Friday, February 10, 2012

Cues from the Coach: What’s an Editor Worth?

Recently, the following comment was posted by “Anonymous” in response to my article on writing coaches. Its disgruntled writer disputed any need for “expensive” coaches and editors. (“I know too many editors that insisted on using their own ideas which robbed the author of authenticity.”) If this comment is an objective description of the writer’s personal experience, it heaps shame on the editor(s) involved. However, the blanket statement condemns all editors and, by extension, all writing coaches. This is like saying no works of writers who self-publish or independently publish have value. Neither is true, so it needs to be addressed. Here is the comment exactly as it appeared:

A coach and an editor? And if the book doesn’t sell, how much was spent for nothing? The concept seems too expensive and is more condesending then helpful. In other words, if an ‘author’ uses a coach and an editor, it is no longer his/her story. I know of too many editors that insisted on using their own ideas which robbed the author of authenticity.
Bah Humbug!

Being a great storyteller does not mean being a great writer. Acquiring skill in any field requires some type of training, and it almost always requires teamwork. A writer without a team will likely be a writer without a major publisher because he/she does not know everything necessary to create a marketable book. Self-publishing or publishing through a vanity house is always an option; but even then, a book must be well-written if the writer wants to be accepted as a professional, credible member of the writing community. The truth is this: a writer who puts out books of poor quality will not likely end up on the New York Times bestseller list. Nor will that writer easily live down the reputation of being the creator of inferior work.

The advent of digital publishing opened the doors to a plethora of writers who never before garnered even the most remote hope of being picked up by a big-name agent or publisher. This resulted in an astounding number of poorly written books flooding the market, and the stigma rose like a black cloud over any book that was independently or self-published. As a result of this sub-standard influx, all writers who chose that publishing route suffered—regardless of the quality of their works.

Consider the quotation above. Does that author need a coach? Probably not. The statement is clear, it flows, and the point is made. Does he/she need an editor? All writers need editors. We are too close to our work to view it objectively, and a good editor provides the polish that makes it shine. Does that polish ‘rob’ the author of “authenticity”? No! But it contributes to the author’s reputation as a good writer.

This isn’t an ego issue, and no competent editor will impose his/her own ideas on a story. However, suggestions may be made—and some direction given—to expand a scene, further develop a character, reorder content, provide needed transitions, perk up dialogue, address POV, avoid writer intrusion, smooth flow, create an opening hook or add hooks at chapter ends, or any number of other corrections that will help the author hone his/her great story into a great, marketable book. That story will totally be the creation of the author because the competent editor will draw from what that author has written, not interject personal ideas that are not a natural outgrowth of the author’s own words.

Have you worked with an editor who robbed you of your authenticity? How do you deal with suggestions from your editor? Which is more important to you—your words exactly as you wrote them or the polishing of your unique story into your great book?

Linda Lane and her team mentor writers who want to write well. She welcomes all writers in English and Spanish to visit her website and learn about her work.

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  1. It's interesting you should write about this topic today. I have just gone through this process and posted about my own experience of it. I have to say I disagree with "Anonymous". My editor's report, whilst indicating that I have a mountain of work to do, has explained to me why my novel is not getting through the slush pile, and has shown me how I might tackle the problems. Your observation that a great storyteller does not necessarily have the writing skills is absolutely right. For me, the critical analysis is very helpful and I know my work will go up a grade once I've done the new rewrites. I don't see how any writer can work without the input of a good editor.

  2. I'm an editor (and a writer) and one of the things I make clear is that I don't want to change a writer's voice. That said, I think that some writers just don't want their baby messed with or edited in any way. I think Anonymous probably had a bad editor or the WRONG editor. Maybe jumped into an editing contract before investigating that editor or getting a free sample. Not all editors are a good fit for all writers. I would love to see Anonymous' novel. Perhaps a few thousand words of an editor's free sample, and he/she could find the right editor. I am putting together a collection, and I hired an editor - knowing full well that she would discover things I missed, enrich my characters and scenes. I would never go to print (or Kindle) without an editor.

  3. This is a very timely post for me, too. I am working with a new writer who has a good story developing but needs a lot of work sorting out some of the basic craft elements: POV, timeline, pacing, etc. I am going through chapters and pointing out the problems, offering suggestions for fixes,and she is rewriting the book. I am also sending her links to blogs that explain these craft elements, as well as putting little "lessons" in my comments. In essence I am a coach and a teacher for her, but it is still her story and ultimately her style and her voice.

    I know there are some editors and coaches out there who do tend to take over a story, but they are a real minority. The rest of the editors I have met in the business respect the authors enough to let them own the story.

  4. I may occasionally poke good natured fun at the posts on BRP, but that is only because I respect what you folks bring to the writing party ... and I always rib people I like. A story editor is as crucial to a novel as a film editor is to a movie ... period. You guys rock ... maybe overpaid ... but you rock.

  5. Excellent post, Linda! As a freelance fiction editor, my biggest job is in informing the writer about current effective fiction-writing techniques, through links to my craft of fiction articles, as well as to blogspots like BRP and books by writing "gurus" like James Scott Bell, Donald Maass, and many others.

