Editing can be a thing an author both dreads and longs for: You’ll get professional corrections and feedback on your work but what if the editor doesn’t like the work, what if they don’t like the parts of which you’re most proud, what if they don’t ‘get’ it? What if you disagree with your editor?
It can be so difficult to get any real, professional response to your work, especially now when agents and publishers may not even reply to submissions and allow silence to be their answer.
Beta readers or members of a writing group may or may not know what they’re talking about, depending on their background and experience, and may not distance themselves from their personal prejudices enough to provide helpful input.
Even friends and family may go no further than ‘it’s great!’ when asked to comment, which can feel like they’re really saying they haven’t read it, or they have and think it’s terrible but don’t want to hurt your feelings.
The other side of this coin is that with actual feedback comes the inevitable realisation that your work, the baby you have slaved over creating, isn’t already perfect, and your readers may have had a different experience than you intended.
When an author works with an editor, depending on what level of editing they are receiving, there will be different types of response.
Feedback that falls on the more objective side includes corrections to the author’s use of punctuation, capitalisation, word choice or the many other matters with which dictionaries, or style guides like New Hart’s Rules, will deal. These corrections will usually come out of a proofread or copy edit and, unlike other types of editing, many of the corrections can be supported by reference to an outside authority.
More subjective feedback will be part of a manuscript assessment, developmental edit or substantive edit. This is where the author’s feelings can run high, where the author is most likely to disagree, and that is because of that subjectivity. Ideas about how to improve the text are more abstract. Some may be borrowed from other authors or editors who have written books or given interviews about their craft, but still those ideas may not be the answer. As such, it’s unhelpful for either side to approach a disagreement during this type of editing with an attitude that a particular way is necessarily ‘right’, as that argument is very difficult to resolve satisfactorily.
However, there are a few things it is wise for an author to remember.
YOUR EDITOR IS ON YOUR SIDE, OR MORE PRECISELY, ON THE BOOK’S SIDE
The editor’s purpose in life is not to hurt your feelings. Her job is not to criticise you as a person. She has nothing to gain from suggesting spurious changes, so a request for a change probably isn’t coming from nowhere.
The editor’s entire job is to make the book better and, when you’ve had some time to digest the feedback, you may well agree her suggestions will do that.
THE EDITOR IS A READER TOO
Even an experienced author may not anticipate the likely response of a reader to their work, because the author can never read their own work in the way a reader does, with absolutely fresh eyes. So, when the editor’s response as a reader is not the desired response, this is valuable feedback.
Furthermore, editors are passionate readers. We love books. It is because we love books that we hate to see a book waste its potential.
THE EDITOR HAS PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE
Any professional freelance editor will have training from somewhere like the Publishing Training Centre, but they’re also likely to have additional expertise, such as experience working at a publishing house or in a related field. Sometimes editors are also authors, which gives them a particular understanding of your position.
If you’ve chosen your editor carefully (which you should) then try to trust that they know what they’re talking about.
HOW TO HANDLE A DISAGREEMENT WITH YOUR EDITOR
MAKE YOURSELF EASY TO HELP
Some authors come to editing with a belligerence and defensiveness that may cause the editor to pick her battles to such an extent that only the most vital changes are even broached with the author. Don’t be that author! It is your book that will be the loser. Instead, decide that you will approach the process with courtesy, good will, and an open mind.
REMEMBER THAT DISAGREEMENT IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD
The two of you are working towards a common goal, and the best professional relationships can contain plenty of disagreement, but will always promote dialogue and collaboration.
TAKE NOTHING PERSONALLY, AND DON’T REPLY IN THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT
Your response to receiving notes from your editor may be directed inwards (‘I’m a terrible writer!’) or outwards (‘She’s a terrible editor!’) but these responses are not helpful, and your feelings in that moment aren’t true. Sleep on it. Go back to the notes with a receptive frame of mind. If you still disagree, marshal your thoughts and arguments for your way and present them respectfully.
ARE YOU DISAGREEING ON THE BEST WAY TO FIX THE PROBLEM, OR ARE YOU DISAGREEING THAT THERE’S A PROBLEM AT ALL?
If it’s the former, there may be several other ways to fix the issue and brainstorming them with your editor may throw up something really interesting.
If the latter, consider whether you’re understanding each other – the problem may be a miscommunication. For instance, you thought the twist ending was a great surprise and don’t understand why your editor doesn’t think it ‘works’. Meanwhile, your editor agrees it was surprising but most of all because she didn’t think it was actually possible in the timeframe, or that the earlier actions of one character make the twist unlikely. Further discussion of a plausibility gap, and that it risks the readers feeling cheated by the ending as it stands, may lead to a decision that the twist needs to become more plausible, or that the timeline must be adjusted or made clearer. The result will be a more satisfying ending for the readers.
DON’T BE A DIVA
I’ve had clients who called and emailed me several times over several days to question unremarkable corrections in a proofread, unable each time to explain why they felt I was wrong except to say ‘I’m sure I’ve seen it this way before’. This is disrespectful and a waste of my time, especially when the author isn’t willing to look the answer up themselves.
There are authors who are holding so tightly to their work that the simplest correction or a hint that the work is not already near-perfect results in a rage-filled email or phone call which totally undermines or ends the relationship. Bad behaviour is not something that goes along with talent – in fact the opposite is more often true – but either way it is always unacceptable.
ACT WITH COURTESY AND GOOD WILL
Of course, editors are not always right – we’re human after all. But a trained and experienced editor is often at the very least on the right track with her advice, and so it should be given appropriate consideration. The detached view of the text that an editor can provide, along with their experience as a reader, publisher, editor or fellow author, gives them a wider view and is incredibly valuable.
Make the best use of your editor that you can, by approaching the editing of your book with an open mind, with curiosity and interest and a desire to finish the process with a book as much improved as it can be.
This article was originally posted on 25th October 2020. I have updated it to provide additional useful links, and a new photo.