Here are links to other writing tips:
Voice in Storytelling: a discussion of point of view
and verb tense and how these elements affect the story
elements and art of dialog
Novel Openings: Creating compelling openings for novels
Description: The red meat of storytelling.
Flashbacks: Hey, who's in here with me? This is my flashback
Fastest Gun in the West: Writers often assume readers will fill in the details
Editors, Beware of Disturbed Writers
The Pitfalls of Being an Independent Freelance Editor—Dealing with overly emotional, defensive writers...
Be sure to see Part Two, below (Writers, Beware of Editors with an Attitude)
isn't really a writer's tip. In a way, writers could take heed of what
is said here. The title is rather harsh, talking about "disturbed"
writers. Maybe more properly, I'm talking about writers who can't take
criticism—constructive or otherwise. And, so, for good reason, I don't
understand why such a writer would submit his/her work to be edited in
the first place.
In traditional publishing, of course, the writer who signs that publishing contract has no choice in the matter. His/her work will
be edited. Still, editors at traditional publishing houses talk about
"difficult" writers and the fights that break out among writers and
editors about the sanctity of the writer's art. This is
just one of many skirmishes that can take place. But let's move this
discussion into the realm of the freelance editor, unprotected by the
wall of a publishing house's policies and procedures.
In freelance editing, the relationship between the writer and the
editor is in its most intimate form. The writer has to trust the editor
to be competent, even brilliant, fairminded, kind, stern,
knowledgeable—and many other attributes—before entrusting the
manuscript to the editor. In turn, the editor has to trust that the
writer earnestly wants to know what's good and bad about the
manuscript, that the criticism (done in a constructive way) will simply
be accepted by the writer as the editor's professional opinion.
be fair, the writer is entrusting a work that he/she has toiled over
for no telling how long, agonized about, revised, given to beta readers
(Aunt Bertha, among them), and feels that the work just needs to be
polished. In that case, what is the writer asking for in an edit? Well,
first, the editor has to determine who the audience is, where the work
will be published (what the style guides call for in that venue), and
if the writer is aware of the styles in a particular industry. Let's
say the manuscript is an article, headed for a professional journal. In
that case, the "polishing" will at least entail the proper punctuation
the journal adheres to, the bibliographic requirements, how references
are handled in the text, and even the level of discourse and style of
writing. Some really well-educated writers just don't believe that the
best grade level for most kinds of articles is somewhere around high
school level. Look up the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test for an
indication of how writing can be geared up or down.
But let's jump into something less academic. Let's say the writer has a
suspense/thriller, which he thinks just needs to be polished. And let's also say that, while the writer's grammar
and syntax are competent, the manuscript lapses into the passive voice,
is wordy, the characters are flat, and the dialog is wooden. The editor
can "polish" the manuscript all she wants (which is what the author
wants), but it is doubtful that agents will snap it up, even if it is
technically competent, without a typo in sight. But a good editor,
freelance or otherwise, is going to try to convince the writer that
substantial editing is needed, when it is needed.
That's where the trouble begins with a defensive, disturbed writer.
Some writers don't want a single word to be changed. I once edited a
manuscript of 100,000 words, and part of the reason it was so long
was its wordiness. I spent thirty minutes trying to convince the
writer that he should use "despite," rather than "in spite of." I
pointed out the nuances of the phrase vs. the meaning and utility of
"despite." I also pointed out that "in spite of" might also require the
restrictive phrase "the fact that." Or something like that. I wanted
him to trade in six words for one. No sale.
In fact, part of the problem with defensive writers is that
they want to argue over every edit. Before the editing even begins, the
editor should tell the writer that this is the writer's work and the
edits (how ever correct they may be) can be rejected by the writer. The
editor should also say that there's no need to argue over an edit. If
the writer doesn't like it, he/she should reject it and simply move
on. Further, editors would be wise to watch for such red flags before
accepting an assignment. That's why I perform a sample edit of the work
in question. I share it with the writer, and if the writer tends to
argue with me about the editing in the sample, I make as quick and
clean of a getaway as I can, before any contract is signed.
