Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 4, 2013

Your Editor is Your Friend (Really)

by Erin Brown

You’ve slaved for months, years—perhaps decades--to finish your manuscript. You’ve tackled all-nighters, tear-your-hair-out rewrites, grueling self-imposed deadlines. You’ve grappled with creative juices that either flowed until you were drunk with brilliant narrative or dried up to leave you parched, devoid of inspiration, sobbing onto your keyboard.

You get my drift. You’ve poured your heart and soul into this baby of yours. You’ve reached the point when you want to start submitting to agents or self-publish.

Of course I might be biased, but based on fifteen years in the business, your manuscript and chances at success will only improve if you have an editor review your manuscript so that it’s grammatically clean and the plot, characters, pacing, description, dialogue, and narrative are up to par.

Remember that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression with an agent or your readers.  The writers that dig in their heels and decide not to hire or listen to their editor usually never make it out of the starting gate.

So what happens when you get it into the hands of an editor—whether it be a freelancer (like moi—the best kind, of course) or an editor at a publishing house (wow, also fabulous and just like me—at least in my past Manhattan life)? You couldn’t be happier! Finally, someone to tell you how wonderful your writing is! To affirm what you’ve known all along: that your novel/memoir/epic saga/brilliant tome will change the literary world as we know it.

large_79693940But what happens when you get back the editor’s notes (insert ominous music here)?

Hey! This isn’t what I signed up for—there’s red all over this damn thing! She’s rewritten half of chapter one! She wants me to completely get rid of the elfin king/swashbuckling sidekick/sickly grandmother/omniscient narrator/the last half of the book!”

This is a travesty and not what you signed up for, right?

Wrong. This is an editor’s job. To make a manuscript the best it can be based on years of experience, knowledge of the industry (hopefully, if you get a good one), and their honed skills of enhancing storytelling and writing.

More often than not, how a writer works with their editor makes all the difference between a good final product and a bad one. This relationship is what separates a smart writer from a—ahem—not-so-smart one.

You must have faith in your editor, in their knowledge, in their experience. If not, what’s the point of having an editor? And yes, you do need one. Everyone needs one, even the most brilliant writers, and the smartest writers embrace what their editors do for their books—which is to make their “baby” that much stronger.

Whether the manuscript comes back to you covered in red (and early in a career, most do, so don’t fret!) or if there are a few simple, but significant suggestions here and there—these edits are made in order to make your book better.

Even if you simply hire a freelance editor to clean up your manuscript in terms of grammar so that you don’t embarrass yourself when you begin the submission process, it’s almost always advisable to get someone (not a family member or friend) to review your work. And usually hiring an editor to give advice on content is even more valuable.

Here are the steps to getting the most out of your editor:

1. Throw your ego out the window.

Once you’ve written ten bestsellers, then you can pooh-pooh your editor’s suggestions (however, if you’ll read some of these bestsellers later in the career of an “Author with a Big Ego,” you’ll find yourself asking, “Sheesh, didn’t this guy have an editor?” Yes! But he didn’t listen to his editor because Mr.-Fancy-Pants-Author-Who-Got-Too-Big-for-His-Britches thought he knew everything. He didn’t.

*Note: please feel free to appreciate my double pantaloons cliché.

An editor exists to strengthen “your baby,” not tell you that you’re fantastic. You have a wife or husband, and eventually a publicist, to do that.

2. Once you’ve picked yourself off the floor after reading the edits and suggestions, dust yourself off, embrace the revision process, and get to work.

Once you begin revising and/or incorporating your edits, you will find that ninety percent of the time, indeed, the changes are strengthening your work.

You’ll experience, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that” moments. The reason you didn’t? Because a fresh set of eyes is essential. You’re too close to the work to see the flaws and what is needed to take it to the next level.

3. Learn from the editor’s changes and suggestions.

Feel free to ask “why” and “how” so that you’ll be able to give your future manuscripts a stronger self-edit. You will learn from the edits, and in the next go-round, there won’t be as many. Keep in mind, however, that even the most prolific writer needs revision work . . . and the smart ones know and welcome it.

