Don’t Fear the Editor!

In my “day job,” I edit and evaluate books for an online publisher. Over the years, over and over again, I’ve heard the same myths whispered about the editor/author relationship. These fears seem to be so ubiquitous among writers, I thought I would try to dispel them here. Here are some things that you, as an author, don’t need to fear:

Myth:  “The editor just won’t ‘get’ what I’m trying to do in my book.”  Reality: Editors, like other readers, usually aren’t stupid. Your thoughts aren’t so above the average reader’s intelligence that people won’t be able to fathom them. You aren’t such a bad writer that you fail to make sense. On the contrary, I’ve found that a writer and what he’s “getting at” emerge crystal clear. It’s all laid out there on the page for anyone to see–who the author is, his level of writing skill, his personality, his interests, his thoughts. It’s usually no mystery what you’re “trying to get at.”

 Myth: “The editor might, for some arbitrary reason of her own, ruin my book and my career.”   Reality:  Now why would she want to do that? Honestly? Does she even know you personally? A critic might, for his own reasons (maybe to appear clever?) want to ruin someone’s book or career, but editors don’t have that agenda. They aren’t out to get you. On the contrary, editors are looking for good books–books that their houses can sell. They sincerely want to get behind books that will make their own careers. They are looking for ways to take a good book and make it great.

Myth: “Editors have too much power.”  Reality:  My sister once said this to me. The implication is that an editor will judge a book by whether she personally likes it or not.  If that were the case, the editor would have too much power, but it’s not normally the case. An editor’s personal taste may play a small part, but she knows that she doesn’t have to like a book for it to appeal to other readers. Normally, she judges a book objectively on whether it meets certain criteria that have been long established as good writing. Here’s an example:  I evaluate many mysteries, and a common mistake is that, after we’ve followed a sleuth’s investigation through an entire book, the newbie author will have someone else out of the blue–a minor character–solve the crime. I see this over and over. Imagine following Sherlock Holmes through an investigation, only to have the walk-on maid figure things out and inform him “who-done-it.” That is the real “power” of an editor–not to impose her own tastes, but to know that there are some things you just don’t do in a book. And some things you must do. An editor can point out these things, so a book may be improved.

Myth: “I don’t have to take advice or follow rules because my story is so unique.” Reality: Your story is probably not all that unique. The editor has read hundreds of stories similar to yours. It’s been said that there is no new plot under the sun. What is unique are the twists and characters you can bring to the story and your expression of it through your own voice. To make that voice and expression shine, you should first employ common sense writing techniques. Then, if you want to break a few rules–know what they are, why they are rules, and why you want to break them. You do otherwise at your peril.

Myth: “It’s who you know that will get you published.”  Reality: I once had an author suggest that she should send an order of Omaha Steaks to a prospective editor because it might sway him somehow. No. An editor isn’t going to go out on a limb for a bad book, even if it’s by his favorite cousin. Even if he met you at a conference. Even if you send him Omaha Steaks. Even if you’re a friend of Donald Trump. He can’t afford to. It would ruin his reputation. Your success is not about who you know–it’s about what you write.

Myth: “I can’t afford to hire an editor–they charge too much.” Reality: This isn’t a plea for business, just a gentle reminder that after you’ve put your heart, soul, time, and sweat into a book, isn’t it worth it to go that crucial last editing step before sending it out into the world? And it doesn’t have to be a bona fide editor–knowledgeable critique partners can help–but if, and only if, they know what they’re doing. Just saying “I love it!” or “It doesn’t work for me” won’t cut it. They have to know why and how to fix problems.

Myth: “My editor should be my friend.” Reality: You may be a sensitive artiste, but the days of Maxwell Perkins are over. Today’s editors are way too busy for that. Just as an editor isn’t your enemy, neither can she hold your hand through drama. It’s what’s on the page that counts.

Myth: “The editor will force me to change things in my manuscript that I don’t want to change.” Reality:  Editors aren’t the Gestapo. The editor knows that the manuscript and final choices ultimately belong to the author. My advice would be to “pick your fights.” Some changes won’t really kill you. Save putting your foot down for big things you can’t compromise on. And don’t do it very often. You don’t want to get the reputation of being an author who’s hard to work with–you’ll soon wear out your welcome.

Myth:  “No news is good news.” Reality:  No, don’t work in a vacuum. Editors are accessible. Without making a pest of yourself, it’s okay to occasionally phone her. In a casual conversation, you could even run an idea by her to get her reaction, instead of plowing ahead and blindly investing in writing a whole book you’re not sure will work.

Myth:  “I’m a better writer than the editor, and I can edit myself.”  Reality: Yes, you may know just as much as the editor, and even be a better writer. It’s just that an author is sometimes so close to his work, he can miss things. It’s inevitable that mistakes are going to slip through. A second eye can catch things, suggest ideas, and bring fresh perspective to a work.

Myth:  “An editor will decide if I have talent or not.” Reality: The editor might have her own private opinion, but it’s only temporary. She’s only looking at one book–the book in front of her. Who knows? You could learn and grow as a writer. Your next book could be a blockbuster. It’s ultimately up to you to decide if you have talent or not.

Now, I know some authors have had bad experiences with editors. Many can relate a terrible story about the “editor from hell.” But I guess it all boils down to this:

Hopefully, an editor is a helper, no more and no less. The editor wants you and your book to succeed. Putting aside your fears and working with an editor can be a really smart move. It can shave years off your learning curve. It can help your book reach its full potential and be the best it can be.


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