I once had a writer send me a manuscript about a true crime, and the
criminal in question was not well known, say, like the Boston Strangler
or Jack the Ripper, yet the writer said in the introduction that this
was one of the greatest criminals of all time. As soon as I pointed out
the obvious hyperbole, the writer argued with me. I slipped out the
I also insist for good reason that if I am to edit a manuscript, I want
the entire thing when I do the sample edit. Since I do a sample edit, I don't want a writer to
send me just ten pages of a two-hundred-page manuscript. Often, writers
only send me ten pages to "test" my editing, and several times I've
shrugged off my requirement and edited those pages, never to hear from
the writer again. That's time wasted. I insist on the whole manuscript,
first to see if the writer has even finished it. Maybe all he/she has
written is the first chapter. Second, I want the entire manuscript to
be able to look at the opening and closing, and selected points in
between. I tell the writer this up front. If I am to do a sensible
evaluation of the manuscript, I will be looking deeper into the
manuscript before giving my editorial opinion.
Again, if the writer balks at this requirement, I make a hasty, but polite, retreat and don't take on the assignment.
Because I am a freelance editor, dealing directly with writers, I often
spend several emails or phone calls back and forth going over the
sample edit, asking the writer's goals for the book. Will it be sent to
an agent, directly to a publisher, or even self-published? I try to
develop a rapport with the writer, put him or her at ease, and get the
writer to talk about more than just the manuscript—and it is this that
prompted this article.
I sample-edited a manuscript (without getting the entire thing). I
spent some good email time with the author answering his questions,
discussing his goals for the work, talked about the edits I had done
and why. He wrote to tell me how much he appreciated the tone of my
editing and our discussions—and then we began the negotiation process.
I thought we were on the same page about what I do, my requirements,
his goals. He even asked me if I would consider editing part of the
work, having him pay for that, and then move on to the next few
chapters. During these discussions, I also urged him to read some of
the tips for writers on this web site. I wanted him to get an idea of
the kind of editing I would be doing. So, after taking his situation
into account, I only suggested that we break the editing into 20,000-word increments. He would pay, I would edit, then we'd go to the next segment.
All had been amiable up to this point—but, when it came down
to the actual editing "contract" of this 100,000 word manuscript, he turned on me in
the very next email, accusing me of being unprofessional, constantly demanding his
complete manuscript, having some nefarious motives in doing so, and
closing with: "Don't even respond to this email. I won't open it."
So, in short, I was fired before actually doing any editing, other than
the first ten pages and spending considerable time developing a rapport
with this author. Once I got over being stunned at this sudden turn in
his attitude and demeanor, I sighed with relief! Just think what kind
of trouble I would have had, once I had actually done a few hundred
dollars worth of work.
Writers, Beware of Editors with an Attitude...
Now, this is
a tip for writers. And it's only fair that, having warned editors about
disturbed writers, something similar can be said of some editors. I've
been on both sides of the fence, first as a writer being edited by a
not-so-nuanced editor and second as an editor dealing with a disturbed
My first book was a best-seller back when there were about 300 LGBT
bookstores, independent of the chains. And I did a book tour to some of
those stores with good results. But once the chain bookstores
moved in next to many of these independent LGBT stores and stomped them
out of business by also carrying "gay literature" and heavily
discounting it, the small, independent press that mainly did business
with the LGBT bookstores went out of business, as well. So, very
quickly, my best-selling book was no longer available—out of print.
In the back of my mind, I knew I had to
get the book back into print, but by then I was heavy at work on the
sequel. This was before the Internet, really, and besides, I had moved
into the official "middle of nowhere" to help out my parents, who were
getting somewhat elderly and very much ill. So I didn't have as much
time as I would have liked to cultivate an agent or publisher to
reprint my work.
But, when I had a chance, I would prepare a package for targeted
publishers. Back then, more publishers accepted unagented manuscripts.
It meant that a writer could deal directly with an acquiring editor—and
that was a good idea, considering that unsolicited manuscripts went
straight to the slush pile (think of a composting heap that could later
be harvested for its fertilizer). As I say, however, I was
living in the middle of nowhere, there was no Internet, and one sent in
submission packages via snail mail, waited for a response, and repeated
the process, depending on the responsiveness of the agent or publisher.
