I’ll say it right off the top: I love working with editors. Working on a novel for months or even years at a time can be a lonely business. Day after day, scene after scene, never quite sure if the last thing you wrote makes any sense at all or whether the whole book has gone of the rails can be a panic-inducing experience. Sure, beta readers, writing groups, and close friends can be helpful by coming in to give your manuscript a read and tell you what they think, but what sane person would ever truly jump in with both feet into the quicksand of a draft, tying their professional reputation to your creative efforts when they don’t even get their name on the cover? Enter the editor: sage advisor and comrade-in-arms in the battle to make your book the best it can be. Ten novels into my career and I still look forward to receiving my manuscript back, that veritable sea of blue ink (well, the Microsoft Word equivalent, anyway), and the mysterious editorial letter with its clues and hints to help me find the buried treasure in my mess of a manuscript. Of course, it’s not that way for every writer. Several talented, professional novelists I’ve met have had the opposite experience. Editorial feedback can be stressful, disheartening, and in the worst cases, feel as if the book itself is being compromised. Unfortunately, there’s no quick-fix solution to ensuring you have a positive experience with your editors (and yes—it’s almost always editors plural). What you can do, however, is approach the editorial process with the right mindset to give both you and your editors the best chance at building the kind of relationship that leads to a successful finished book.
Types of EditorsThere are loads of places where you can find breakdowns of different types of editors (here’s a great one from Kathy Edens on the ProWritingAid blog). So rather than repeat those at length, I’ll just give you a quick overview here and then get onto the more important business of showing you how those broad classifications can actually vary widely in practice.
The Acquisitions Editor
Sometimes called a “commissioning editor”, this is the person who finds the next great book for their publishing imprint and champions that book through the acquisitions process. They look for the sparks of greatness in your manuscript and use them to convince their discerning (and sometimes risk-averse) buying committee to take a chance on you.
The Developmental Editor
This is one of the toughest jobs in the entire business: figuring out how to take the raw story that might be buried inside a manuscript and bring it to the surface, challenging the author on plot, character, and theme to make them all coalesce into a book that can hold a reader’s imagination for hundreds of pages.
The Line Editor and/or Copyeditor
There are loads of variations in the industry, and you’ll rarely work with both, but in general a line editor focuses on the creative aspects of your writing, helping to ensure your prose conveys atmosphere, tone, emotion, and clarity to the reader. A copyeditor, by contrast, will usually focus on the technical elements of the text, from grammatical issues to the always intricate “house style” of the publisher, which dictates how and when they use quotes or double-quotes, what gets capitalized, and a host of other factors that I could never get right myself even if I poured over the manuscript for a hundred years. Of course, the boundary between creative and technical when it comes to fiction prose is blurry at beast. Sometimes a sentence needs to violate grammatical rules (especially with dialogue), and other times the correct placement of a comma actually lends a much better flow to a sentence.
If the copyeditor’s job is to fix grammar issues, why would you need a proofreader? Surely spelling mistakes and punctuation errors qualify as “grammar”, don’t they? The answer comes from the printing process. Once your manuscript is finalized, typesetters will turn it from a Microsoft Word document into a beautifully finished print-ready file. Often this is a PDF in which each page of the book is laid out with chapter headings and proper indentation, hyphens where needed and any other adjustments to the layout. While you’d hope that by this stage the manuscript would be “perfect”, it almost never is; all those other eyes that have gone over the text will likely have missed something, and even if they haven’t, the typesetting process can introduce errors itself. The proofreader is your book’s last line of defence from the terrible typos that can turn off some readers instantly. So that’s the four basic categories. Simple, right? Not so fast, because in practice, every publisher (and loads of freelance editors) have their own approaches to the business of helping make your book better.
The Editor in The WildStories are complex beasts, and they rarely conform to our notions of “character” being distinct from “plot” or “theme” being completely separate from “voice”. Even more troubling, style can affect all of those elements. So it shouldn’t surprise us that in practice editors may work very differently—sometimes even adjusting their process with each author. The editor for my Greatcoats series of swashbuckling fantasy novels, for example, is the inimitable Jo Fletcher. What does she do on my books? Well, she’s the publisher for her imprint, which mean she decides whether to buy them in the first place. She’s also my developmental editor on the series, and so works with me on the story itself. Now, a typical developmental editor expects you to send them your finished manuscript before they’ll look at it, but poor Jo has had to suffer through me sending her individual acts—and sometimes even single chapters of my books. By the time I’ve finished the draft, she may have read some parts of it several times. (As a side note: editors hate this. Sorry, Jo!) Normally at this stage an editor would hand the book off to a copyeditor, but because Jo and I both care a great deal about the language in my books, she actually copyedits them herself. This is very uncommon in a big publishing house, and it’s something for which I’m incredibly grateful. I’ve worked with other editors, however, who would never do both a developmental and copyedit—they simply don’t have the time to do both. So with my Spellslinger young adult fantasy series, my principal editor helps me with the story (she, too, has to suffer through countless Skype calls as we brainstorm solutions to story problems), and then passes the book off to a wonderful desk editor who handles line edits, copyedits, and managing the proofreaders so that the prose can be as sparkling as possible. But even that’s an imprecise description, because often the desk editor will find story issues that both I and the commissioning editor missed, or will have terrific ideas that I end up incorporating into the story. Not only that, but with the Spellslinger series, sometimes the proofreader has found inconsistencies or story details that all of us missed, but which are very important to fans of the series.
