I’ve edited all sorts of books. And I’ve dealt with all sorts of authors. Like any good editor, I’ve had to adjust my approach depending on what and who I’m editing – that’s part of the skill-set: reading my author and finding the best way to connect with them, and working out the sort of editing they expect.
Some editing rules, though, are universal. They overlap and intertwine until they become inextricable, and form the basis of good editing and good editing practices.
So here are those rules, from me to any prospective editors out there …
8. Be diplomatic and courteous.
I shouldn’t have to write this. I really shouldn’t. It should be a given. But I will write it: be diplomatic and courteous at all times.
This can be difficult when deadlines are pressing and your life impacts your head space. You might have relationship issues, debtors might be calling, your health might be bad – none of that matters when dealing with an author. Even if they don’t deserve it, even if they’re tremendously antagonistic, diplomacy and courtesy must prevail. The moment you’re not diplomatic and courteous, you risk souring the relationship, and that can make proceeding with editing impossible.
Being diplomatic and courteous doesn’t mean you need to be a pushover or sycophantic. It’s simply a level of behaviour to maintain when you’re discussing editing and what needs to be done.
If you’re a writer, think about how you would like to be treated if the positions were reversed.
7. Be constructive, not destructive.
Comments such as You should fix this, or, This is stupid, or the ever-popular, I don’t understand what’s going on aren’t helpful, and will just confuse, insult, or antagonise an author. You can think as many of these things as you like. Just don’t articulate them in any form to the author. These are destructive comments.
Think about how you can be constructive. Every issue has a solution. So if a character commits an action that is unbelievable, instead of writing, Like this character would really do that! it would be something like, Perhaps you could consider strengthening this character’s motivation. If possible, provide an example how that can be done that demonstrates what you mean.
Or you might think the plot is absurd. So? You haven’t been retained as a critic. You’ve been retained to help make the plot as sound as possible. Think about how you can do that.
6. Don’t rewrite.
This is not your job. You’re an editor. You may be a writer in another life. You may have ten books published, and five screenplays adapted to film, but in this role you’re an editor. You haven’t been retained to go in and rewrite, ghostwrite, or overwrite the text.
Sure, you can offer examples. You should offer examples. These can be detailed. But just remember it’s the writer’s job to write their own story. You are being retained as navigator, albeit one who is trying to get the author to the destination they – not you – want to reach.
So when suggestions occur to you, ask yourself, is it the editor in you speaking or is it the writer? If it’s a writer, thank them politely, then dismiss them – they’re not welcome here.
5. Never assume you know what the author’s trying to do.
Simple, huh? No. Not really. And it’s because this would seem so simple that assumptions happen.
Check with the author what their intent is. Sometimes, they don’t know, so a conversation helps them work it out. This isn’t as uncommon as you might think. An author might start a novel that’s meant to be a love story, but it might morph into something else – or a number of different things.
Other times, they might think it’s one thing, not realising that it’s become something else. A good author will confess if they have it wrong. A discussion will help you both clarify what the author is trying to do, and how to bring the writing back into line.
Then there are those other times that, well, the author knows exactly what they’re doing and is working hard to get there. Assume they’re doing one thing while they’re actually doing another, and take a guess how the editing is going to work out? If you’ve inferred it’s a love story and they’re writing a contemporary drama, it’s likely they haven’t successfully communicated their intent, the weight of their story is wrong, or you’ve simply misinterpreted it.
At least now, you can both work to the same vision.
4. Get in sync with the author’s voice.
It’s imperative to identify and recognise an author’s voice. JRR Tolkien wrote languorous prose that spanned pages in description and sounded very formal and noble, with just the hint of mischievousness. Cormac McCarthy’s is succinct, sharp, and a little bleak. You wouldn’t edit McCarthy by telling him that he needs to expand on his description and to sound more like Tolkien – that’s not his writing. But if Tolkien wasn’t doing justice to some vista, you would’ve asked him to expand on it.
An author’s voice is their best weapon. Don’t believe me? How many times has voice rescued a bad story? And how many times has a lack of a voice mauled a great story? You need to help the author tell their story in their voice – not yours, or some neither-here-nor-there mishmash of yours and theirs.
Again, the danger here is that lots of editors are also writers, and that writer-side butts in, wanting to phrase things in their own voice. You should be practising telling it to shut up. That writer-side isn’t welcome here. It should have its own forum to sing, rather than invading somebody else’s concert.
3. It’s okay to say nothing.
What? you might think. But I’m meant to say stuff! Well, yes, if stuff is there to be said.
Blank margins scare editors. Editors fear that a blank margin will suggest they’re either not reading the text, or they’re reading it and missing stuff. So they comment. But the truth is that the copy might be okay. In fact, it might be good. It’s okay to say nothing. Or, if you really need to, say something positive – compliment the author. Authors love compliments. And it helps the editor build a relationship with the author.
Don’t be afraid of the blank margin and scribble in it for the sake of scribbling.
2. Don’t continue arguing a point.
A piece of writing might legitimately have an issue the author either refuses to address, or rationalises away as being fine. It happens. So what’s the solution? Continue arguing your point?
You could. Will it get you somewhere? This has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Persuasive arguing might flip Author X to your viewpoint, but antagonise Author Y until they grow defensive not only about the point you’re arguing, but everything else.
You need to decide. Sometimes, that’ll mean making the call that, no matter how right you might be, the author is not going to concede.
So instead of continuing to argue, let it go and move on.
1. It takes a strong editor to admit they’re wrong.
Everybody is fallible. Editors are no exception. Sometimes, you might get it wrong. You might misread a scene – and not because the scene itself isn’t clear, but because you misinterpreted it. Or you might suggest something that doesn’t work. Either way, there’s no reason to bluster ahead. Or to rationalise why you got it wrong. Concede the mistake. It’s okay.
Most authors (and I write most, because I’m sure that there’ll be authors out there who take the mistake as a sign of ineptitude) will appreciate their editor’s honesty and humility.
But a strong editor will acknowledge any errors of their own.
As you can see, these rules should apply regardless of what and who you’re editing. They’re all about preserving the author’s intent and helping the author get to the destination they’ve chosen.