Sunday 28 June 2015

The basis of the author/editor relationship

Because I see this kind of thing too often - an editor "improving" a text without any understanding of what the hell they're editing - maybe a few words on the editor/author relationship.

I feel I can say something about that because I've been editing for almost as long as I've been writing, and I work as a corporate editor who gets paid for making financial publications look less stupid. Just last week I edited an image brochure that had some serious howlers in there - so, yeah, I get paid a lot of money for making words pretty and improve sentences, and all of that at speed.

Your German analyst can only use one sentence structure and he does that 500 times until your eyes bleed? I fix that shit.

In the bank, it's understood that I write better English than the analyst I'm editing. It's also understood that senior analysts can get away with breaking house style and I tend to explain the rationale behind an edit if the analyst pushes back. But generally, analysts are grateful that I fix their text, since many know they make mistakes or write some awkward stuff as they are under pressure and sometimes work on planes or in hotels or in between a million meetings.

It's all good. It's a positive, constructive relationship, and I prefer editing analysts to editing average fiction writers - there's generally less ego and emotion involved. (I have yet to be called a "Fascist" or told "to die in a fire" by an analyst, whereas that kind of behaviour is pretty common from fiction authors.)

So, the basics of the author/editor relationship, as somebody who's been in both positions:

Author: Ideally, the author looks at edits with an open mind and learns from them. If the editor says a million times "show, don't tell", there might be something to that. Ideally, the author will buy a book on that aspect of the craft and LEARN it - so the author grows as a writer and the future editor won't have to work quite as hard.

This kind of professional development is how I've learned and grown as an author over the last 10+ years. I had great editors taking me in hand and teaching me what I needed to learn.

It's hard work, but by now I'm a strong enough writer than I could self-publish without an editor if I wanted and the end result is readable and may even have less typos than books published by so-called "publishers". (For the record, I still hire an editor or get beta readers involved.)

The author agrees to look at edits with an open mind and LEARN from them. It's better for everybody. Over time, you shape a raw talent into a good, possibly great writer. If that happens, praise be to their editors, because they steered that development and supported that growth (if it's a functioning relationship). I've helped authors improve massively and it's gratifying as hell to see all that hard work pay off.

Conversely, the editor:

The editor agrees to learn their craft as well and only edit inside genres that they understand. (Say, a genre editor without understanding/knowledge of the European literary tradition has literally no place editing that; as a financial editor, I need to understand what the hell the analyst is taking about - I can't edit out words like "human capital" because they offend my sensibilities - it's demeaning for staff/workforce, but that's the convention of the "genre").

An editor working in GLBTQ fiction needs to be aware of GLBTQ issues. An editor who even attempts to edit literary fiction (or work with an author who uses some literary techniques) needs to understand these. Being at least conversant with concepts and applications of rhetorical devices makes sense if the author uses them (and even if s/he doesn't because your next client might).

Also, being aware of and able to apply concepts like the Monomyth ("Hero's Journey"), three- and five-act structure and management of sub-plots are absolutely vital.

I've encountered editors at well-regarded houses who are unable to detect irony or subtext. (Considering how much irony/subtext I use, that's a deal-breaker for me.)

I've had editors who cannot cope with metaphor - metaphor is the lifeblood and colour and energy of my fiction. Scanning back over this blog entry alone, there's lots of metaphors and I wasn't even trying. I speak and think in metaphor.

Say, rhetorical devices - those things have been around for 2,500+ years. They were good enough for Julius Caesar, the Bible and Abraham Lincoln. I've encountered several editors who tried to exterminate them all from my texts - totally ignorant of what they were dealing with.

Subtext and inference - very often, I don't say what's going on outright. That's on purpose. I'm not a bad writer because I don't spell out everything like for a 5-year-old who's still thinking entirely literally.

And I have no business being subjected to edits from "editors" who know less about writing than I do - after 25+ years of getting paid for writing, I know what I do and how I do it, and at the very least I expect an editor to a) understand that and b) respect it.

It's the cherry on top if an editor is good enough that they spot and understand what I was trying to do and then show me a better way to get the same effect - that's where the "needs to know more about writing than I do" kicks in.

Basically, those are absolute basics - I only go to a dentist who's qualified or to a restaurant that can actually serve food that won't make me ill. Similarly, I only let my texts be touched by somebody who knows their shit - my name's on the cover. My reputation as an artist is about as important to me as my teeth. I don't let amateurs fuck with that.

I understand that makes me "snobbish" in some eyes and definitely a "demanding customer" in others, but let's be honest, if I give about 70-60% of my money to a publisher, the very least they can do is source an editor who can edit - because the people who edit for typos and wonky grammar are not called editors, but proofreaders.

And if you think all of this is an exaggeration - there are multiple publishers out there that employ editors who think that "His eyes followed her across the room" means they are *literally* leaving their sockets and rolling across the carpet. I won't  say that's a brilliant sentence (it's not), but it's permissible - it's a rhetorical device and has been used longer than any of those publishers have been in business.

So, the bottom line is this - you've never finished learning in publishing/writing. That's true for authors ("We've all devoted out lives to a craft where nobody ever becomes a master" - Hemingway), but doubly so for editors.

Editors' responsibility is huge - they have to train/teach writers, but they also have to educate themselves - and as authors increasingly take control of their book and its final shape, gods know there's thousands of editors out there and being a decent proofreader is simply not enough if you're working with an author who knows what the hell they're doing.

First rule of Editing Club: First, do no harm.

Second rule: If you can't, get out of my fucking way.


  1. Well said! And on topic, I am very thankful for my editor, she encompasses all the fine points you raised, and I know exactly how lucky I am that I have her.

  2. Great points, Aleks, on both sides. I've been a professional editor for over twenty-six years, and every writer is unique and needs something different from me. I've also edited both nonfiction and fiction, and every piece needs something different from me as well. There are times when I turn people down because I don't know enough about the subject at hand or the conventions of a certain genre to do a great job. And you're so very right about the difference between editing and proofreading. Not all writers understand the difference, or the differing amount of work and education involved in the two jobs. Unfortunately, a number of "editors" out there don't seem to know the difference either.

  3. Finding a good editor can be a real challenge, because these days a lot of people put out their shingle claiming to be editors. I've had one who tried to change my whole style, destroying the narrative and linguistic flow of the story in the process (one of her edits would have resulted in every sentence in a whole paragraph starting with the same two words).
    Also fun are the ones trying to correct historical details without knowing what they are talking about or bothering to do five minutes of research. It's even worse when it comes to Fantasy or LGBTQ-stuff. As a self-publisher I now look specifically at other books the editor has worked on and ask a lot of questions before working with them. I also insist on a sample-edit.

    On the other had I've also had marevlous editors (and beta-readers) from whom I learned a lot. And I'm forever grateful to them.

  4. Thanks for this useful post (as ever). I do not have your great experience but you confirmed my fears.
    I know when I write I can get my past & present tenses mixed up, and I'm hopeless at proof reading for typos. So I definitely need a good proofreader!

    In my own writing I use a big pile of metaphors & irony and I fear that some editors may well NOT make my fiction better.
    It seems finding a really good editor could be a challenge. There are lots of "editors" out there who would like to part me from my money!

    I also have experience of working both with proofreaders and editors in non-fiction but that is a whole different world.