    When I hire an editor I’m not looking for praise – though that’s always nice. I’m not looking for a beta reader. I’m looking for genuine help. I can take criticism but I can’t handle bullying and incompetence and I’ve had those two things. Not fun. With a publisher, you are assigned an editor and you have to hope you land a reasonable person who knows the English language and has knowledge about their career choice.
    I am a seasoned author with over 200 books published and I’ve had editors I love and editors who make me want to take up another profession. I recently had one who demanded a page 1 rewrite for no good reason.
    The publisher wouldn’t give me another editor and I was stuck with this one. We went through three rounds of the most painful edits of my life. She questioned everything I wrote, and I mean everything. A round of edits would take days with her because she would force me to defend my word choices. For example, I had the characters in my book attending a funeral and then the wake. She said nobody knew what a wake was. The correct word was repast. Since my family is in the funeral business (And I had to give her proof) she FINALLY accepted that wake was an acceptable word. I’ve never used the word repast. I had to fight – hard – for a single word. It was maddening. And it went on and on.
    She insisted the past tense of the word drag is drug. My God! That is just bad English. I’d written dragged and she said it was wrong. These are just two examples. The publisher had to step in a few times to smooth ruffled feathers – mine, and the editor’s.
    I thought I was alone in my little boat. It stopped me writing for weeks and I am a prolific author. I soon learned every writer the editor worked with went through the same thing. It was a brutal experience and I cannot even look at this book now. She ruined it for me and I loved that book when I first wrote it.
    The publisher ended up firing the editor because I learned she mutilated everybody’s books. Demanded page 1 rewrites from everybody. I will never work with this publisher again and will probably just self pub in the future. Life is too short for literary torture.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Correct, A.J. I should note that in future articles since the term editor can be nebulous. Sorry to hear about your troubles. Sounds as if she held onto her line as firmly as she could.

    • Laura Smith says:

      Sounds like that editor need some psychological help. There is no reason for anyone to be cruel and demeaning towards another human being regardless of who they are and what position they hold. The publisher was smart to get rid of that editor. You don’t need that garbage and stress.

  • Rowland Johnston says:

    Great article on a subject that preoccupies me. Best point here for me (fictional novel): A relationship with an editor ought to be personal, not transactional.

    My next read will be “How to find a Book Editor.”

    Thanks for the helpful articles!

  • I’ve developed a relationship with a writer who has authored several novels and how-to’s on writing. I’ve taken several of her classes that helped me out of blockages, with tools she has us apply in our courses. Thankfully, she has a professional edit service, and offered to do a developmental edit for my novel. The hard part will be trying to wedge my novel into her schedule, she’s a popular with us West Coasters. Thank you for this article, reinforces my choice 🙂

    • Blake Atwood says:

      I’m always glad to hear reports like that, Lois. Even though it’s not always possible to get to know an editor before sending your work over, I think it’s helpful when it can be done.

      And like I’ve written elsewhere, the good editors are often the busy editors. She’s likely worth the wait.

  • Hasan Raju says:

    I think working with a book editor will be likable when the writer and editor both have expertise in same niche/same genre.

    it’s true that sometimes writer maintains editor but hardly happily accept editor’s correction. However, if both writer and editor have similarity in experience area then masterpiece publication is granted. And the reader like me always loves to read the masterpiece.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      I agree, but only if you’re seeking developmental (big picture) editing. A copyeditor (grammar, spelling, etc.) doesn’t need to know or understand your genre to copyedit.

  • This is really good i have also written a ebook about government and private sector tendering and its process. and thinking to publish the same.

  • Dusty Grein says:

    As an editor for a quarterly anthology, I work with between 20 and 30 authors and poets every quarter, to put out a 225 page book of the best in short stories, flash fiction and poetry, loosely revolving around a theme. I edit manuscripts totaling right around the 52K mark each quarter, and I perform “edit suggestions” roughly 2,000 times each quarter among the 40-50 entries.

    I always preface each manuscript’s comments before I start with the following (plus individual remarks):

    “… please keep in mind as you review my suggested edits, that I in no way want to change your voice, or your vision. My changes are only intended to make the experience of reading your story the best that I think it can be. Standard grammatical corrections aside, most of these suggestions are either to reduce stage direction (help it to “show” instead of “tell”) to hold the tense or POV solidly as it flows, or to remove unnecessary words and/or phrases (to “tighten” the story). You do not have to accept these suggested changes. Editing is, and should be, a very collaborative endeavor between author and editor. My ego as an editor is not important–your story is. Please don’t feel it will offend me, or hurt my feelings if you disagree with and decide to reject any of these changes. All I ask is that before you decide to accept or reject an edit, you review the attached notes to understand why I have suggested it….”

    I wish my first editor had taken this approach with me. I will say that this approach to editing, as well as holding it as a goal for each author’s work, has resulted in an average of five or six rejected edits out of each volume–not a bad batting average, even if I do say so myself.

    Thanks for helping authors understand that they are not at the mercy of an editor, but should be partners with one.

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