Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Truth and Nothing But the Truth About the Writer/Editor Relationship

A lot of people ask me about the writer/editor relationship. Usually they’re concerned about an editor requesting too many changes and revisions, “taking charge,” changing the author’s original vision in ways he or she didn’t want or expect.

Many people ask me if a new writer has to make the changes suggested by his/her editor. The answer is almost always, yes, you do. However, if your editor is a good editor, and is intent on helping you be the best writer you can be, then you should want to make the changes he or she suggests.

Writers, all writers, not just new ones, are simply too close to their work to spot some of its weaknesses and deficiencies. But editors aren’t. Editors are trained to do just that – spot the weaknesses and deficiencies and help the author eliminate them from his work. Now, once you gain experience as a writer, you should be able to spot these weaknesses yourself. One of your goals, in becoming the best writer you possibly can be, is to become an excellent editor of your own work. This, like writing, itself, takes practice, and it could be years before you’ll be able to successfully edit and revise your own fiction.

And just because an editor suggests changes, maybe even many changes, doesn’t mean your manuscript is a bad manuscript. If it were, it would have never made it onto the editor’s desk. An editor’s job is to take a good manuscript, even an excellent manuscript, and make it a better one. Make it the best one it could possibly be. The difference between merely adequate writing and writing that truly excels is in the little details. Sometimes writers are so intent on telling their story they forget the stylistic devices that can enhance their work and lift it into the realm of art. This is the editor’s job. Well, at least part of it.

New writers sometimes get frustrated because they don’t realize that editors are trying to please, not writers, but the same people the writer is trying to please – readers. However, in editing any piece of fiction, whether novel or short story, any good editor in going to go to great lengths to ensure the integrity of the author’s work is not compromised any more than it has to be to meet the publisher’s requirements.

In general, the more time the writer puts into his manuscript, the less editing it will require. This, of course, brings us back to the fact that every writer must become good – no great – at self-editing. And this, of course, only comes with practice, practice, practice.

Editors don’t perform the same job for every writer. A new writer might require more substantive editing than a more experienced one. Substantive editing deals primarily with structure and order. You may have written a good story, and your writing, itself, may be clear, but your organization could be off. Substantive editing helps you with this.

With mid-level authors, editors are more concerned with stylistic editing. Stylistic editing concerns itself with clarity, flow, length of sentences, and specific word selection. What may be clear to you might not be clear to your editor – or to your potential readers. It’s your editor’s job to make sure it is.

Editors will help you with minor copyediting, but for goodness sake, don’t be a sloppy writer. Don’t expect your editor to fix every little mistake for you. Learn to write grammatically correct manuscripts and you’ll be the favorite of every editor in the publishing world.

If your manuscript is going to succeed, it’s absolutely crucial that you and your editor establish a good working relationship. No, you don’t have to become “best friends” and you really don’t have to like each other, but you do have to respect each other.

Just as editors must respect the integrity of the author’s work, authors must respect an editor’s role in the production of a book or story that’s going to be as good as it can be. To this end, the writer is going to have accept the fact that the editor is going to be involved as early as possible and is a person possessing a meaningful role in the creation of an artistic work, not just a “fixer of mistakes.”

Still, and this might seem contradictory, though it’s really not, the very best editors are the editors who let writers write and then learn from their own mistakes. No matter what, both editor and writer need to be a team, a team that’s committed to making a manuscript one readers will want to read over and over again and recommend to all of their friends and family.

Every writer should remember that there are things an editor owes an author and things an editor gives an author, as a courtesy.

I think it goes without saying that no editor owes a writer a response to an unsolicited query, though most will give you one, and a polite one, if you’ve enclosed a SASE. However, when sending in unsolicited material, please be patient. Editors are some of the busiest people in the world. We take work home with us every night and we almost always work on weekends as well. I’ve edited manuscripts at three in the morning while I’m soaking in a hot tub. Editors’ days are filled with more than just editing. We have meetings, budget work, correspondence with publishers, agents, and writers, personnel problems, etc. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that unsolicited material gets a “low” priority on our list of “things to do,” but it does get done. We do care.

If an editor (or agent or publisher) solicits material from you, then by all means, that person very much owes you a response and I, personally, don’t know any editor who would fail to give one. Just give the editor/agent/publisher a decent amount of time in which to respond. Not an unlimited amount of time, but a decent amount.

Now, to be truthful, though most editors are very courteous people, there are a few bad apples in every barrel and the editing one is no exception. While there are certain things an editor owes you, sadly, courtesy isn’t one of them. You can’t force the rare rude editor to be courteous to you. It just isn’t going to happen. But, while courtesy can’t be forced out of someone, sometimes it can be bred. If you’re courteous to your editor, even though he or she is not, initially courteous to you, perhaps the tide can turn. You never know. And don’t forget, while most writers are very courteous people as well, there does exist the rare rude writer.

In any writer/editor relationship, problems, whether major or minor, inevitably crop up. Some of these problems will be problems you, as the writer, can do something about, and some of them will be totally out of your control.

When problems with your editor crop up, you should first inquire politely about them. You have every right to do so, but it’s best not to try to fix blame, not at this time. You might have to work with the same editor on a different project, even at a different house, since editors tend to move around quite a bit. You don’t want to foster bad blood, especially not in the small world of publishing.

Only go over an editor’s head as a last resort. As a senior editor, I have several junior editors working under me. I always encourage them to solve their own problems, if at all possible. It’s good for their relationship with the writer, and quite honestly, I don’t have time to solve the problems of every junior editor working under me. I have my own problems to deal with.

And, don’t be upset if your manuscript is assigned to a junior, rather than a senior editor. Junior editors almost always have more time than senior editors and can spend more time with you and your work. You might get more feedback.

One of the best ways to foster a good writer/editor relationship is by being professional. Most editors are very professional people and professional people love to work with – other professionals. Learn as much as you can about the editing process and the business of publishing before your manuscript is even accepted for publication. It’s not that difficult.

Never, never, never try to manipulate an editor. Believe me, we’ve seen it all. A friend of mine had a client who would single space every manuscript, using very small margins. Now, this writer knew basic manuscript formatting, however she didn’t like anyone changing anything she wrote, so she simply gave her editor no room on which to do so. Things like this always do more harm than good, and the person harmed is always the writer.

Some things in the writer/editor relationship are simply a matter of good sense. Don’t send your editor the only copy of your manuscript in existence. Editors are human, and we sometimes do lose things. Not on purpose, and we feel terrible when we do, but it does happen.

Every editor has his or her own way of editing. Not just stylistically, but manually, too. I know editors who love to edit at the computer, and we have special software just for that purpose. If you ever work with me, however, I can tell you that I’m an old-fashioned girl. I still edit with a red pen on a hard copy. Take it or leave it.

Writing is a difficult, brain-busting job. So is editing. But if writers and editors respect each other and each does his or her job with the utmost professionalism, the writer/editor relationship can be one of the most rewarding in the business.

No comments: