So You Think about Seeking an Editor?

The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.
—Gloria Steinem

So you are thinking about working with an editor? However, you are not sure if this is a worthwhile investment of your time and money.

Or: You fear they will hijack your manuscript, demand the book they want to read, don't understand what you are trying to do, destroy your morale, pick on your style… Make it all worse?

This post looks at the Author-Editor relationship, what it means to engage with an editor and what they can do for you.

The Author-Editor relationship

Having an editor for your work is like seeing a psychotherapist who actually tells you what they think and what you can do about your issues. It is a quite intimate professional relationship – the Editor is not necessarily your friend, nor is she out to win a popularity contest. This does not mean that authors and editors can't be friends! It means that there is a professional relationship at work, focused on making the author's writing the best it can be.

This, of course, is dependent on the health of the Author-Editor relationship. As with a therapist, you may not know what's wrong with your manuscript when you seek editorial advice. You may just sense that it is time to bring your work to the next level; that you could use a kindred spirit to communicate with, to exchange ideas, talk through impasses or get the professional opinion of someone who is new to your work. An editor, like a doctor, can offer diagnostic services for your writing as well as specific suggestions on what is working, what is missing, what you can improve and how to go about that.

An editor can point out the little nuggets of gold in your manuscript – even if you feel everything is horribly wrong. The editor will help you to polish the not so brilliant stuff. Working with them will get you professional feedback which is invaluable, as writing is often practised as a solitary craft. An editor will be equipped to justify their decisions and suggestions. They are able to tell you how to refine your work. An editor will not leave you alone with your manuscript to figure it out for yourself! They will be by your side and know when to motivate, encourage, help and hold your hand. And finally a good editor will pick their battles with you wisely. ;)

What a good editor can do for you.

An editor will read your written work thoroughly. They take notes and try to understand what it is you attempt to communicate. After a close reading of your piece, she will then think about it and provide suggestions for improvement. An editor makes you aware of what it is you are actually saying, especially if you are a non-native of the language you work in.

They present you with honest feedback – as opposed to potentially biased feedback from Mum, friends or your significant other. The editorial process is supposed to be based on a collaborative relationship. Therefore, the editor wants to work with you to improve the specific piece you are writing. During this process, they will help you to develop your craft because the editing process shows you how to see your work from the perspective of a reader. An editor will have potential readers and your audience in mind, thus improving your text for those who have to deal with it later on. The editor will be articulate about suggested changes and she is able to explain and justify these decisions.

The editor will help you to find out and clearly communicate what it is you are trying to do or say. The editorial process supports the author in shaping their story and reshaping their manuscript to reflect their intentions. The editor can be a forensic story-telling engineer, finding the leaks and cracks before your writing solicits a response in the market place.

An editor will make you aware of certain, perhaps unconscious, choices in your writing – and their consequences. In the end, an editor will also admit when a writing decision is a matter of taste or, in fact, evidence for a lack of craftsmanship or care.

What a good editor will not do.

A good editor will appreciate your writing. They will not try to make your book their book or obliterate your style. They will not impose their style upon your work.

An editor will also not rewrite your piece for you; the editorial process is co-operative in its nature. You cannot dump a half-baked manuscript on an editor in order to let them deal with it, expecting a pristine typescript at the end of the transaction. The editing process is very much a two-way communication and depends on your co-operation.

If you have an idea for a story and are a number of pages into the manuscript, but realise writing is not for you – you'll need a ghostwriter or writing coach, not an editor!

A responsible editor will not promise you that their services will guarantee you a manuscript sale, a publishing contract or huge advance from a publisher. It is true that an edited manuscript, which shows off the best it can be, has a competitive advantage over the unedited works streaming towards agents and publishers these days. However, the quality of work is not the only criterion for selling written work. Therefore, a trustworthy editor will not make outrageous promises to (first time) authors about the commercial success of their work. This, of course, does not apply to acquisition editors within a publishing outfit actively seeking to acquire your work.


An editor will bring the perspective of a professional collaborator to your work. The successful relationship between Author and Editor is a co-operative one, build upon the pillars of mutual respect, trust and a common goal: producing the best possible work. A good editor will

  • be an honest and professional advisor;
  • try to understand what you want to communicate;
  • give you a reader's perspective on your work;
  • provide instructive feedback about necessary improvements – from typos to structure;
  • engage you to the point where you are able to come up with your own solutions to problems;
  • make you aware of your writing choices and their consequences;
  • ultimately respect your final decisions.

    Details & meta

    Sun, 20/03/2011 - 10:49