The Writer-Editor Relationship, Part 2: Five Things Writers Wish Editors Knew—and Followed

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In my previous article, “The Writer-Editor Relationship, Part 1: Editors Preparing Writers,” I focused on clarifying expectations between editors and writers from the editor’s point of view. Part 2, this article, focuses on this same relationship from the writer’s point of view.

Clarity of expectation, honesty, and mutual respect are key features in a productive and successful writer-editor relationship. Writers expect editors to inform them if their expectations are out of line, and writers rely on editors’ honesty and transparency to let them know if they are comfortable with the task being asked of them. This, of course, is predicated on the editor’s full understanding of what that task is; again, it is the responsibility of the editor to determine the scope of work from the author—just as a doctor will ask key questions to diagnose a patient. If an editor has reservations, caveats, or limitations with the project, these should be shared upfront. Honesty is always best, and it should start right from the beginning so that mutual respect is cemented.

Below is a list of five things that writers wish editors knew—and followed.

1. Edit to preserve the writer’s voice through open and respectful dialogue

Losing your voice to the “hackings of an editor” is perhaps a beginner writer’s greatest fear. This makes sense, given that a novice writer’s voice is still in its infancy; it is tentative, evolving, and striving for an identity. While a professional editor is not likely to “hack,” the fear may remain well-founded.

A novice’s voice is often tangled and enmeshed in a chaos of poor narrative style, grammatical errors, and a general misunderstanding of the English language. Editors trying to improve a novice writer’s narrative flow without interfering with voice are faced with a challenge. Teasing out the nuances of creative intent amid the turbulent flow of awkward and obscure expression requires finesse—and consideration. Good editors recognize that every writer has a voice, no matter how weak or ill-formed, and that voice is the culmination of a writer’s culture, beliefs, and experiences. Editing to preserve a writer’s voice—particularly when it is weak and not fully formed—needs a “soft touch” that invites more back-and-forth than usual, uses more coaching-style language, and relies on good feedback.

An editor colleague of mine consistently accompanies her edits with the question, “Does this change preserve your meaning?” This prompt both focuses on “voice” and reminds the writer that the editor is considering it, which fosters a nurturing environment of mutual respect. Editors who are not familiar with working with writers in the early stage of their careers may wish to defer to one who is more experienced.

Editors also need to consider how the author’s narrative voice harmonizes with the standard in the author’s targeted genre and niche market. Pursuing respectful and open dialogue about how the author’s voice fits or doesn’t fit that standard is another responsibility of a good editor and one an author will come to rely on—particularly early on in their career.

2. Understand—and embrace—the market and genre of your writer

Writers are often told to write what they know. This edict applies equally to editors: edit what you “know” and understand. Each form of writing—from literary and genre fiction to journalism, the memoir, and technical writing—encompasses an overall style, culture and vision, associated language, and even “jargon” that is important to understand to succeed with readers. Even writers who subvert the trope need to first understand what they are subverting, and so does the editor.

I write and edit science fiction and fantasy. I do it very well, because I have a passion for it and I intimately understand its world and language, including where the boundaries lie and where the risks—and sublime nuances of originality—also lie. I worked as a scientist for over 20 years and have published papers in peer-reviewed journals, so I am comfortable editing technical and scientific papers. I live that world. On the other hand, I do not read, nor do I understand or care for, the horror fiction genre. Not only would I do a lousy job editing a work of horror, but I wouldn’t provide the discerning editorial advice to best place that work in the horror market. It is in the area of market niche that one editor will shine over another based on their familiarity with, and current activity in, that industry sector. This is ultimately what writers are paying for: the multi-layered understanding of the editor that comes with a full embrace of that world.

Editors should ensure a good fit and the best chance for success by not taking on work in a genre with which they are neither familiar nor comfortable. Think of the author. Which leads me to the next point:

3. Be honest and practice moral integrity: Don’t take on a writer’s work unless you like and believe in it

When I was starting out as a writer with my first novel, I shopped it around to many agents, hoping for representation. While the book was eventually published with great success, many agents had rejected it. Literary agents take on clients and shop their books to publishing houses. They usually charge a percentage of the take and are not paid (if they are good agents) until the book is sold to a publishing house. Payment, therefore, is predicated on success. In many cases, an agent would respond with good things to say about my first manuscript but would not take it on, citing this common phrase: “It just didn’t excite me enough.” I was initially puzzled by this response. If they liked it, why didn’t they take it on? But “I like” isn’t the same as “I’m excited.” I soon realized the importance that excitement played in the agent’s business. They were my advocate, after all. If they weren’t eager about the book, how could they sell it to someone else? And if they couldn’t sell it to someone else, how could they get paid?

