Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Writers working with Editors - or Not

Writers and Editors many times have a love/hate relationship. It can be terribly trying or wonderfully fulfilling.  And it can be both.  However it works, its a relationship few writers avoid.  So, writers – don't shoot the editors - you'll thank them later; I think.

This relationship can be a very tricky one. Writers create their masterpieces – Editors rip them up.



It's true there are some very bad editors out there, but equally true is there are many very good ones.  It behooves the writer to assume the editor he/she is working with is one of the good ones unless/until proven differently.  And, even then, it might not be that the editor is necessarily bad, but that it simply isn't a good match between that editor and that writer. If that is the case, a request to change editors is a very good idea.
That said, you're working with an editor.  I dig deep into my treasure trove of experience for this example of an editor/writer clash: A writer, published with a major publishing house more than once, has an offer on another manuscript. Problem is, the manuscript is over length by about one third – by the editor's estimate. But wait, that isn't the worst of it. The offer to publish the manuscript  was based on the writer agreeing to cut the book by one third AND eliminate a minor character the editor deemed superfluous.

The writer reading this scenario no doubt will gasp at the mere thought of slashing work by a third. But wait, when it comes to cutting, condensing and compacting, pretty much anything is possible. Take a deep breath.  Here's the formula for coping.
First the writer is entitled to scream and throw something across the room. Then maybe utter a few curse words, kick the desk leg and finally get down to work. With focus and ruthlessness a lot of words can be eliminated. In fact, if the writer will just step back she/he may well even come to agree with the editor that the cutting does a lot of good. Condensing can make the manuscript tighter, snappier, more taut with suspense. All of those good things. So the wise writer, when faced with the dreaded chopping block will check the impulse to harass the editor, cultivate a yes-I-can attitude and get to work.

So, the moral so far?

Publishing is not only an art, but a business. Cooperation will get the writer (hopefully YOU) much further than a stubborn, or cavalier, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. A good editor will not only make requests or demands, but will frequently be of assistance. Writers need to open up and discuss changes and cuts when unsure as to where the editor intends to lead.


That doesn’t mean the editor has all day to dally with every one of his or her stable of writers, but reasonable questions will be addressed. And if a bad response is the result, give it a day or two and try again. After all, editors are as human as writers are. Perhaps the editor in question was having a bad day. If nothing improves a request for a new editor isn't out of line and failing that a new publisher could be a good idea next go-round.

On to the other request/demand in the scenario: the removal of a character. Okay, permission granted to writer to scream again. Plainly that character was not being viewed from the same perspective.

The character the editor saw as unnecessary was perhaps minor, yet pivotal. What if in the writer's eye most of the action did not include him, but turned on him or was triggered by him. Besides, the 'bit character' could well be a lot of the comic relief. Okay, so a cover-to-cover rewrite would remove the editor's unwanted character, but what, then, would be the catalyst for the action; where would the comic relief come from?

Moments like that are cause for thought, a lot of it, once the private screaming has abated.

If the writer is dealing with such an issue and finds she can't frankly discuss it with her editor, there's a problem.  It might be solved by doing the rest of the work, cutting the manuscript as desired, tweaking the minor character, even removing him from a few scenes where his presence had little or no impact, but mostly leave him alone. The combination of the work could have the desired effect. In fact it did since the story is a true one – and the book was published a year later.

So, the moral to that part of the story? Well, editors are people too. That was mentioned earlier. Did the editor just not notice the minor character wasn't removed? Possibly. Perhaps the editor was having a bad day when it was strongly suggested the writer kill off a character or be killed instead (publishing wise for that one book).
Or, and this is more likely, perhaps once the real work was done, once the manuscript was greatly shortened, the impact of this minor character was more readily apparent and the need to keep him in the book more obvious.

The overall moral for the writer is, throw your fit, preferably not at the editor, in fact, definitely not at the editor. Then think, consider, be true to yourself, and cooperate to the greatest extent possible.

On that path lay the greatest possibilities and the most reward.


  1. Oh my gosh, I totally have a love/hate relationship with my editors but we work together so well. I love them to death because they force me to be a better writer and hate them because the points the bring out are ones I cannot argue. My editors always discuss certain topics that are brought up so that I can learn what they are seeing from not just an editorial point of view but as a general audience who is reading your work. It really helps to remember we are working together and they are not out to get you.

  2. You summed it up, that's for sure. I once had to slash an entire sub-plot ,,, but the end result was better in the end. :)

  3. Thanks for your comments. Indeed, I think most every writer goes through it at one time or another and if the editor is worth his/her salt, the end result will be improvement.


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