Diane commented on Tuesday:
I’m asking this in all seriousness, but what do editors do? I’ve heard authors talk about working with their publishers’ editors. Do they read and make alterations? Because it seems like you are doing so much analyzing and rewriting. What is it that editors are doing?
They do a helluva lotta things including deal with the editorial boards, the marketing department, the PR department, the author, the author’s agent . . . but I think you’re asking specifically about how editors edit a manuscript, right?
The simplest answer to your question is that it’s really rude to give any kind of editor a text you know isn’t right because it means you’re shoving off work that you can do and leaving it to her to fix things in the way she thinks best, which is possibly not the way you wanted. If it’s broken, fix it before it gets to her. I always know my editors (Jen and the copy editor) will find mistakes I can’t see, so I need fix the ones I can see, so they can see the text clearly enough to make it better. If I slow them down with a lot of stuff I can fix, I’m hurting their ability to edit. That’s just dumb. If you work with professionals, you should be professional.
A longer answer involves more caveats because editing is a very personal relationship because editors, like writers, comes in all degrees of usefulness and outlook.
For example, there are the editors who are just clueless. I had one who added adverbs to my book. I threw the fit heard all over North America, the adverbs came out, and I got a new editor. Another editor tried to tell me that nobody in the Midwest would know what potstickers were. Another one barred coq au vin because Midwestern readers wouldn’t know what that was. Sometimes you have to be firm.
And sometimes you have to be really firm. There is one publishing house that shall be nameless that liked all its romances to fit a certain approach to the genre. Writers that naturally fit in that approach became superstars. Writers that didn’t naturally fit there had a hell of a time. A friend of mine who was a brilliant writer was just broken there by over-editing which included an editor going in and making changes to her story over her objections that made it fit their company romance story. She quit writing a decade ago, and people are still asking what happened to her. (A controlling editor happened to her.) I know another terrific writer who quit until she got her confidence back and then went to another publishing house that cherished her for who she was. She’s still writing brilliant books today.
When I mentioned this to my current editor, who is a dream (Jennifer Enderlin at SMP), she said she had authors who told her that if there was something she thought should be changed in the text to just change it. In other words, authors also come in all degrees of outlook toward editing. So editors like Jen adapt; she’d never change anything in my text, but I get plenty of notes which are freaking brilliant. I think I’ve disagreed with her maybe three times in the all the years we’ve been working together and she was right all three times. I tend not to disagree anymore.
So here’s what Jen does for me. She reads through the story and marks any places that trip her up, that aren’t clear, that are disturbing enough to throw her out of the story, any places that she starts to skim. She asks questions about what she doesn’t understand as she goes through (as in “Why does she think everybody hates her? They’re all nice to her”). She circles words she doesn’t know (she knows a lot of words, but I know more) because they’re likely to throw a reader out of the story. (Example: I used “seraglio” in Wild Ride, but I kept it anyway.). She talks about what things in the story mean, if that’s what I meant to convey. (Example: there was an undercurrent in Faking It that Tilda’s father had sexually abused her that I had to shift some language on because that wasn’t at all what I’d intended.) She really digs deep, and she puts it all in an editing letter. I read the letter and let it sit for twenty-four hours so I can get past the natural desire to defend what I wrote, and then I make the changes I agree with and we talk about the other stuff. Usually on that stuff, we just talk about a way to fix it that satisfies us both, but she always lets me have the last word.
The other kind of editor is the copy editor who goes through and finds all your grammar and punctuation mistakes and any factual screw-ups. You have to be VERY careful with copy editors because sometimes they’re right, but the change they want is wrong for your text. I still loathe the copy editor who put italics into Welcome to Temptation that made my heroine sound like an idiot. I did catch the copy editor in Bet Me who tried changing “being into becoming” to “becoming into being;” her way is logical but not chaos theory. Mostly, good copy editors save my ass every time.
In the end, if there’s a screw-up in your book, it’s your fault, not your editor’s. So you make it as perfect as possible, and then turn it over to them and follow their advice to make it even better.
Good editors are worth their weight in gold, rubies, diamonds, and plutonium.
Good questions to ask if you’re editing/critiquing somebody’s manuscript:
- What must be kept. What really works here, the parts that make you want to read them again, that give you insight into characters, that provide action and suspense . . . you know, the good stuff. Tell the writer what those are so she won’t cut them.
- What needs work. There’s stuff in there that’s slow, boring, too long, but it’s important to the story so the writer can’t cut it, she or he has to fix it. Explain why it needs fixed but don’t tell her or him how to fix it. That’s the writer’s choice.
- What should be cut. Sometimes stuff gets in there that just doesn’t belong, especially things that have become the writer’s darlings. Other times the writer feels the need to explain something that’s unnecessary to the story. Sometimes she just goes on too damn long in a scene. Tell her those things need to go because they’re clogging up her story.
And then don’t feel bad if she disagrees or ignores your advice. Your her editor, not her mother, she doesn’t have to listen to you. But she should thank you profusely because editing is a bitch of a job.
(If you need practice editing/critiquing, you can practice on this and then ask questions in the comments.)