I am very pleased to know Kristy Stewart of Looseleaf Editorial & Production--she knows what she's talking about, and has helped me with editing manuscripts and creating pitches in the past. So when she agreed to do a guest post on my little blog, I was rather happy about it.
Take it away, Kristy.
Working with an Editor
Several writers I’ve spoken to have presented the author–editor relationship in combative terms: the author as the champion of creativity and progress and the editor as the stumbling-block adversary that is necessary, but not at all welcome. That isn’t to say this is an entirely dominant viewpoint, but I’ve heard it enough that I believe it’s useful to tell writers what an editor is for and how to work with one.
An Editor’s Purpose
Editors do not exist to impose outdated and ridiculous rules upon the language of writers. (I’ll admit, sometimes I do this, but it is only when someone asks me to.) A good editor doesn’t exist to tell you that you used a word incorrectly, though that is often something he or she will do. An editor who has their head in the right place doesn’t value correctness more than creativity.
Good editors exist to improve clarity, credibility, and communication. They’re people who have to see your book in two ways: from the creator’s side and the consumer’s side. Editors need to understand and share writers’ visions while still sitting in the place of the reader and noting when things don’t make sense, fail to communicate, or seem botched and unprofessional. Many times that means encouraging an author to follow certain conventions of language and story. (But definitely not always.)
Working with an Editor
With an editor’s purpose in mind, you can come up with a few ways to better prepare yourself to work with one, and I’ve listed four recommendations below.
1. Know your audience. Since editors need to see your work from writerly and readerly perspectives, it helps them to know who your audience is. Depending on the editor, you may not need to communicate this to them. For example, if you write YA and submit your work to an editor at a YA publishing house or imprint, you can pretty much guarantee they’ll assume the correct audience. If you’re hiring a freelancer, you need to communicate that goal. That way the editor can start out with the right perspective.
2. Have a vision. Any editor you work with needs to understand your vision of the book. Otherwise they’re going to be a pretty awful collaborator (that’s what an editor is—not a combatant, a collaborator). That’s why you want to talk to an editor before you sign with them at a publishing house: so you can ensure you both have the same vision for your book. It’s also something you need to communicate to any freelancer you work with. That makes it easier for them to suggest changes that are in line with your vision or tweaks that further your goals. Editing is not just about finding problems; it’s also about finding opportunities for authors to expand their work.
3. Listen. Any editor worth their salt will give you final say when it comes to your work. It is, after all, your work. Your ideas, your vision, your work, your name on the cover—why wouldn’t you have final say? That doesn’t mean they won’t say things you might not want to hear—they wouldn’t be earning their keep if they didn’t. Having the final say also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen. If your editor is saying something, he or she has a darn good reason, and it isn’t spite.
Allow me to share an anecdote from Brandon Sanderson and his editor, Moshe Feder. (I’ve heard this story from both of them.) Once upon a time Moshe told Brandon that his humor wasn’t working. That’s a really crummy thing to hear. He and Brandon went back and forth trying to figure out why it was broken. Finally Moshe was able to figure out that Brandon’s jokes weren’t funny because they weren’t native to the worlds Brandon was writing in, so they pulled a reader out of the story. Brandon made appropriate revisions, and hey presto! Humor fixed.
Moshe said Brandon’s jokes were broken. That was incredibly kind of him. Brandon listened. That was incredibly smart of him. Brandon’s books are better for it, readers are happier for it, and no one is crying because Brandon made his jokes better.
4. Don’t ingest everything. In a counterpoint to the last bit of advice I’d like to tell you not to take everything an editor says and ingest it wholesale into your work. Just because an editor said it doesn’t mean it’s right. As an editor, I have often pointed out “broken” aspects of a story or opportunities for a strong addition. Most times when I do this I will give an example change to clarify my point, but I know that my examples are rarely the best idea for the book. Ideas to fill those gaps and seize those opportunities need to come natively from the author. So listen when the editor makes a recommendation, but then make the change your own.
A good editor will cheer for that kind of behavior. Those changes are almost inevitably better for the work, which serves the editor’s two constituents: writers and readers.