4. It’s okay to question your editor’s suggestions if you feel very strongly about something.

You can stick to your guns in certain instances, but pick your battles. Working with a freelancer, it’s your prerogative to ignore every piece of advice they give you (although a waste of money), but in the case of an editor at a publishing house—the one that bought your book—it’s not advisable to lock horns in combat over every change.

Why? For one, your relationship with your champion at the publishing house will sour. Two, if your editor is reputable (choose wisely, my friend), they probably know what they’re talking about and your manuscript will only get better. And three, no one likes a pain-in-the-ass writer who thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips.

The most amazing and successful authors I’ve ever worked with are those who accept revisions and edits (not blindly, but because they recognize the worth of the revisions) and then embrace the revision process.


If you find an editor and follow these steps, I can almost guarantee that your manuscript will be exponentially stronger after a round (or two or three) of revisions. Smart and successful writers embrace their editor and recognize them as both their cheerleader and partner in the process of making a book the absolute best it can be.

A smart author has to check their ego at the door, put faith in their editor, but still be strong enough to know when to pick their battles. Allow your editor to guide and help you to be the best writer you can be. Chances are, you’ll take “your baby” from good to great.

So, it's your turn. Have you had a good experience with an editor? Have you ever considered hiring one on your own?

DSC_0261About Erin

Erin Brown is a professional editor and has worked for almost a decade at several large New York publishing houses.

She began her publishing career at HarperCollins Publishers, where she worked in virtually every genre, including mystery, romance, literary fiction, women’s commercial fiction, and non-fiction. She was privileged to work with numerous bestselling authors including J.A. Jance, Bruce Feiler, Elizabeth Peters, Jerrilyn Farmer, Lawrence Block, Carolyn Hart, and Mary Daheim. She was also part of the fabulous St. Martin’s Press team as an editor with the Thomas Dunne Books imprint. There, she enjoyed acquiring fabulous debut novels and editing such bestselling authors as Carole Matthews, Madeleine Wickham (a.k.a. Sophie Kinsella), Homer Hickam, Robin Pilcher, and many more.

After almost a decade in New York City, Erin and her husband returned to their hometown of Austin, Texas, where Erin began a thriving freelance editorial business with her website www.erinedits.com. Although she often misses the chaotic hustle and bustle of Manhattan, she is now free to concentrate on what she loves the most: working directly with aspiring authors to get their work into the best shape possible before submitting to agents and houses.

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/dietpoison/79693940/">_ambrown</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">cc</a>

32 comments on “Your Editor is Your Friend (Really)”

  1. I couldn't have said this better myself. My favorite line: "How a writer works with their editor makes all the difference between a good final product and a bad one." Establishing what you want and need from your editor is an important (and sometimes overlooked) part of the process; building a relationship with an editor you trust and work well with can make all the difference in the final manuscript--and your stress level, too.

  2. Thanks for this advice. Actually, it probably translates to almost any profession. When I was a young lawyer, a lot of draft briefs and letters came back to me (after a partner's review) with plenty of red ink. I never took offense, and welcomed the opportunity to learn and ask questions based on the suggested revisions. Over time, I'm sure it made me a much better lawyer.

    I only hope one day I'm fortunate enough to have the chance to work with a publisher/editor, so I can see my "raw material" developed into something more spectacular than I might ever create on my own.

  3. Thanks so much for agreeing to blog with us, Erin! I love this post.
    The line that jumps up and down to me is "Learn from the editor’s changes and suggestions." I think it's easy to take feedback and apply it to the work at hand. You've made that manuscript stronger. YAY! But if you don't stop to actually learn from the feedback, those same mistakes will pop up in the next manuscript. And you'll be paying the editor to give you same feedback next time around instead of helping you fix new problems. 🙂

  4. "Two, if your editor is reputable (choose wisely, my friend) ..."

