The Author-Editor Relationship
Authors and Editors go together like nails and hammers. That’s not me trying to be coy with the analogy, by the way, like I’m trying to find a new way to say “they go together like peanut butter and jelly” or some shit. See, there’s a difference in those two statements. PB&J are complimentary, they make each other better when combined. Nails and hammers, however, require each other. A nail is pretty damn useless without something to bash it in, and outside of casual blunt-force murder, a hammer doesn’t have much purpose without nails to hit. That is the relationship Authors and Editors have, they require one another, depend on each other, and need the other to fulfill their occupational purpose. No writing to edit would make editing hard to do, and readers would be pretty pissed to get handed a book without editing.
Yet in spite of the dependent relationship Authors and Editors have, I sometimes see a fair bit of rhetoric on both sides of the fence about the struggle in working together. And yes, there are bad Authors and bad Editors who make things harder, but I don’t want any of you to think that’s the norm. So today I wanted to talk about the Author-Editor relationship and what it should be.
Authors and Editors are Not Adversaries
Look writers, I get it. Your words are precious, your ideas are important, and when someone points out ways in which you fell short, or just could have done better, sometimes it hurts. Writing is putting a bit of yourself out there, and getting criticism, even criticism you’re paying for, can be tough. I’ve seen a lot of posts, tweets, and generic grumblings from people who feel like they’re in a tug of war with their editor, fighting for every word and slogging through each page with critique after critique. In those moments, I’m sure it’s easy to feel like you’re doing battle with someone, trying to preserve your vision while the editor attempts to tear it down. But when you step back, that’s not really the case.
Your editor should (and I’ll touch on what happens if they aren’t later) be trying to help make the best product it can be. And yes, they are going to have different ideas of what constitutes that. The important thing is to remember that at the end of the day, you both want the same thing. My longest running discussion with an editor (and notice I didn’t use argument, because it wasn’t one) was during Fred #1. We wanted a certain passage to make sure it owned and addressed the fact that Bubba was gay, without making it the only aspect to his character. It took a while as we went back and forth, but at no point was it a battle. It was two people with the same goal, exchanging ideas on what the best way to accomplish it was, and the passage was better for it.
It’s really important to remember during the editing process that you are not fighting each other, both because that leads to lesser books and probably makes you come off like an asshole. Ideally, you are two people with different perspectives and specialties trying to make something better than either of you could manage alone. But, that is the ideal, and obviously not everyone will reach it, which is why it is important to know…
Identifying Good Editors Takes Time
Upfront I’m going to say that I am 1000% sure there’s a difference between good and bad writers from the editor perspective. But, aside from a writer being generally shitty, I can’t say I know enough about the editor side of the table to speak knowledgably on what makes us writers hard to work with. So, yeah, this goes both ways, but I only have the experience to speak on this one.
Anyway, I said above that an author and editor should be partners in a project, both working and listening to make it better. However, as much as authors can be defensive about their projects, there are also editors who try too hard to turn a work into what they think it should be, rather than what the author intended. Aside from the obvious components of the lesser editors being bad at grammar and spotting typos, it’s also important to find an editor that is good for you and your work on the more nebulous levels. You need to be able to identify when these relationships aren’t working, because it might be time to move on and find an editor you’re a better fit with.
A good editor (and if you want a recommendation look in the title page of any of my books, or see who among the REUTS staff freelances) learns an author’s style as they work together and tries to make sure the book stays consistent. It’s not an immediate process, and there will be missteps on both sides when first building a working relationship, but at the end of the day the overall goal of a good editor is to help make the book they were handed as great as possible while still staying true to the vision.
This is hard to discuss in the abstract without sounding like I’m getting all philosophical, so some practical examples are things like calling out the author on sudden tone changes that don’t fit the narrative or the scene, pointing out that a certain character is acting in ways incongruent with who they’ve been established as, or of course the continuity errors. Those are all vital aspects of editor feedback, and come from the editor knowing what the writer set out to say and making sure they’re seeing it properly through.
The bad version, and I’ve mercifully had few of these, are people who try to boil away certain aspects of style or personal tone that the writer purposely infused in the work. Again, practical is easier to talk about: I’ve done sample work with editors who tried to pulled the cursing out of SP, even after being told that it was important to keeping the language honest, and kept insisting on taking out modern phrasing from NPCs despite it being in line with the world as established. Now those suggestions in themselves aren’t inherently bad, but the refusal to accept that it was an important part of the story because it made them less marketable or didn’t fit with “the norm” did make it an issue. Acknowledging that stuff is super important, however once the point is made things have to be able to move on. Otherwise, a writer will begin to feel that adversarial component and the editor will likely feel as if they’re bashing their head against a wall. Which is bad all around, because…
Finding the Right Match is Trial and Error (and Nobody’s Fault)
If any of you took me up on the opportunity to go read my title pages like I suggested above, you’ll notice that I pretty much use the same editors all the time, and that’s not laziness. Those are the editors that I’ve formed relationships with, who know my work sometimes better than I do, and who understand the stylistic choices I make. And damn, I really cannot overstate how important that is. Their suggestions, proofing, and comments have made my books a whole lot better than they could have ever been if it were just me doing the work.
Now, aside from taking a moment to tell my editors how much they mean to me, this is a section about the importance of finding editors who are a good match for you. Some writers want their works to be technically flawless, while others prefer to intentionally break the rules when it suits them. Above, I outlined the difference between bad and good editors, but here’s a part I left out: sometimes it’s not a matter of being bad or good, it’s simply a matter of being poorly matched. Remember, writers and editors are partners, and not every partnership is a good one. Heck, that’s why we have divorce.
If you’re having trouble with an editor, feeling like they’re an opponent instead of a partner, take a step back and see if this is really a good match. Do you prefer a little bit of free-wheeling while they are firm on adhering to every rule? Do you like your characters to use perfect English but the editor feels a bit of slang and broken bits will make them more human? Most importantly, are these points sticking so hard that it’s stopping the work from moving forward? Then perhaps you should find someone who you see more eye-to-eye with on your next project. Start small if you need to; hire people for sections or short stories to see how well you get along. If you feel the beginning of a true partnership, go from there.
For anyone who wants an editor but doesn’t trust looking up people randomly online, I can refer both of my go-to freelance editors: Erin Cooley and Kisa Whipkey. I can’t promise they’ll be the right match for you, only that they do quality work and have always done right by me. Beyond that, you’ll have to strike out on your own.
Just remember, editors are people too, and taking the time to get to know one, even by reputation, can be a great indicator of if the two of you will work well together.