10 things not to say (or do) to your editor

Hi, kids! Hope this past week has treated you well. The usual crazy going on here, but let’s take a moment and chat about something else writing-related.


OMG your blood is pumping, your juices are flowing and you’re just salivating at the mention of the word EDITING. It’s okay. I totally understand.

Anyway, yes, I am a writer but I started professionally editing way back in the early 1990s, during the Dark Ages when starving peasants tilled the soil outside the castle and if you wanted to talk to somebody you had to walk to the other side of the village before dark, because that was when the wolves came out to gnaw on hapless villagers who didn’t fall under the purview of the manor lord’s protection. If not wolves, then witches, werewolves, and vampires.

Shit was scary back in the day.

But now, thanks to technology, we know all that scary shit isn’t on the edge of the village. IT’S ON THE INTERWEBZ. Whew.

Anyway, I worked in publishing for about 15 years, either managing in-house or freelance editing out-of-house. I’m still an editor, and I still keep up with the publishing industry, but I’m a writer, too. Which means I have been on both sides of the fence and I have a certain amount of empathy for both perspectives.

I know what it feels like to be working with an editor who you think is missing the point of your vision, who is crushing your writing dreams by saying a scene doesn’t work, who just might be a cross between a werewolf and a vampire and is merely toying with your emotions before stomping on your ego. I get that. But I also know what it’s like to help a writer realize her vision in clearer, stronger prose so that she goes on to write better prose later and she remains a colleague and works with you many times after that because she trusts you.

That is the essence of an editor-writer relationship. Trust. It’s important to trust that an editor has the professional background and training to work with a writer on craft as well as narrative. On the other side of that, it’s important that an editor trust that a writer is open to edits, is open to realizing that sometimes, a writer is much too close to a project to see clearly, and that a writer wants to improve her craft.

That’s the ideal. So with that in mind, what should you NOT say to an editor with whom you are working?

Let’s go see…

1. That’s not how I was taught in school, usually with petulant overtones. I see this one a lot with first-time writers, who aren’t versed in the differences between house styles and how those work in terms of what’s known as “Chicago.”

A “house style” is certain things that a particular publishing house implements for manuscripts that ensure consistency with what that house likes. Generally, a house style is in accordance with “Chicago” — that is, the primary style guide for virtually all publishing in the U.S. Specifically, the Chicago Manual of Style, first introduced in 1906 to bring some order to publishing and editorial consistency. Chicago allows for some flexibility within its guidelines, which is why houses might have slightly differing styles but if questions arise, the majority defer to Chicago. The current edition, in case you wondered, is 16, so you may hear people refer to “Chicago 16” in terms of style.

The truth is, you probably weren’t taught [insert whatever it is] in school because basic grammar and punctuation rules sometimes differ when you’re writing to a specific style. That doesn’t mean what you were taught is wrong. It just means that it’s not what the style calls for, and in order to keep your manuscript consistent with the house style and/or Chicago style, your editor may flag some things for you to change. So if you’re flagged on something like punctuation that you thought was correct because you learned it in school, assume immediately that the editor flagged it to bring it in line with house/Chicago style. If you don’t understand the reasoning, then query thus: “Hi, could you please explain why you flagged this? Was I not writing to house/Chicago style? Thanks!”

Don’t immediately huff that your editor doesn’t know anything and you just can’t be bothered to change it. It’s hard for creatives to loosen their control freak sensibilities, but it’s imperative that you do so in order to improve your craft.

2. You’re wrong. I’ve dealt with this one a few times from writers, too. Again, mostly first-timers but also some seasoned (and rather cranky) writers. Certainly an editor can be wrong. But not nearly as often as writers think they are. When I get this response, I have to gently explain why I edited something the way I did and then I have to cite the passages from Chicago and/or remind the writer of the house style within which we’re working with regard to why it is, in fact, that I’m not wrong and I’m trying to make the author’s phrasing and/or narrative stronger through these edits.

And the response I usually get after demonstrating that there was both rhyme and reason to the edit of that particular sentence/passage/phrase is, “well, that’s not how I learned it in school.” See above. This is usually after I’ve already explained at the outset what Chicago is and what house styles are. k2uxu

If you have a question about whether an editor is incorrect about an edit, then by all means, contact that editor and ask her to explain why she made that edit. If she is, in fact, wrong, she’ll most likely respond with something like “OMG I made a mistake! Thanks for catching that and remove that correction.” Editors are human, too, and sometimes get mixed up. But it never (hopefully) comes from a place of malice. And now, after that professional exchange, the editor has demonstrated that she’s not all high n’ mighty and that she’s willing to concede a point, which can help strengthen your working relationship.

3. I looked this up… Stop. This one is basically ascribing “Google” to number 2. “You’re wrong because Google.” Again, an editor can be wrong, and most professional editors will be glad when you catch an edit they made that wasn’t correct and let them know. The way to do that is not to send them a nasty-gram saying number 2 above and then adding number 3. Just drop them a note and ask them to have a look at such-and-such correction because you’re not sure about it. That opens the door a lot wider for a constructive dialogue. And chances are, your editor is not wrong, but she can then further explain her reasoning and the grammatical rule she was applying or discuss things like clarity in a scene and why she made that edit.