    This is an important point. I just reviewed a book that had been edited by a so-called professional who was hired to ferret out the mistakes in the first edition. However, the second, "edited" version was still packed with errors, errors that the author didn't discover before she republished. Now, even though the author's other books might be good, I will probably never read them.

    1. Good point to remember as well: some freelance editors will ask you to pay them for a list of agents. This is a huge red flag. Agent information is free for all and a writer should never pay for this! Happy writing 🙂

  5. “Leave your ego at the door.” That sums it up. If you don’t have the maturity to accept critique you’ll never get anywhere as a writer. I’ve been writing for over twenty years and I always cherish an edit from a writer I respect. A fresh opinion reopens my eyes to my story, which increases my story’s quality with the enhancements from that edit. I just had a fellow writer read a story and his critique taught me so much about areas that don’t need changing, which helps me magnify that story’s synopsis.

  6. Though I've yet to publish a book, I've published lots of short pieces. Yes, the first thing that was returned to me with an offer if I would make certain changes hurt my writerly pride, but it also taught me lots about what the Powers-That-Be were looking for. In retrospect, I believe that experience helped me become more successful in my submissions. Though I've had a couple of rejections since, probably 80% of what I've submitted in the intervening years has been accepted on first submission without major changes. Now that I'm switching to full-length fiction, I hope to have the same success--but it's good to remember that correction isn't the same as rejection.

  7. I've always hired an editor "before" sending out my work to agents and editors. I think they save us from embarrassing mistakes and in the end that helps us get published!

  8. My editor said "I want you to change your villain to someone else." That was, BTW, a huge change, but I did it. And I think the manuscript IS stronger now. ;o)

  9. This is priceless advice for someone hoping to be, but as yet not, published. I just have a little question, I've recently hired a published author to act as a 'mentor'. She's giving me advice on structure, character, plot, everything. Once we've finished working together (and her advice is like gold to me, believe me) do I also need to have an editor look at it too?

    1. It's so hard to say without being familiar with your work. Does the author you're working with have editorial expertise in terms of grammar? Does she have experience editing query letters and synopses? Although an editor would've been able to tackle all of those issues, including content editing, I'm sure you've gotten some great advice from her!

  10. My first experience with an editor felt like an assault, and it took a while to adjust to what turned out to be excellent work, but I got my revenge when she later in the novel confessed that editing was difficult when tears were dripping on the keyboard. (The tears were caused by an emotional scene in the plot, not poor punctuation!)

  11. This is a great post, but as an author who has been through this process, I have to say, this works both ways.
    This excerpt here struck me as a little off:
    "Finally, someone to tell you how wonderful your writing is! To affirm what you’ve known all along: that your novel/memoir/epic saga/brilliant tome will change the literary world as we know it."

    Most writers submitting their first manuscript are the exact opposite of this. Their internal voice is saying, "Now I get the truth. Now I get confirmation that I suck and this whole writing gig was just a big waste of my time." These internal words also come with a sick sense, cold sweats, and the bottom dropping out of their stomach just before they finally open the file that contains what they knew all along, they actually can't write. Most writers do not start out egotistical like you've stated. They start out insecure, and an unsympathetic editor can only make that worse.

    Even the best edit can break the best author if it doesn't contain some positive remarks. Authors need to know what worked just as much as they need to know what didn't work for the edit to be successful. The positive remarks are a jumping off point, it's a starting point to revisions and changes. If a writer, especially a new author knows what was done well, they can much easier fix the things that were done poorly.

    And before someone reply's about authors not handling constructive criticism well, I have no problem with it. I actually love getting edits back. It's rejuvenating and pushes me to do better, but the occasional "This is a great scene", or a simple "I love this line" goes a long way too.

  12. My coauthor and I did all that. Our book was well received and just what the publisher was looking for. We rewrote the book to fit the editor's comments, and resubmitted it only to find that the publisher had changed editors. So we rewrote it to fit the new editor's requirements and time frame, and resubmitted. They had again changed editors. The new one informed us that the book wasn't what they were looking for. We eventually got it published elsewhere.

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