Joanne Harris on Working with Editors

Sophie Playle

I love Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat), and she truly rocks Twitter. The other day she shared her thoughts on editors.

In case you missed it, here’s what she had to say:

1. Planning to publish? You need an editor.

The editor works for both the writer and the reader. It’s the editor’s job to bridge the gap between the author’s intention and the reader’s understanding and enjoyment.

That’s why developmental editors are concerned when stories lose momentum, and why copy-editors fuss over things like comma placement.

From the building blocks of the story to the nuances of the prose, we try our best to help the author make sure it all adds up to a enjoyable reading experience.

2. No exceptions!

A writer is too close to their own work to see it as a reader might. This is why all authors need editors, no matter how experienced they are.

Of course, this only matters if you want your work to be published, understood and enjoyed by others. If you’re writing for yourself, you probably don’t need the help of an editor.

3. Writers need to trust their editors.

Writers are people. Editors are people. We all have our own understanding of the world, our own personalities and ways of working.

Match the right writer to the right editor, and that’s where the magic happens.

Editors do their best work when they feel their authors trust them. We know we have to earn that trust, and we don’t take the responsibility lightly.

4. Too much confidence can be a bad thing.

Some writers have romanticised the idea that first drafts and stream-of-consciousness writing is pure, and therefore the most meaningful and artistic kind of writing. That editing will cut the life out of it.

This simply isn’t true.

By all means, tap into your raw creative energy to get the words on the page, but if you intend to publish, that raw material needs to be refined in order to create the best experience for readers.

5. Good editors are objective and knowledgeable.

Harris is talking about developmental editors here – editors who advise on the story as a whole, rather than the nitty-gritty of grammar and punctuation.

Objectivity is so important, and yet it is one of the hardest tools to master. An editor is but one person, yet we must try to see the manuscript as all readers might see it.

This seems almost impossible, but there are methods we can use to help us provide analytical feedback without personal judgement. In a nutshell, when we understand in great detail the conventions of story craft, we’re able to measure your manuscript against what’s proven to make a story of publishable quality.

6. Please don’t shoot the messenger …

When you decide to publish your work, your work is no longer just your own. You have to take into account the experience of the reader. And that might mean making some emotionally tough changes to your original vision.

It’s hard. We understand. We’ll try not to make you cry with our feedback.

7. Writers need a thick skin.

It’s one thing to understand this, another thing to live it.

Once you put your work out there, criticism is inevitable. Keep in mind that everyone has their own preferences and, in art, there is no such thing as universal perfection. Cultivating a thick skin is a lifetime’s work, and even the most seasoned writers are not immune to hurt.

It’s an unfortunate price you pay to share your work with the world.

Editors do everything they can to help you create books that your intended readership will love. Our criticism is intended to help, not hurt. We’re in your corner.

8. Think about what your readers deserve.

As soon as your start selling your book, your art is also a product.

(By the way, there’s absolutely nothing immoral about selling your art.)

When a reader buys your book, they expect a certain level of quality for the money they’ve provided. People buy books because they want to be entertained or because they want to learn something; they’re not paying for the privilege of insight into your creative genius.

9. Some editors are better (or a better creative fit) than others.

It’s important to do your research and vet your editor.

It’s okay, we don’t mind. In fact, it makes us happy. We want to work with people we connect with just as much as you do – and we know it will make for a better experience all round.

10. a) Check your ego.

At the end of the day, your novel is your own. Our suggestions are just that: suggestions. It’s up to you to take the feedback on board and do with it what you will.

But if you end up rejecting everything we say … something is very wrong. Either your editor is incompetent (it does happen, though hopefully your selection process will have eliminated this risk) or your ego needs to be reined in a little. Maybe a lot.

10. b) Give your emotions some space.

Criticism can be hard to take.

Even though we’re critiquing your work and not you as a person, when you’ve poured your heart and soul into your writing it can feel like a very personal insult.

So it really does help to get some space from the feedback and let your emotions settle before reconsidering our comments with a fresh mind.

Bonus Tip: You need more than one kind of editor.

Lastly, Harris responded to a fellow Tweeter who offered some very good advice regarding copy-editing and affordability.

Keep in mind that you probably won’t need to hire a copy-editor if you’re planning to go down the traditional route to publication (get an agent, land a publishing deal) because the publishing house will outsource the copy-editing. But if you’re planning to self-publish, hiring both a developmental editor (or someone to critique your manuscript) and a copy-editor will give you the best possible book.

Thank you, Joanne Harris, for tweeting such good stuff 🙂

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

Sign Up to Liminal Letters

Monthly insight into my life as a fiction editor

I talk about how I’m attempting to live a creative and meaningful life – as an editor, a traveller and a homely soul. Plus, never miss a blog post.