Point being, don’t shut down a dialogue before it even starts.

4. I majored in English in college. There are caveats to this statement (see below). Most of the time when I’m working with an author, it’s used as a hammer against my suggestions and edits. “Well, I was an English major,” with the understood but unvoiced “which means I know all about this editing stuff” and then the finishing (but still unvoiced) “so I’m not going to take your suggestions.”

Yes, that’s true. You may know something about writing and editing. But unless you’ve been writing and/or editing in professional publishing for a while and understand the various styles in various genres and houses and some of the basics that Chicago lays out, then your major probably doesn’t apply all that much to what’s going on in a professional edit for a publishing house. Which is not to suggest it doesn’t count. It is no doubt helpful for you in your writing and with proofreading. And you may actually have some experience with developmental editing.

But don’t use that as a holier-than-thou hammer against an editor who is trying to make your manuscript even more awesome. If it comes up, you can say something like you majored in English and you’re not sure about a certain edit so please explain. Sort of like the number 2, above.

5. Why do I have to change this? I checked with my friends and they really like it as it was. Your friends are just that. Your friends. They are not your editors. This is sort of like the American Idol phenomenon, when someone auditions who really has no business singing and/or performing and he/she is promptly judged off the show for those reasons and then backstage the tearful person tells the judges to suck it, that his or her friends and family really like their singing and what the hell do those judges know, anyway? k2uiu

Well, they’ve been in the music industry for years. Maybe decades. And yes, they may be assholes, but they know whereof they speak. Your friends and family are a whole different matter and most likely have not been in the music industry and maybe they do like your singing and encouraged you to go on national TV, but chances are, they didn’t want to crush your dream because that only causes friend/family problems, right? Better for a complete stranger (like an editor) to crush your dream or recommend you re-do a paragraph than your friends and family.

Editors have been doing this (hopefully) a long time, they’ve been involved in publishing for a while, and they’ve worked with lots of authors over the years. One of the most maddening things to say to an editor is that your friends think your writing is fine. That’s just trying to gang up on an editor (which is kind of silly) and — what? Force her hand? “My posse is bigger than your posse! My friends will kick your ass for dissing this phrase!”

If you have a problem with edits, approach the editor directly and say: “You know, I really like this phrasing. Is there any way I can keep it and make context clearer for you?” 90 times out of 100 (10 editors are usually cranky), you the author will get your way. That’s it. That’s all you have to do. No sense bringing your friends in.

6. My mom/friend/aunt/partner/wife/husband/grandma is an English major and… See number 4 above. And 2 and 3.

Yes, that may be true and they may be good proofreaders. But even if they’ve been working in publishing for years, don’t say this to an editor. I get this from new writers, too, but some seasoned writers have used it on me, too. I usually reply: “That’s great. I’m glad they’re interested in what you do. But the issue here is X, and the relevant style passage in Chicago states Y. I made that change to correct the verb tense and the structural flow. If you’re not happy with it, let’s come up with something you are happy with.”

And leave your friends/mom/grandma/partner/husband/wife/aunt out of it. This is between you and your editor. Not you, the Waltons, and your editor.

7. Do you know who I am? This one is, fortunately, rare and it generally comes from seasoned writers. It’s basically another of those hammer phrases, designed to make an editor feel insignificant in the presence of such glory and greatness as the author. I got a tubful of this one day. An author called me on my cell phone and basically chewed my ass for a good 10 minutes, calling my work into question, making demands I can’t even remember now, and then reminding me of said author’s position in the institution said author graced. I couldn’t get a word in and finally, when I thought I could get a word in, the author hung up on me.

I of course notified my superiors about this most unfortunate incident, and continued to go about my business. A couple of days later, the author sent an apology via a big bouquet of flowers and a strange note that said something along the lines of “thanks” but no written apology. Whatever. The project turned out well regardless. But I made a lot of efforts not to deal too much with that author after that. I never spoke with that person on the phone again, either.

So, don’t ever say this to an editor. Actually, don’t ever say this to anybody. It makes you look like a douchecanoe, as if you’re entitled to all kinds of sparkly rainbows and dancing unicorns because OMG you are so-and-so. When I’m editing your work, I don’t care who you are. All I care about is making the work as strong as it can be within your, the writer’s, voice. I want your constructive input, and I will appreciate the work that you’re doing. That’s what this is about. Not a popularity contest.

8. Why are you so mean? Sigh. I’ve gotten this a couple of times from first-time authors. I generally try very hard to explain at the outset what my approach is to editing. I tell authors not to freak out at the corrections (and there are a lot when I developmentally edit), that editing is about a conversation between a writer and an editor to make a story stronger. I use a map metaphor. That is, there are many roads to tell a good story. I’m doing recon from above, checking all the routes and determining the best one for that particular author. It’s the author’s job to travel the route.

