Writing Nowadays–What an Editor Does

Let’s face it–you are your own worst editor.  You can carefully craft the most amazing novel your brain can produce.  You can spend months or years on it, polishing every page, every sentence, every word.  And then another person will read it and say, “Did you notice that in chapter four you start almost every paragraph with ‘he’ ”?

After working so long with a story, even the best author loses sight of some of the details.  This is where an editor steps in.

Before we go any further, I need to define the term.  Here, an editor is a professional hired by a book publisher to walk a book through the publishing process.  I’m also going to focus on what an editor does for the writer.  An editor’s job actually covers quite a lot more than the tiny portion I list below.  For example, an editor reads many, many manuscripts and chooses which ones to buy, but we’ve already discussed that process elsewhere and won’t repeat it here.  We’ll start our list with the moment the author turns in a completed manuscript.

Once the writer hands a complete novel manuscript to the editor, she works it over with a red pen.  She’ll pick out problems with the story, character, or anything else:  Why can’t Jenny just call for help on her cell phone in chapter three?  The relationship between Harold and Maude seems a little forced in chapter eight–smooth it out.  Page 7: Infodump!  The introduction of the antagonist and his sidekick doesn’t quite work as you’ve presented it–I kept losing track of who is who. And so on.

Some editors are pickier than others.  An author of my acquaintance once got an editorial letter consisting of 30 single-spaced pages.  On the other hand, I once got an editorial letter consisting of three words: It was fine. These are extremely unusual, though!  My usual editorial letters run two to three pages.

Editors actually don’t copyedit.  That’s done on another pass-through by someone else.

Your editor will (or should) push your book to the publisher and to the marketing department, doing her best to ensure your book gets a cool cover, a decent blurb, good placement in the catalogs, and so on.  Sometimes they’re successful and sometimes not.  Office politics and the opinions of higher-ups all have an impact here.

If something funky is going on with your book, your editor also plays liaison between you and the publisher.  For example, if you discover that your book is being pirated on a web site somewhere, you’d want to alert your editor immediately, and your editor will get hold of the publisher’s legal department.

Your editor will push your book to booksellers and distributors at marketing meetings, conventions, and elsewhere.  However, an editor’s time is limited, and some books get more face time than others.  That’s just the way it is.

Editors are also part of the money chain.  When a check is late, the writer calls the agent to complain.  The agent calls the editor.  The editor calls accounting.  Accounting pretends to know nothing about the problem, and the editor ends up tracking down the money with the agent breathing down her neck.  One of my editors spent several hours tracking down an idiot accountant who had lost all the paperwork associated with a large check overdue to me.  The editor, bless her, then took up most of an afternoon personally walking a new set of paperwork through the entire accounting department so I could get paid.

Your editor will discuss future projects with you.  She wants to know what else you have up your creative sleeve, and the earlier, the better.  If you have a project she’s pretty sure isn’t marketable, she’d rather tell you up front so you don’t waste time on it.  On the other hand, if you have something really cool, she’d like to know so she can anticipate it.

Certain jobs don’t fall under an editor’s bailiwick.  For all that she’s friendly and loves your book, she still works for the publisher, and when it comes to business, her first priority is for the publisher.  She definitely wants your book to succeed for a number of reasons, but ultimately the editor is the publisher’s face.  This is why you want an agent who can talk business–you won’t have to mix art and money, and can keep things friendly with your editor.

Your editor doesn’t solve problems that show up in your writing; she only points them out.  Some editors may offer suggestions if the author gets really stuck, but ultimately editors edit while authors auth.  Most authors would be insulted or upset if the editor made unauthorized changes anyway.

As I said, this is only tiny portion of what an editor does, but it gives the general idea.  Anyone else want to chime in?

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Writing Nowadays–What an Editor Does — 6 Comments

  1. Editors also walk the book through the production process. If you have a problem with your production editor, your copy-edited manuscript, your proofs, your book’s jacket, or anything else in the production and manufacturing chain, your editor will get called in the same way s/he will in the marketing process and the accounting process.

  2. Yes, I guess I do…

    There are editors and editors. It depends on both book length and magazine length. Some don’t. Some do. Some go over the top, particularly at short fiction length, thinking they are god’s gift to literature. The editing thing needs to be give and take, much as you describe above, with suggest and point out. Ultimately. the author is the author and must remain so.

    Funny, I’ve known agents who want to be editors too.

  3. Yes, in the final analysis it’s the author whose name is going to be on the cover. We don’t remember the editor’s name (quick: who edited THE LORD OF THE RINGS?).

  4. “Your editor doesn’t solve problems that show up in your writing; she only points them out.” <– I think this is something that most people don't realise – either they worry that the editor will make all kinds of drastic changes without their knowing (like they have the time!) or they think an editor means that they as writers don't need to learn how to edit their own work when feedback is given, because it's 'someone else's job'. Great post. 🙂

  5. At the risk of being overtly self-serving (as freelance editing is what I do), I’d like to point out a certain chicken-and-egg problem that has been developing in the publishing world of late.

    Namely, editors do a lot less of the commenting function you describe than they used to. Some still do, of course, but industry-wide the trend is towards less of that.

    Why? Because it’s incredibly time consuming and editors are already overworked. This, especially, has become much worse of a problem for editors in the past few years as publishing houses have downsized and let a lot of good editors go. They still want to put out books at the same rate, though, so the editors who are left have more books to shepherd through the process.

    What that means for authors is that increasingly, editors are looking for manuscripts that _don’t need_ to be commented on, or at the very least, don’t need much commenting. I can totally understand this, because to read and produce a coherent critical analysis of the writing craft, story structure, and character development in a novel can easily take 12 to 20 hours, depending on the length of the book. Toss in meetings and bathroom breaks, and poof! There goes two to three full working days.

    So writers are in this weird situation now where, in order to ever have their work put before an editor who might comment on it, the work pretty much has to be clean enough not to need the comments anyway. Bizarre.

    It sucks for authors, certainly, because that kind of professional, experienced commentary is absolute gold for helping them improve their craft. Having a highly trained external pair of eyes go over your book to find all the places you messed it up is invaluable in helping you learn both how to fix the issues in this manuscript but also how to avoid them in the next one.

    So what do you do? (here comes the self-serving part.) You can hire a book doctor like me, or many others you can easily find via Google or on Twitter, to provide that commentary for you.

    My heart goes out to the editors who have lost their jobs in the past few years, it really does. And for what it’s worth, I believe that publishers’ choices to cut editorial jobs is the height of “penny wise, pound foolish.” But I wasn’t in charge, and they did it anyway, and in the process created a demand for freelancers to provide that essential commenting function.

  6. It is true that the days are long past, when you could hand an editor a steamer trunk full of notes and scraps and have him come out at the end with LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL. A young writer today had better have that novel in pretty good shape. However, the number of writer scams is truly disheartening, and there are tons of extremely sketchy ‘editors’ and ‘book doctors’ out there. I urge anyone contemplating this to be wise.