Janey Burton


Editor & Contracts Negotiator

Editing can be a thing an author both dreads and longs for: What if you disagree with the editor? It can be so difficult to get any real, professional response to your work, especially in these days where agents and publishers may not even reply to submissions and allow the author to take silence as 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 be able to 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 ‘it’s terrible, what were you thinking!’ or ‘I haven’t read it and don’t intend to!’

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 may have been received differently than your intention. Some authors can handle this idea, and are willing to incorporate feedback into their revisions. Others can’t. (Guess which ones produce better books in the end.)

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 reference books, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, Hart’s Rules or the Chicago Manual of Style, will deal. These corrections will usually come out of a proofread or copyedit, 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 most commonly 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 exactly 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 to a satisfactory degree.

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 whole 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 is never really able to 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 very likely to have additional expertise such as experience working in-house in the publishing industry 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 result in the editor picking her battles to the extent that only the most vital changes are even approached 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.

Don’t take anything 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, and 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 given timeframe, or that the earlier actions of one of the characters make the twist unlikely. Further discussion of this plausibility gap, and that it risks the readers feeling cheated by the ending as it stands, may lead to a decision that the twist should be made 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 the 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 appropriately considered. 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.

So 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.