I explain everything I do, provide links, and often 25-page (or longer) overviews of a project (especially in a developmental edit) and I always point out what works and what’s great. Regardless, I get this one sometimes. And I don’t have an answer for these authors. I never approach a project as “I AM ZORDON THE DESTROYER! BOW DOWN BEFORE ME, PUNY WRITER!” I approach it as a cool thing the author and I will be doing together and hopefully, both of us will learn things.

My approach may not work for some. That’s fine. Let the publisher know and we’ll see if we can get you hooked up with an editor more to your liking. But instead of sending a “why are you so mean” message, have a look at the edits, consider where an editor is coming from, maybe have a drink (of whatever might calm you down), and then look again. If after all that you still think your editor’s a big ol’ meanie, have a chat with your publisher. I want a writer to be comfortable working with an editor. Sometimes that means I’m not the editor for that writer. No harm, no foul.

9. Author refuses to accept any changes in the manuscript, which makes a major headache for the publisher (if the author is not self-publishing), who has to figure out how to work with this author who is proving to be a bit difficult and not accepting edits.

Look, some editors may rub you the wrong way. Try to look beyond that at the work in your manuscript. If the corrections are making your work stronger and making it flow better (read some parts aloud with those corrections), then why not accept the changes? Even if the editor clashes with you for whatever reasons, if she’s trying to make your work stronger, she’s clearly ignoring the personal thing. So for this project, try to put your differences aside and work WITH her. Not against. Because that only makes headaches all around.

10. Author rejects some changes that had editor queries attached and the author refuses to address those queries or even offer an alternative wording. This is something I see from more seasoned writers. First-timers tend to be pretty diligent, I’ve found, about engaging me and my queries. Some seasoned writers, though, just blow me off or at least seem to since they’ll reject a change, delete my comment, and then go about their business.

I generally delete a comment if I support the editor’s change. I make sure to inform the publisher of that when I send the manuscript back so that the editor doesn’t think I was being a douchecanoe and not addressing all her comments. If I support a change, I’ll just do it. If I don’t, I’ll leave a different comment and engage from there. But if you delete a comment and reject a change (especially a major one that may require re-wording), that comes across as kind of rude, and like you’re blowing the editor off. If you don’t agree with something, let the editor know in the comments of your manuscript. Open that conversation. That’s how a constructive editor/author relationship works.

Whew. There you go. Just some suggestions to help you, an author, negotiate this nutty editing world. And editors, remember. It works both ways. If an author is trying to open a dialogue with you about some of your edits, let her. After all, it takes two for a dialogue. Help make this a productive experience for both.

11 thoughts on “10 things not to say (or do) to your editor

  1. Excellent post. Thanks. As a new writer, I am so happy when an Editor helps me make my words flow better. I have a lot to learn and I know it. I hope I never get cranky and always maintain my stance that an Editor will only help me bring my story to life. I won’t even submit until I get help from my go to beta editor and then I still have many more edits after the manuscript is accepted.

    • Welcome to the wonderful world of writing! Always a good idea to try to put your best foot forward. Editors can help you do that. May you have productive relationships with yours. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. First…LOL! That was entertaining as hell! Second, it was very informative. I was an English major in college..no really I was! But, I am shocked that some of the things you brought up actually happened. I try to be open and I agree totally that sometimes as a writer I am way to close to see the bigger picture. My second book is due to go through first edits soon. I am scarrrrred because I hope my editor(s) get what I’m trying to do and say but overall I am open. I want it to be the best lil book that could.

    • I’ve got a million of ’em…lol

      Remember, it’s a dialogue. After you get your edits back, if there’s something you think the editor isn’t getting, drop her a line. “Hi. I noticed you flagged [whatever]. What I’m trying to do is X, and I thought it was clear. Could you give me your reasoning for flagging it and help me make my vision clearer? Thanks.” Like that.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Reblogged this on kdwilliamsonfiction and commented:
    Excellent piece on editing. It includes the fears we face as writers and the reality of the situation as a whole. Plus, it’s funny as hell!

  4. Great post, Andi. Do you have any suggestions for writers who get an opening email from a new editor that says, “We’re going to be butting heads, a lot”, and also tells you that they don’t care what your experience is, that they’re the editor and that’s that? How does an author work with an editor who is belligerent from the start, yet still get a good edit on their work?

    • Oh, Jeeziz Gawd. That right there is editorial asshattery. You have three options. You can drop the editor a line and let her know that you appreciate the work she’ll be doing on your manuscript and you appreciate her expertise, but you’re hoping for a productive dialogue with her that ensures an effective edit that does not compromise your voice or mitigate the years you’ve been writing. You can let her know that a ‘my way or the highway’ approach doesn’t feel to you like an approach that will be productive for either of you and if she thinks the editing relationship is going to be just a bunch of disagreement, then perhaps this isn’t the project for her because head-butting isn’t necessarily an effective use of time or resources.”

      The second option is to not go to the editor first to try to work it out and instead go to the author coordinator at the house and get that person involved before the edit gets farther along.

      The third option is to bypass the editor and author person and go directly to the publisher.

      Anybody else have any suggestions? And it looks like I’ll be doing a “Bad Editor” post…

  5. Pingback: There may be links ahead | Becky Black

Comments are closed.