I'd been published in two anthologies, by then, one an award-winning
collection by Penguin (back then a fairly large company with
subsidiaries). So, I obtained the name of the editor at that company
that had acquired the anthologies. I talked about how I was in both of
the anthologies and I had a novel
that had gone out of print, and would it be possible for the editor to
take a look. I thought that since the company had had relative success
with the two anthologies and my work was in both, along with the fact
that my novel had been a best seller in the LGBT stores, that a reprint
would be a good bet.
I have to say right now that I'm talking about an acquisitions editor
and not a copy editor or developmental editor; but I will get to them
in a moment.
Perception is everything. Perhaps I should have known that the
culteral center of the world, and an editor smack dab in the middle of
it would look askance at a gay-themed novel about a farm boy and a
preacher's son in southwestern New Mexico (is that even in the United
States?). And sure enough, I got a two-part response. One was that the
middle of cultural nowhere (possibly even some place in Mexico, in her mind)
was an "odd place for a gay-themed story," (her exact words) and the
other was that perhaps my forte was writing essays and not novels. The
second suggestion was actually quite fair enough. It was only years
later that my novel was published in a second and then a third and
So the first lesson for a writer in being wary of editors is that, if
you are going to skirt around an agency and go directly to a
publisher—make sure that the acquisitions editor is amenable to your
kind of work. Make sure that the setting and theme fit with the
publisher's needs and are somewhat like the other books they produce.
This problem is all the more sticky these days, since the vast majority
of books are published by only six conglomerates. Sometimes it's a good
idea to start local or regional and work your way up to the larger
But, back to the editor who actually edits your work. If it's through a
traditional publishing company, you're going to face the "we're the
publisher and you're just the writer" attitude. You won't even be able
to make suggestions on the cover of your work, and you will have only a
little more control over the eventual title—surprised? If you're not
prepared to face the "polically incorrect" editing police, you might
feel that the editor is being picky, mean, or downright hateful about
insisting that you use "his or her" in place of "his." Or whatever
possible way there might be to neuter the pronouns. I think this
problem is more relevant to non-fiction, since we usually know the
gender of the character in the story, and there's little need to be
general and non-sexist with pronouns.
None of this is to say that editors at traditional publishing houses
are automatically mean-spirited, cultural elitists, or disinterested in
the writer behind the work. Otherwise, this system would have broken
down long ago.
But let's say that you have decided that, before you send your work to
an agent or publisher, you want to hire an editor to give your work a
better edge in the market. The first warning is to beware of editing
factories. Behind the scenes, these factories have hundreds, if not
thousands, of editors getting paid almost minimum wage to churn out
editing projects. Yours will be just one of many, and you're going to
get harried, rushed editors with a deadline. Did you know that these
factories won't even let the editors and writers actually communicate
with one another? There are strict policies against this. Purportedly,
this is to protect the editor from irrate writers! But it also keeps
the editors from bleeding off writers from the factory and working
directly with the writer. Do the editors working for these factories
have an attitude against writers? Not necessarily...probably not, but the restrictions put upon them and the ways in which they can interact with the writer might make it seem so.
You will learn how to spot these editing factories fairly easily. You
will be submitting "jobs" and will be allowed to look at editor resumes
and prior work before deciding on an editor. But that's where the
interaction ends with the editor. Your concerns will be trundled
through the factory, and you will never learn the email or contact
address of the editor.
Now, let's say you've found a true freelance editor site. You're in
direct contact with a real editor, or the company has maybe a dozen
editors. Nevertheless, you will have good and valuable contact with the
editor of your choice. Again, perception is everything. Most editors
know that to make it with agents and publishers, the stylebook of
choice is Chicago Manual of Style. So the editors will massage
your text and punctuation into this style. So much of the editing may
seem picky or even mean; but it's not. It's just a matter of bringing
some elements of your writing into line with what is accepted. If you
don't argue with the editor over these items, you can spend better time
arguing with the editor about your style, the plot, characterization,
description, and other things. A good editor will listen to your
reasoning, even if she doesn't necessarily agree with them. Her
attitude should be that this is your work, and all she can do is
present her reasoning. She should not insist that only her way is the best way.
If you get an editor who eventually seems to treat you as if you, the
writer, don't understand because you're not as expert as he/she is, you
might want to withdraw from the project. Pay for the editing and know
that you're probably getting good suggestions. But if you strongly
disagree with elements of style, don't take those suggestions.
It's really quite that simple. You're the boss.