Friday, August 13, 2010

Writing as an Art—Two Part Harmony

I just completed a substantive edit/copyedit/proofread for a first-time writer. The story, aimed at young adults, included an impressive roster of characters and a significant amount of action, suspense, and intrigue aimed at keeping readers glued to its pages. This author could no doubt spin a yarn around a campfire that would keep listeners on the edges of their camp stools. Unfortunately, this doesn’t equate to creating a powerful, compelling, tight story on paper (or the hard drive).

To her credit, our inexperienced young writer wanted to learn her craft. She walked hand-in-hand with us as we reworked, rewrote, and recreated her book. During the first half of the story, we went over all our changes chapter by chapter. Unfortunately, the tight press date didn’t allow us to help her work through those processes herself, but despite that drawback, she presented us with an impressive rewrite of the ending that worked well and demonstrated writing skills we had not seen in the original version. Of course, it needed some editing, but she was learning from what we did and what we discussed.

This team effort resulted in a powerful, poignant story that began as a first attempt at novel. Even though the script needed significant help from the first sentence to the last, it was nearly perfect two part (writer, editor) harmony.

Not all writer/editor relationships are that harmonious. Some years ago, a man approached me about editing his manuscript. According to him, he had an agent waiting for it and a publisher in the wings. The story was worse than bad, and I spent considerable time whipping the first chapter into a cohesive, believable piece that might pass muster if presented to the right agent. To make a long story short, the author had a fit about the changes I suggested. He informed me that he liked his book in its present form, and he wouldn’t be needing any more of my editing services. He paid handsomely for the small amount of work I did, but I still felt a sadness. Editing isn’t all about the money. A good editor takes pride in doing a job well, in polishing a mediocre manuscript to a lustrous, marketable shine.

A couple years later, I saw that same book online. It had been self-published and was being promoted by the author himself. Apparently, the waiting agent and the publisher in the wings had second thoughts—no doubt after perusing the poorly written manuscript.

In this situation, no team work existed. The story might have had potential, but its neediness outweighed that potential so much that the author—who wasn’t about to let anybody show him how to write better—could never have placed it “as is” with any reputable agent/publisher. There was no teamwork, no two-part harmony to transform his book into a marketable work.

As a writer, have you found a harmonious relationship with an editor? What qualities do you look for in an editor when you know your story could be great, but you need a sharp editorial soul mate to make it happen? How important is “harmony” in the writer/editor relationship? What do you think? Or what has your experience been?
Linda Lane writes, edits, and publishes books. Her passion is teaching new writers how to hone their craft. You may contact her 

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  1. I don't have an editor at the moment but I do have a critique group that I have been a member of for more than eight years and am now the moderator of. Recently we had a new member who gave away the ending in the first page, wrote from the POV of a supporting character and told the story instead of letting the reader experience the story through the protagonist POV. Nothing I said registered with her and so she left the group convinced that she was right and I was wrong. It really bothered me. I had made every mistake myself and told her so and had gone through an intense learning process through critique, conferences and workshops. I guess the bottom line is, as authors do you want to just put out a book or to make that book the best we can do?
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  2. I have been on both sides of the editing desk and this post was an excellent example of how the mutual respect and cooperation between editor and author can work. Like your first example, Linda, I worked with a first-time author who had a good story to tell but really needed to learn how to tell it well on paper. We went through 3 drafts of her book together, the final being the proofing, and she published her book a few years ago.

  3. Good points, Linda. My editor came with my publisher, and I count myself as one lucky writer to have worked with her. I learned so much during the editing of my two mysteries that it was like getting a free workshop from one of the experts. Of course, I was ready to learn, so I did everything she told me to do. :)

  4. I'm still looking for the "perfect editor". While I was looking for one, I asked a friend what she thought of someone I had seen on the internet and she said that person was too expensive, and she was an editor too and would do it for much less, etc. So I paid her, and it turned out she wasn't the right editor for me. I write fantasy, so not every editor on the planet would do me good.
    If I need only a copy-editor or proofreader because English is not my mother tongue, I could easily ask my British teacher (even if he cringes at my American spelling), he'd do it for free!
    So, sometimes it's not only the author's fault - I've had more constructive comments from another beta-reader on my novel that the "editor"...
    Anyway, that's why I'm not self-published yet, I've seen too many self-published editors in desperate need of a good editor (and a friend of mine even PAID for one, they did an awful job on her novel, trust me!)! :-)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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