While the editor is usually paid up front and/or upon deliverable, they fulfill a similar role: that of advocate. If an editor takes on a writer’s work without enjoying it or believing in it, they are much less likely to do a good job. And both lose when that happens.

When we just do a job for the money and not for the passion of doing something well, we run the risk of losing on all fronts. We run the risk of being dishonest in our assessments and then doing a shabby job. And then losing our reputation. Be an advocate and be honest; sometimes, that means saying “no” to a project and explaining why. The writer will benefit and will thank you for it—if not right away, then eventually.

4. Edit professionally and appropriately to promised deliverable

In my capacity as writing coach, I have met with several writers who have complained that their work had been insufficiently or inappropriately edited. This can occur for several reasons: (a) lack of time; (b) incompetence; or (c) inappropriate match-up.

  1. Lack of time

As a writer, I once experienced an insufficient copy edit by a freelance professional editor. In fact, this particular editor was a good editor and had impeccably edited a previous work of mine. When I submitted my “edited” work to a beta reader, he pointed out many places that my copy editor had missed. A few is OK, but she’d missed many. From subsequent correspondence, I deduced that my editor had been overrun with other projects and had skimmed mine a little too fast. Unfortunately, this was unacceptable, given that I’d agreed to pay her a professional rate for a specific deliverable: a copy-edited, proofed, and publication-ready manuscript.

The ultimate message here for editors is, don’t take on a writer’s work and make promises of delivering until you know what you’re getting into and know that you can do it in the time you suggested. Honesty is best here. If you are too busy to meet the specified deadline, say so and refer the writer to another respected editor if they can’t wait. And don’t worry about “losing” the client—you haven’t. But that editor I mentioned in the previous paragraph did.

  1. Incompetence

Unfortunately, most editors who are incompetent are unaware of it. One of my professional writer-editor colleagues at SF Canada invoked the Dunning-Kruger Effect (“at a certain point, people who really don’t know something don’t know that they don’t know it”) to share her story of what passes for editorial input in “an age of homonym errors.” She suggested that some self-appointed editors are convinced they have significant skills but allow a large error rate.

This is where organizations like Editors Canada become invaluable. Editors Canada certifies editors for skills in various editing fields and forms (that is, structural-, stylistic-, and copy editing and proofreading). If you are a professional editor with certification, ensure that you make this known to the writer; many writers not only don’t understand the various editing forms (for example, copy editing vs. structural editing), they also don’t necessarily recognize competence until after the job is done—when it’s too late.

  1. Inappropriate match-up

This is similar to point 2, which talks about matching writer and editor through genre and market. A good fit also includes temperament, schedules, communication style, and other considerations that will affect the editor-writer relationship and the natural progress of the project. As editor, I have encountered a few clients whose communications with me created tension and misunderstanding. We mutually agreed to terminate our arrangement early on, which saved much tension and grief. The transparency of the relationship allowed us to recognize the mismatch early on and attend to it before it became problematic and wasted both our time and efforts.

5. Keep the relationship—and language—professional and respectful

Without necessarily expressing this, the majority of writers—particularly beginning writers and, by default, indie/self-published writers—seek a professional editor who will treat them with respect. What this translates into is the use of professional language, tone, and behaviour. Writers aren’t looking for an editor to be their “friend.” Writers are also not looking for a professional editor to validate their work or them as people. Writers seek professional editors to give them honest and helpful advice that will help them create the very best work they can for eventual publication.

Simple. Not so simple.

As an editor who is also a writer (who gets edited a lot), I provide rationale as much as I can for the suggestions I make to writers. This helps establish and maintain a respectful and collaborative relationship between author and editor through the use of professional language, tone, and behaviour. Think of it as a doctor-patient relationship; I’ve dropped doctors like hot potatoes who are not willing to sit with me as an equal and discuss their prognoses. I want to know why, and ultimately, it’s my decision. The editor is an expert, but so is the writer.

The writer-editor relationship is foremost a professional one. As an editor, I feel it is my duty to promote integrity and respect with the writer, and this hopefully within a safe and nurturing environment for the achievement of mutual excellence.

This article was copy edited by Nicole North.

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