Episode 37: What to Expect from an Editor


A few of your comments recently gave me the impression that many writers have dealt with editors who have been out to force an agenda. I have met my fair share of editors who wanted to be writers and try to be one behind the scenes, but I also know a number of editors who genuinely love working with raw material and the writer to forge something together.

Let’s break editors into two groups (if only it were really this simple): those who solicit material for the purpose of a theme or style (e.g., magazine editors) and those who receive your material without prior conceptions (e.g., freelance editors). With the first group, you should expect that the editor is going to have a bigger hand in what you write. Granted, you may still have a good deal of autonomy, but you can expect more guidance (or, sometimes, forced direction).

However, for this article, I want to focus more on the second group—editors working on your stuff, not theirs. Think of it as your writer’s bill of rights—with anticipated pains thrown in.

  • Look for quality. An editors main job is to make substantive and relevant comments and suggested changes. Anything less is not acceptable.
  • Know the cost. Expect to pay financially and/or emotionally when you submit your work to an editor. The financial burden, in fact, may be the lesser of the two, since you will suffer blows when an editor marks up and perhaps even tears down your work. The revision process can be draining.
  • There are no unbiased observers. Editors are human beings (sometimes hard to believe, eh?). They see things a certain way based on their beliefs, expectations, training, etc. A good editor, however, wants to see the world through the writer’s eyes as much as possible so that the writing still “sounds” like the writer.
  • You don’t have to buy it all. It’s no crime to disagree with your editor. If I edit your writing, I will likely make comments on most pages and then discuss overarching issues. There are some problems that I see as foundational (which I will let you know), but there are others that are negotiable. On the other hand, don’t dismiss comments because you “know” something is perfect. Good editors are selective about what they point out, and they do so for a reason.
  • It’s yours. Ultimately, the writing belongs to you. You always have the option of calling off the editor-writer relationship (though the cost could be high to do so). An editor’s job, at its core, is to mold and shape—not to create. The writer does that.

As an editor, I love taking ideas and making them into something even better. I rarely get credit, and I don’t expect it; after all, the writer is the one who does the majority of the heavy lifting. My task is to help the writer see more clearly. The goal is better prose, not an ego trip.

Keep that in mind when you work with an editor.

Any editor horror stories? Editors you like to work with?

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One thought on “Episode 37: What to Expect from an Editor

  1. Pingback: Episode 38: What to Expect from a Writer « More Novel by the Week

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