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Working with an Editor

An editor new to the business wondered in an online forum what other editors do when their editorial comments and revision suggestions are rejected by the author. The query provoked an interesting discussion, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting for writers to be privy to something editors talk about when you’re not around.

The In-House Editor & House Style

Whether or not the writer incorporates suggested revisions seemed to be a big concern for the in-house editors in the forum. These are editors employed by publishing companies, magazine, and journals as staff or freelancers.The job of those editors is to communicate house style and ensure the work meets house standards.

Although you can always question seek clarifications from an in-house editor, there may be limits. When an author is uncooperative, the in-house editor may have no recourse other than to give up and turn the manuscript back to the acquisition editor with a list of recommendations.

You usually can’t fight house style and direction, and as a writer, you should know that when you turn the revision process into a fight with an in-house editor, the magazine or publishing company you thought would be publishing your work may not publish it after all.

The Independent Editor & the Self-Publishing Author

The relationship between an independent freelance editor and a self-publishing author is different. Editors in the forum told about writers (no names were used!) who rejected their suggestions and produced books riddled with errors or who rushed to self-publish books that were clearly not ready. Every editor, it seemed, had stories like that. It became clear that the original poster and some others worried about how their client’s work would affect their reputations as editors.

But as the forum discussion progressed, there seemed to be some consensus that the reading public understands the author is responsible for the book’s contents, not the editor. Experienced editors know that once they’ve given the writer thoughtful advice—and backed it up with standard guides like the Chicago Manual of Style along with conversations with the writer about how their choices affect the reader—that what to do with editorial remarks is the author’s decision.

One experienced editor in the forum wrote that “editing is a diplomatic awareness-raising exercise, not a battle of wills.” I tend to agree. I enjoy working with a writer who will push back on my suggestions. It keeps me on my toes when I have to explain myself, and my experience has shown me that a conversation between editor and author can help the writer clarify her vision and generate new ideas.

Whose Book Is It, Anyway?

The consensus was that the independent editor’s job is to offer suggestions and other information that enables the self-publishing writer to make good choices more confidently. The goal of the editor should be to help writers achieve their vision for the work. A good editor does not give orders or impose her own style or vision on the author’s work. Editing is two-way conversation, not a sermon from the mount.

Yes, you might work with a dictatorial editor. Maybe you’ll work with an incompetent editor or one with a God complex, but they are not as common as the movies and New Yorker cartoons would have you believe.

Editors want to help, not hinder, the writer.

So back to the original question the forum member posed. What do editors do when their editorial comments and revision suggestions are rejected by the author? The fact is, we cannot do anything but cringe when our names appear in the book’s acknowledgements and the reviews comment negatively on the editing or problems we know could have been avoided had the author adopted our suggestions and taken more time to revise. But it’s the author’s name on the front of the book, not the editor’s. And that’s as it should be.

Editors have no control over the self-published author’s output, nor should we. Some of the saddest words in the world are, “My editor made me do it.” The author is the decider and should remain in control of the work.

We editors can offer the best of our experience and knowledge to our clients. We can explain the reasoning behind our revisions and suggestions and discuss alternatives.

Editors can only hope writers will truly listen and carefully consider their  advice before they decide to act on it or reject it. We hope our suggestions will not be dismissed out of hand, and we hope that writers will give their work all the time and effort it deserves. But we cannot do anything to make sure that happens.

So what do editors do when their editorial comments and revision suggestions are rejected by the author? We release our angst with the words: “Not my book.”

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Follow Mary Ann de Stefano:

writer, editor, website designer

Mary Ann is the editor of The Florida Writer (the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association) and MAD’s Monday Muse. She is also a writer, editor, and organizer of writing workshops with 30+ years' experience in publishing and writing consulting. Besides working one-to-one with writers who are developing books, she designs author websites. Website

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9 Responses

  1. Richard Jeppesen
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    My problem is: Editors seem to use a software program to edit these days. The program takes an edgy sentence and reduces it to pablum. I see it more and more in books I read, particularly Indie books. Edited to a generic level and the personalty of the writer is lost. It is easy for the editor to just hand over a computer generated edit but… are the old days gone? I received an edit, paid 3500 dollars for it, and as I talked to the editor, it was more than obvious, she had never read the manuscript. She just turned it over to her soft ware program.

    • Gina Hogan Edwards
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      Every time I hear an author describe this type of experience, I cringe. There is little to be done when an author learns, after the fact, that a software program edited their work rather than a responsible human being…other than paying for another edit, which is usually not an option in the author’s budget. I can see justification for one pass through the software AFTER the full, professional touch and eye–we are human, after all, and do miss things. But to use this as the primary editing method is appalling. In addition to being a huge disservice to authors, this practice brings down the credibility, reputations, and esteem of good editors. It hurts the industry all around. Critical questions for authors to ask their prospective editor: Do you read the manuscript fully? Do you use editing software? And if you do, how do you use it and at what stage in your editing process? I am so sorry you had that experience, Richard.

  2. Krys Fenner
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    I think it depends on the editor. I would expect for what you paid to have had a good editor. I went looking for an editor and spoke with a couple referred to me by people I know. The person I went with edited both of my first two books and I paid about what you stated per book. I know she read it though because she asked me questions throughout her editing process. She is more of a phone person than an email person. And I think this is where the digital age hurts us.

  3. Mary Ann de Stefano
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    Reputable editors—and there are many—do not just run your writing through a software program, and I wouldn’t assume that all the books you’re reading have been edited by a pro. Since anyone can call themselves an editor, you do have to be careful.

    Before you hire, ask around, interview, ask for a sample (for copyediting), look for experience and education (including continuing education).Know something about what level of editing you’re looking for, what the going rates are, professional editing organizations, and what your expectations are and should be.

  4. Margaret Sefton
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    I appreciated this, so much, Mary Ann. There is this balance to maintain when giving feedback to someone and to remember that the writer has ultimate control when they are independently seeking help. I am glad to know I’m not the only one who struggles when someone doesn’t take editorial advice but it’s good to be reminded too that one has to let go and let it be.

  5. Gina Hogan Edwards
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    This behind-the-scenes look at editing is valuable for authors to hear. Just as you state in your comment above, anyone can call themselves an editor, so authors have to heed “buyer beware,” just as for any other investment. Thank you for writing and sharing this, Mary Ann. Sharing on social media now. Thank you, thank you.

  6. Ken Pelham
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    Editors’ personalities are as varied as those of any other segment of society, but a professional has skills and experiences you can usually rely on. Thanks for these insights, Mary Ann. Most useful!

  7. N Vaughan
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    What recourse do I have when a highly recommended editor, who offered classes at a recent major conference, and who received the first half of the total payment for a line edit, has not provided anything months later? The reason given by this editor is that her personal life took an unexpected turn. Three months after the edit was supposed to be completed (and after gentle reminders), I finally insisted that she send either the edited manuscript or refund the money. She insisted she would have the work to me by last week. Nothing. Suggestions?

  8. Sidney
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    Assume you have a paper trail? A contract or letter of agreement? This seems like a legal question. I’d contact a lawyer.