Once you’ve been a professional editor for a while, it’s easy to get a bit cocky. You think you know it all. But every once in a while, it’s useful to step out of your editing bubble and really consider things from the author’s perspective …
At the Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ annual conference a few months ago, I had the opportunity to hear about the other side of editing. A panel of authors got together to share their experiences.
Though nothing they revealed particularly surprised me (which I took to be a good thing), much of what they said helped me see my work more acutely and empathetically from the point of view of my clients.
Here are twelve things I learned authors want their editors to know.
1. ‘Cover letters are really useful!’
A covering letter that goes along with your copy-edit or developmental edit is much appreciated by authors. It helps set the tone of the editor–author relationship and can provide an overview summary of what they should expect when working through their edited manuscript. It doesn’t have to be long or detailed, just thoughtfully considered.
2. ‘Please … give us a few compliments.’
Receiving a manuscript file covered in red mark-up can feel like death by a thousand cuts! Even though authors are grateful to editors for helping them improve their work, each edit is a small criticism, highlighting that the author has done something ‘wrong’.
For the love of chocolate, make sure you’re throwing them a compliment every now and then! Tell them when you think they’ve written a particularly beautiful turn of phrase or when something happens in the story that makes you eager to keep reading.
3. ‘Different writers find different types of editing more emotionally challenging.’
We all have our strengths, and when you face criticism on something you feel you’re pretty good at, it can hurt. An author might feel as though they need a helping hand with their grammar, but they’ve worked darn hard on plotting an exciting and emotionally resonant story, so a developmental edit might feel particularly fraught with emotion for them.
On the flip side, an author could have sweated over every single word choice, every single comma placement, but they’re eager to hear ways the story itself could be improved, in which case, a meticulous line and copy-edit could be painful but a developmental edit received with enthusiasm.
4. ‘We love seeing your reactions as a reader.’
More often than not, we editors are the first critical readers of a novel! Developmental editors should not only provide unemotive, objective feedback but also offer some of their personal reactions. Copy-editors, too, should throw some of their emotional reactions into the mix.
That’s not to say that we should be telling authors to change what we don’t ‘like’ about their story (because we can’t claim to be completely representative of the novel’s whole intended readership, it’s not our story, and if we’re copy-editing it’s not our place to criticise the story anyway), but we should think about letting the author know where we gasped, where we cheered, where we cried.
It’s confirming for the author, and just a nice thing to include.
5. ‘We want to work with editors who like our genres.’
Authors can tell if you’re not a fan of their genre. It will either come across in inappropriate edits or lack of enthusiasm and understanding in your comments … and that can not only be disheartening, but make authors worried that you won’t be doing your best work because your heart won’t be in it.
6. ‘Getting edits back too fast can make us feel raw.’
It takes a long, long time for an author to finish their novel draft. If they receive editorial feedback too quickly, it can be hard to process. On top of that, if it takes them a year to write their novel and you finished editing it in a week, it will make them wonder how carefully you’ve read, digested and worked through their writing. Hmm …!
7. ‘Don’t just tell us the problem – suggest a solution!’
Authors have already done their best. So when you flag up problem after problem, you’re pilling more and more work onto their plates – work that takes time, imagination, energy and emotion.
If you’re going to suggest an author changes something, it’s much more useful to provide a suggestion. Not only does it reduce their workload if they decide to go with your suggestion, but it can help spark more ideas for the author to consider. On top of that, if they have trouble understanding your criticism in the first place, providing a solution can help the author truly understand the problem.
8. ‘When you explain your edits, it makes us better writers.’
As a copy-editor, it’s so tempting to just fix the problems you see – but if you take the time to explain your edits, authors are much more likely to be receptive to your changes and it helps them improve their craft.
That’s not to say you should explain every tiny edit (because that could take a loooong time) but if you see an author making the same mistake over and over, or you’ve untangled something particularly tricky, it’s definitely worth explaining.
9. ‘We hate it when you mess with the flow and pacing of our words.’
‘It’s house style’ is not a catch-all for every edit you make. Arguably more important than house style is the author’s style, voice and creative intentions.
And when your edits start to mess up sentences carefully crafted for flow, pacing and rhythm, that really makes authors grind their teeth. Sure, what you’ve proposed might be more technically ‘correct’, but correct isn’t everything when it comes to creative writing.
That doesn’t mean just leave everything as it is (otherwise, what’s the point of editors?), but you should try to be aware of the musicality of a sentence before you change it.
10. ‘We’re all different when it comes to how close we want to feel to our editors.’
Some authors like to feel as though their editors are also their friends, someone they can be a little less formal with while still maintaining professionalism. Others like to keep things strictly business, with the minimum amount of contact necessary. It’s (probably) not because they don’t like you – it’s just preference!
11. ‘Make us feel confident that you understand what we’re trying to do.’
Authors especially appreciate it when you ‘get’ what they’re trying to do in their writing, even if they haven’t quite achieved it. If you’re able to work out where things have gone wrong and how things can be made even more effective … authors will truly love you.
Even if you don’t quite manage to pull it off, authors understand that writing can be hard, so they won’t begrudge you for trying. In fact, you might just bring enough to the table to prompt them to figure out for themselves exactly what needs to be done.
12. ‘We’re happy to invest in good editing, as long as it work with our budget.’
Authors are more than happy to pay for quality editing. Contrary to what you might think, they aren’t trying to find the cheapest deal possible. Though not always the case, often when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys – people know that.
Saying that, pockets aren’t infinitely deep, so there needs to be a balance struct between what’s fair and what’s realistic, so don’t be offended if what you charge doesn’t match with what your client is willing to pay. Sometimes those numbers just don’t match. (If that happens to you, here’s how you can deal with it.)
A big thank you to the panel for sharing their insights!
Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees are co-authors of seven best-selling novels, have their own solo writing careers, and in the past jointly ran a successful novel-editing business.
KJ Charles worked as an editor for twenty years. She is now a full-time romance novelist with twenty-three novels under her belt. She moved from traditional publishing to self-publishing.
Alison Ingleby is a USA Today best-selling author of sci-fi and fantasy fiction. She is self-published, and I’m privileged to say one of my clients!
Kia Thomas, both a writer and an editor of fiction, chaired the session.