Last weekend I presented at SCWBI’s Level Up conference on the collaborative process of editing a manuscript, and how the author–editor relationship should ideally work. I thought it might be useful to share an abbreviated version of the section on how to get the most out of the experience, because if you’ve never worked with an editor before it can feel like a daunting process. Every writer is deeply attached to their work, so turning a manuscript over to an editor can feel like having your soul laid bare, and critiqued.
It’s important to remember that editors are ordinary people who love books. An editor’s job is to make the writer look good. They have nothing to personally gain, other than the satisfaction of knowing that they helped you make your book better.
In order for the editorial process to run smoothly, it’s important to develop a good working relationship with your editor that is based on mutual trust and respect. So here are my top tips for how to create a strong partnership.
- Let go of your ego
The truth is nobody really enjoys being critiqued. We all secretly want to be told that we’re a genius and the work needs absolutely nothing done to it. But even the most experienced writers benefit from a close edit. A good editor will provide honest, constructive feedback designed to improve your book. Anyone who believes they don’t need an editor is letting their ego get in the way of commonsense.
If you are a first-time author, you may be unsettled by the number of changes your editor makes on the manuscript. But remember that this is normal. It doesn’t mean that the editor doesn’t love your book. Try to remember that that the feedback is not personal criticism but professional insight into what could make your manuscript stronger. The editor’s goal is the same as yours: to make your book a success.
So don’t be defensive, instead…
- Be open
Be open to new ideas. Be open to different approaches. Be open to major rewrites. Be willing to listen and learn. The best editors see potential. They see what the writer’s vision is and they help sharpen it and enlarge it — they help the book reach its full potential.
Listen honestly to what your editor has to say. Their suggestions may require you to do some really hard work that you might resist. But be brave. Embrace change. Experiment with structural revisions. In short, be willing to move in a completely different direction from where you started.
- Take time out
But first thing’s first. When you receive your editor’s comments and you’ve read them through and realised that you’re going to have to grapple with some major changes, you might need to take some time out. You might need to sulk. Or cry. Or drink wine. Or eat an entire block of chocolate. Or do all of those things. And that’s okay.
Give yourself time to gain some perspective because your initial reaction is likely to be driven by emotion, but then get on with it. Consider every point carefully, without letting emotion play a part, and objectively assess the substance of the critique.
- Pick your battles
The editing process is not about winning or losing. The editor is your ally, not your opponent. And if you treat them this way your work will only benefit. That’s not to say that the editor will always be right. Even the best editors sometimes get things wrong.
Anyone who is a parent will know that you pick your battles with your children. You also need to pick your battles as an author (and know, too, that your editor will be picking their battles). If you don’t agree with a suggestion clearly explain your position, and be willing to engage in a discussion about it. Editors are creative problem-solvers and they want to work with you.
Often an editor will identify an area that needs work and might suggest a solution. However their suggestion should be treated as a springboard. You might use their solution, but often the author comes up with something that’s even better. Think about the process as being like a conversation. Exploratory discussions give rise to the best work.
Some newer authors feel intimidated by editors, but don’t be. Always ask questions if there’s anything you don’t understand or aren’t clear about.
- Be professional
Always be professional, polite and timely with your responses. Remember that the editor will be working on multiple books simultaneously, and another author’s book might be their current priority. Editors are extremely overworked, so be understanding if they don’t get back to you immediately.
Ensure that you always meet your deadlines. The editor will stipulate a deadline for every round of revisions. If you don’t meet these deadlines you will put the whole production cycle out. Even though it’s your book, you are only one person in the process. If for some reason you think you’ll be unable to meet a deadline, let your editor know as soon as possible.
- Be patient
Know that publishing is long game, especially with books where an illustrator is involved. My next picture book, Seree’s Story, will have taken about four years by the time it comes out with Walker Books. And that’s only from submission — the research, writing and self-editing process began long before that. Admittedly this is a particularly long timeframe (my previous picture book took 18 months, my short fiction collection took one year), but publishing is a slow process. The smaller independent presses tend to be quicker than the larger publishers, but waiting is a reality of the industry. The best antidote is to get on with writing your next book.
- Say thank you
It is true that not every traditionally published writer has an amazing relationship with their editor, and there are certainly horror stories out there, but these are not the norm. Most published writers value their editors. So if your editor has helped you create a better book, thank them. Editors get very little credit, they are essentially invisible, and they work hard to help you make your book the best that it can be. So express your gratitude — privately or publically, or both. Flowers are not necessary — we are all word people after all, and words are more than enough.
Totally agree with all you’ve said, Irma. I’ve just gone through a brilliant edit of my upcoming historical adventure, Sweet Adversity with Nicola O’Shea at HarperCollins and I learned so much from the experience.
Mostly I agreed with her suggested changes, and sometimes not, and we totally worked well together. The story has been taken to another level of excellence.
That’s so great to hear, Sheryl. It’s so satisfying for everyone when there’s a strong author-editor relationship, and it invariably results in the book reaching that next level of brilliance. Looking forward to reading Sweet Adversity!
Great post Irma. This all makes sense to me – and, while I have no plans to publish a book, what you write here rings true in terms of a lot of situations where you collaborate with people, particularly perhaps with mentors who are there to help you do whatever it is that you do, better. It’s tough, and our egos are pretty fragile. I love your point about allowing time, about having that glass of wine or block or chocolate or whatever you need to vent and then get ready to be rational! I can sense that you have written this from being on both sides of the fence!
You’re so right. It’s very interesting sitting on both sides of the fence. I’ve been fortunate to work with some wonderful editors as an author, and some wonderful authors as an editor. Wouldn’t give either up for anything!