5 Things Editors Want Writers to Know

Sophie Playle
5 Things Editors Want Writers to Know image

Here are my top insights from attending The Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ 25th Annual Conference. This is the consensus on what editors want writers to know.

This was my first editing conference, and I’d never seen so many editors in one place! (And I’ve worked in a large publishing house.) It was a great experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting so many people in my industry. I learned so much, not only from the workshops and seminars I attended, but from chatting to people, too.

So, what insider information did I glean that I thought would be interesting to you, as a writer? Here’s the scoop.

1. Editors edit differently

The number one thing I took away from the conference was the huge ways editors differ from one another – from the details of services offered to the minutiae of methods. It highlights the importance of choosing your editor. Are they going to do exactly what you expect? If you’re unsure about anything, always ask. Your editor should be approachable and more than happy to provide all the details you need.

2. There is no right or wrong way to edit fiction

As long as your editor understands the foundational elements of good fiction, is aware and sensitive to your intent and style, and knows the rules of grammar and punctuation (and where to best to follow them and where best to break them), you’re in good hands.

The specific editorial decisions made, however, could be vastly different from one editor to another. Fiction is highly subjective. It involves the reader on a much deeper level than, say, a business report or cookery book. Good fiction is personal. And so your editor brings their personal experiences in reading and editing to your book (without making it their own). Again, choose your editor wisely!

3.  Publishers want near-perfect manuscripts

More and more publishers are cutting editorial staff. Most editors in publishing houses are commissioning editors (i.e. they choose books for publication, but don’t actually do any editing).

Publishers are businesses, and they’re looking for the most efficient way to make a profit. Why would they spend money on having a manuscript professionally edited if they can publish an equally good book that’s already been beautifully edited? More than ever before, the responsibility of editorial excellence is in the hands of the writer, not the publisher.

4. There is a difference between ‘publishable’ novels and ‘commercially publishable’ novels

Even if you do have a beautifully edited manuscript of publishable quality, it doesn’t automatically mean a publisher will pick it up.

Publishers look for two things in a manuscript: its quality, and its potential to sell. Commercial viability is something self-publishers should keep in mind, too. Good quality writing in a vacuum is not a recipe for publishing success: there has to be a readership eager to devour your writing, too.

But how do you measure success? The size and type of readership needed for a book to be commercially publishable will differ depending on your definition – or how much work you’re willing to put into finding and reaching a readership. (Hey, no one said this publishing thing was going to be easy!)

5. Editors have an ethical responsibility to YOU

If, in an editor’s opinion, your novel is not ready to be proofread or copy-edited, we have an ethical responsibility to tell you so – and suggest either development editing, or that you learn more about your craft.

I must admit, I have heard conflicting views on this. After all, we are not gatekeepers, and whether or not something is worthy of editing/proofreading is definitely a judgement that acts as a block along the path to publication. I’ve heard that, instead, we should simply do what we’ve been paid to do. After all, a picture framer wouldn’t refuse to frame a picture just because they didn’t think it was very good. I think being clear and upfront about the limitations of the service we editors provide is crucial in making sure authors know exactly what they’re investing in.

Writing, editing and publishing – this industry of producing novels is a delicate balance between business and creativity, conformity and liberation, science and art. This is why so much subjectivity is involved – which is a useful thing to keep in mind.

Sophie Playle profile picture
Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in copy-editing and critiquing, working directly with authors. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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