Monday, September 17, 2012

How to Work with an Editor

Note: This blog is a companion piece to an article I'll be posting tomorrow on how to find an editor.

How to Work with an Editor

Believe me, I know how you feel. You've written a book, it's taken you months/years/decades, you have large chunks of it memorized because you've gone over it so many times, and when you look at it, you see a big pile of blood, sweat, and tears.

It represents all the nights you went without sleep, all the television shows you gave up, all the nights out with friends you missed, the stomachaches you got . . . you have given your all to this book, and now it's time to turn it over to someone else. You're tense. You're nervous. You wonder what they're going to say. You are, understandably, on pins and needles, and yes, you've got your barriers up a bit. You don't want to get hurt, and so you go into the edit with caution. Again, believe me, I know. I've been there.

I've also been on the editor's side of the table. Actually, quite a lot more than I have the author's side - I have written 14 published books, but I've edited a couple hundred books, so the ratio is a little lopsided there.

I'd like to share with you some things I've learned about the editor/author relationship from both sides. It's my hope to help you avoid some of the pitfalls that a lot of new authors (and myself) have encountered on their journeys.

1. The editor is not your enemy.

I have to tell you, I've had some clients approach me like they thought I was a lion, and that everything I said was geared specifically to hurt them. There was this one experience, a few years back ...

The editor's job is to take what you have created and help you make it better. That is the only thing on the editor's mind. They don't wake up in the morning, rub their hands together, and say, "How can I make my author miserable today?" You might feel wounded when they ask you to rewrite a sentence or to rework a character's motivation, but in the end, they are doing their best to help you look your best.

2. The editor is usually right.

If you have chosen a good editor (and again, we'll be discussing that tomorrow), he or she has done their research and they know what they're talking about. You can put a level of trust in them that they have looked up the answer to your particular question and they are leading you in the right direction. Good editors double-check when they have a question. They ask questions of other editors as need be. They keep Google and Merriam-Webster and up on their computers so they can be sure that what they're giving you is their very best effort.

3. The editor is sometimes wrong.

Editors are humans, and humans make mistakes. There are times when your editor may make a correction that you know isn't right. The way to handle this is to talk to them respectfully and explain your point of view, including links to your source, if available. If you have a good working relationship with your editor, based on the respect you show each other, you will be able to discuss it professionally and come to an answer that works for both of you.

Whenever there's a disagreement, it's important for both sides to share their feelings. Again, this should be done professionally, with the understanding that neither side is trying to be hurtful.

If you know you're right, don't hesitate to make a stand. Most editors are professionals and they will listen to you without the need for an unpleasant "discussion." If you are proven wrong, be willing to concede the point.

4. It's personal to the author, but it's a job to the editor.

Editors take their jobs very seriously. They think about their authors, they'll fall asleep mulling over plots, they might be out grocery shopping and all of a sudden realize that they need to go back and tweak that one sentence. They care very much about what they do. However, at the end of the day, they don't have the depth of emotional attachment to the project that the author has.

The author knows that book inside and out. Like I mentioned above, it represents so much more to them than just the story on the page. They can look it at and say, "I remember the day I wrote that scene."

When an editor makes a cut in a scene that's very important to the author, it can feel like the author's throat has been cut instead. It's painful, especially when the author worked really hard on it. But keep in mind, the editor is making the suggestion based on what works for your story, and what works in the current market. Don't take it personally. Step back and think of it from a different perspective. Be willing to consider that maybe it does need to go.

5. Ask Questions If You Don't Understand

Your editor is there to help you, and if they make a comment you don't understand, ask them to clarify. If they aren't being clear, they aren't doing the best job for you. Don't feel stupid if you don't get what they mean - they might use specialized editing terms you don't know, or perhaps they are just approaching it from a different angle. Any time you are unsure what they are saying, ask for clarification. You should understand their viewpoint on every aspect of the edit.

6. You Are the Steward of Your Story

At the end of the day, this is your story. It's up to you to decide how it should go. The editor is there to help you make it even better, but it's your task to implement those changes. The trick is to understand what changes are absolutely crucial to make (I have had clients reject some very basic grammar and spelling changes ... um, don't do that) and what are, perhaps, more a matter of personal opinion. I urge you not to disregard good advice just because it's not what you were thinking. Weigh everything that is said to you carefully. Put ego to the side and be willing to see your book from a reader's perspective and from the market's perspective. At the same time, know what's most important to you and what you're willing to sacrifice and what you're not.

There are times when you will need to make a certain change in order to conform to what your publisher has asked. They might say to cut an entire scene that means a lot to you, or to revamp a plot line that is important to you. In a case like that, be willing to talk with them and see if you can compromise. Why do they want you to make the change, and can you arrive at a solution that will please both of you? Sometimes it's a matter of making the motivation more clear, or heightening the conflict, or making the scene less filler and more usable content. Talk it over.

The editor/author relationship is one of the most important you will form in the writing industry. Authors need editors. Editors need authors . . . kind of hard to be an editor without something to edit. When both parties approach their jobs with professionalism, with an attitude of teamwork, with the willingness to put ego aside to work toward the greater good (and what greater good is there but an awesome book for the world to read), it can be an unbeatable combination.

Come back tomorrow when I discuss how to find an editor and how to make sure they'll be a good fit for you.


Britney Gulbrandsen said...

Great post! I'm scared for that inevitable moment when my manuscript is ready for an editor because it will be tough to take. That being said, I know it's necessary! Editors (good ones at least) know what they're talking about! I don't. I have SO much to learn!

Thanks for the tips!

John Waverly said...

Thanks Tristi. I'm looking forward to sending a manuscript your way...just as soon as I have one ready. I think my latest one is looking pretty good, as long as I can avoid the internet long enough to finish editing it myself.

Tristi Pinkston said...

That would be fun, John! I'm currently booking for May, so give me about a seven-month heads up. :)

Christy Monson said...

I just wanted to say thanks for all the time and effort you give to others. You are a good writer and a great humanitarian.

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