Editorial ApproachesNot only does every editor work differently, but each one has their own approach as well. Should a developmental editor only seek to bring out the story the author intended to write? Or should they suggest entirely new characters or plot lines? Must the copyeditor restrict themselves to fixing mistakes? Or can they suggest a better lyric for a song you wrote as part of a scene in a tavern? Many working authors reading this article can answer those questions with fist-slamming-on-the-table certainty. But their answers likely differ from mine, from each other, and most of all, from yours. The goal isn’t to force everyone in the process to “stay in their lane”, but rather to figure out what approach will best serve the book. This becomes especially true when it comes to the way the editor and the author communicate with each other.
When I get an edit back, the first thing I want to know is what sucks and how to improve it. The infamous editorial letter is where your editor lists the high-level aspects of the book. Sometimes there’s a brief introduction about the things that are great in the manuscript, soon followed by a litany of what’s not working. Me, personally? I love it. Often, however, an editor won’t come back with direct critiques but oblique queries: very politely phrased questions wondering why I chose to go a particular route with a character or plot (note to my editors: you think I choose this stuff? I’m just making it up as I go along!) This means I have to follow up in order to really root out what the editor thinks deep down. Sometimes I’ll even jokingly prod them about being far too polite and can they just start writing “this is crap, fix it” on the bad parts of the book, please? But my glibness aside, there’s a reason why some editors are gentle about the problems in a book. While some authors might crave the “tough love” editorial letter because it lets them get straight to work on improving the manuscript, for other authors this can be devastating; writing is sometimes a soul-bearing experience, and unduly harsh editorial feedback can not only adversely impact the writer’s work on this book, it might affect them on subsequent books as well. Before you judge such authors as being too soft, sensitive, or self-involved, remember that some of the best writers in the world have been snowflakes when it came to their writing. That’s why some of the best editors in the world know when a gentle, even vague comment that elides over a flaw in the story will actually allow those writers to discover and fix the problems for themselves, rather than make them so stressed out they lose their passion for the book.
Building the RelationshipSo how do you get the kind of feedback you need? The first step is to think of your editor not as a machine that swallows unpolished manuscripts and spits out perfect books, but as a creative collaborator with whom you have to build the relationship you need to produce the best version of your book. This can take time—often longer than just one book. It’s also a working relationship. Your editor doesn’t need to be your best friend (and I’d argue that could hamper the quality of their edit); they need to be someone you can trust. Creating that special working relationship can be tricky. Editors in the big publishing houses (and freelancers who’re making a living at it) are often incredibly busy to the point of being overworked. Applying a consistent process to all their books—methodical, predictable, and repeatable—makes their working lives more manageable. The problem is, that process isn’t always the right one for your particular manuscript, which means carefully, patiently, but also rigorously advocating for your story. Both you and the editor share the goal of wanting your book to be the best possible, but they’ll often work more than a dozen authors over the course of a year. If they have ten clients whose books don’t sell and two that become mega-bestsellers, they’ll rightfully call that a very successful year. But you don’t want to be one of those ten authors whose books died on the shelf, so part of your role is to figure out what editorial process best supports your book (not your ego—your book), and work with the editor to make that happen. Of course, that’s only half the battle, because even the best editorial process won’t work unless you develop your ability to deal with editorial feedback. In my own career, I’ve found a few guiding principles that help me get the most out of the editorial process.
Be Open to the Possibilities
No serious editor would ever give a piece of criticism if they didn’t believe the issue they were highlighting couldn’t be made better. In other words, if they tell you something’s not great, it’s because they believe it can be great. Often the hardest criticism to take is when someone’s picking at a part of your book that you already like. I’ve had this on numerous occasions and I always start out by shaking my head in wonder that this otherwise professional-seeming editor could be so obtuse as to complain about my clearly wonderful chapter. Then I remember all the times when an editor’s comment turned a scene from good to great and I open myself up to the possibility: could this part of the book be better? Have I really made it the best it can be? About three quarters of the time I find the editor’s feedback in this case is correct—there was something not quite right about the character or scene or even entire storyline. The other quarter I accept that they might be right, but I don’t change it because I know that, perfect or not, this is the scene I wanted to write, and it’s the scene I believe in.
Don’t Passively Accept the Solution
Very often an editor will identify a problem but not the solution. This should be a comfort to all authors, because it means they’re not taking over your story—just helping you see it in a clearer light. When they do offer suggestions, don’t assume that’s them saying this is the only way to fix the problem. Instead, focus back in on the source of their concern. I had an editor point out to that a secondary character in one of my books wasn’t very compelling. She didn’t really impact the story and she wasn’t especially engaging. The editor quite reasonably suggested I drop the character from the end of the book, but that didn’t feel right to me. So I went back through every scene with this character in the entire book, and sure enough, I’d painted her as a two-dimensional, shallow love interest with no real agency of her own. Being obstinate, instead of cutting her from the book I took the time to treat her as the protagonist of her own story (something worth doing with all your characters). By the end, this character not only had a crucial place in this book, but she’s become a favourite for many readers, and has returned several times in the series. Also remember that some problems look huge when you’re reading an editorial letter, but in fact sometimes an “unlikeable” character changes completely in the reader’s mind with just a single line of dialogue. The key in all cases is to be open to the feedback while retaining your own critical eye towards the question of whether to make changes. This has the added benefit of ensuring the final product is still your book.
Process Your Emotions Before Responding
It’s completely natural to be frustrated, confused, or even angry when someone you’ve exposed your creative work to comes back and tells you that half of it needs to be changed. But it’s imperative to your career that you not take out those frustrations on your editor. I’ve probably been guilty of this myself at some point, but I hope not too often. Passing on your emotional reactions to your editor risks making someone else’s life miserable when they’re already dealing with a difficult job in an industry that can be very unkind to the very people who care most about your work. Just as bad, they might respond by treating you with kid gloves from now on, believing that it’s safer to let you put out a less accomplished book than risk exacerbating your wrath or emotional despondency.