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Support your local…unfriendly editor.

Posted by Charles Gray on July 20, 2011

    Support your local…unfriendly editor.

As a copyeditor for several collage student produced publications and someone who is currently working on his own academic and fiction works, there’s something that every writer needs to have.
An unfriendly editor.
Not, mind you, a hostile editor.  But an editor who is not emotionally bound up in you, who is not therefore concerned that he or she will hurt your feelings or may cause you to toss away a book you’ve poured your heart and soul into, is a treasure beyond compare.
An editors job after all, is not simply copy editing, but telling you if a chapter works, if it’s too long, if it’s too short, if the characters are in fact properly shown to the audience.  If it says what you intend it to say.
If, in other words, its ready for publication.
Now a friendly editor has two problems. The first one is the aforementioned emotional ties to you. Some individuals  can rise above this, but not all, and the consequences of having a book published that isn’t ready because someone didn’t want to hurt your feelings can be severe, both for your reputation and for your personal feelings.
The second is that even if said editor is trying to be impartial, they know you.  They know what you were thinking, and in fact you probably talked to them a great deal about your work. For that reason, there’s a very real danger that they may “fill in” parts that are actually unclear or even absent from your book or article.  After all, they know it.
So what do you do?
Well the first thing is to realize that I’m not talking about a hostile or worse, uninterested editor.  That gets you a dismissive “it sucks” or “it’s fine” response when in fact very little work has been done (and editing is work, make no mistake about that.).  You need to find someone who is not so emotionally invested in your work that they may fudge it, and who is not so knowledgeable about what you were doing that they may let gaps pass.
So the first thing to do is to look for other people online, or in you area who will read your work. There are online critique groups, such as, that can provide excellent reviews.  In many cases they’ll also require that you review and edit other peoples work, but that’s not simply the price of doing business, that’s a positive benefit.  Your own writing, after all, cannot help but be improved by seeing how other people write.
The second thing is to be clear in both thought and word as to what you are needing from an editor. A last copyedit before publishing is far different from asking someone to read the book to see if the characters, the high concept, or the pacing work for the reader. You may in fact need to find several editors as not all editors are good at everything, and often having multiple eyes on the same passage can tell you more than a single pair would have.
So, the next question is, should you pay an editor?  If you have the money, there are a number of professional editors out there, but you should first haunt the various writing forums out there to get word of mouth opinions before you pay.  Writers Beware is an excellent first stop, especially if you’re considering working with an agency.  If you do intend to pay an editor, you must have a contract that spells out exactly what both parties are expecting to receive and get.  Especially if you’re spending more than a few hundred dollars, it may be wise to actually have a lawyer draw up the contract.

Now comes the hard part.
Listening to your editor. Especially in self publishing, there is no requirement that you do what the editor says.
It can be hard to be told that the chapter that you consider the best work since Homer really needs help.  On the other hand, the editor is there to make suggestions.
But keep that word in mind, suggestions.  You can’t just uncritically accept everything the editor says, especially when we’re talking about the story rather than simple grammar.  You’ll need to think about the changes suggested, bearing in mind that the editor is there to help, but equally bearing in mind that they are not infallible either.
That, by the way, is another reason why close friends make poor editors in many cases, because you might be reluctant to refuse to make changes for fear of hurting their feelings.
That’s a lousy reason to give in.
Often, in this case you may be sending rewrites back to the editor (if you paid for one, that contract did spell out how many times you can do this, and for how much, right?), and the editor will be sending (or talking to you about), how those rewrites are changing the book, for good or ill.
Remember in this case you are both professionals, or aspiring professionals, and critique is a part of life, with even the best, most profitable authors sending books to their editors, or colleagues.  The editor may have to be blunt (but not cruel) and you have to keep in mind that nobody is helped by dancing around the fact that Chapter 3 just does not work. He’s not being cruel, he’s not trying to destroy your work– he is trying to make it better.
And that’s the core of the editing experience. Remember that at the end of the day, you are in control as to whether you take advice– but that advice, however painful, may be the route to a better book.


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