    Also, specifically, I try to help writers streamline their style a bit to get their message across more clearly, without extra words cluttering up the text. And of course I point out any discrepancies, inconstencies, logic issues and plot holes, and try to help them deepen the characters, ramp up the plot, add more intrigue and suspense and conflict, etc. etc. - the list goes on.

    Successful writers seek out editors because they know their story will be stronger for it, and they realize that we both have the same objective - to make their story as powerful as it can be and to take their writing skills to the next level.

    And ultimately, the final responsibility lies with the writer - he can reject all of the editor's suggestions if he wants. But that would basically be a waste of money and shooting himself in the foot. But that option is still always there.

  6. Christopher - overpaid?! I don't think so!! (I know, I'm not supposed to get carried away like that with the punctuation marks, but a comment like that warranted it! LOL) :-)

  7. At some point I know I'll need an editor. I really do believe that you'll never be able to guarantee a truly objective point of view without the objectivity that a commercial relationship with the right person provides. Finding the right editor, though - that might be another story.

  8. Dad Who Writes, you've nailed it - finding the right editor is the key.

    Always ask for a sample edit of your work, and make sure it's long enough to determine that you and the editor are a good fit. I suggest 3-5 pages at least. Then ask for references. Contact the writers whose names you receive. Listen to what they say.

    The editor's qualifications may be impeccable, but do you connect with that editor? Writer and editor must be solidly of one mind to ensure the best possible outcome for the book.

    I wish you well.

  9. Dad Who Writes, as Linda says, start by asking for a sample edit. I offer a free sample edit of the first 6-12 pages. If I don't think the first chapters are even ready for a sample edit, I'll give some "big-picture" advice or offer to do a critique of the first 10, 20 or 30 pages. Most glaring deficiencies in technique and style show up in the first 10 pages.

    The sample edit, plus the accompanying email, will give you a good idea of how the editor will deal with your work.

    I also edit the manuscripts in sections of about 3-6 chapters, and each section goes back and forth several times (as attachments by email) before moving on to the next one, with payments being sent in installments, too, by PayPal.

    That way my clients know early on how I work, how I feel about and react to their writing, the kinds of suggestions I make, etc. If it's not a great fit, either party can opt out partway through, and no one has lost anything, as payments have been matching the sections edited.

  10. One way to find out if you're going to be able to work with an editor/coach is to try out several. Many (possibly most) of us offer to do a ten (or so) page critique at no charge. That way, the author can see what the editor does and decide if s/he wants to go forward with the full manuscript. Keep in mind, the author is always the one in control. It's their manuscript and their decision as to what edits they accept and what they reject.

  11. This is such a great topic Linda! I have so many comments.

    * I think Fiona has a distinct advantage for having submitted her work and received rejections before contacting an editor. She came to the belief that she needed help, and that will go a long way toward motivating her edits. The edits can only take you so far. That you choose to address them—and how you decide to do so—is key.

    * I'd like to tackle that oft-defended topic: voice. If you are a new writer, I'm going to say this straight: your voice may not be what you think it is! Your editor is not suggesting you put your bloated prose on a diet so that she can change your voice. She is likely trying to teach you the basic craft of the modern writer. Once you have written a lot (ten years, many say, is how long it takes to become a writer), and are effectively wielding the tools of the writer, then you'll have a voice to defend. If we editors look into the garden of your prose and see as many weeds as we do the true blossoms of a creative writing voice, we may not be able to see your voice for what it is—and by not putting it front and center, we know you aren't too clear, either. And if you don't know how to be true to it, we can't really help.

    * A free sample edit does not solve everything. The pages submitted are often the opening pages, which may appear pretty clean since writers tend to rewrite/workshop them a lot. It may be a great opening!—for some other book. That editor you hired because she wasn't that hard on you, in the sample, may come across completely differently when she has to inform you that you haven't really written the book you set out to write. All I'm saying is, there's no clear way to deflect ahead of time the things you don't want to hear, so be prepared! Tough road ahead—but traveling it will never, as "Anonymous" put it in the comment Linda references—be "spent for nothing." Even if you don't end up with a publishable manuscript, you will have learned much about writing that will be of value throughout your career.

  12. Words of wisdom from Kathryn! And yes, good point about a sample edit of the first 10 pages. If those ten pages have been edited by other editors (whose final quote may have been considered too high or whatever), they're going to be pretty clean and polished compared to the rest.

    I ask potential clients for: the first 15-20 pages, 10 pages from somewhere in the middle, a brief synopsis of a few paragraphs, brief descriptions of each of the main characters, the genre, and the total word count (or projected).

    If later chapters need more work than the first 10 pages did, that will be obvious by the increased redlining in Track Changes and increased comments in the margin. Then the price quoted may need to be revisited, as it will be pretty obvious to the writer that they are getting a significantly more substantial edit than the first pages would have indicated.

  13. In any other profession, learning the craft in a school or under the auspices of a good teacher/mentor or doing an apprenticeship is a given. How come writers have such a hard time accepting the fact that they might still have to learn something, that someone else could give them some good advice? A good editor is invaluable as far as I'm concerned.

  14. As a writer, I'd be nowhere without my TEAM of friends, neighbours and,especially, EDITORS,who are able to sneak-a-peak at my work and give me objective feedback.

  15. I am so thankful for all of the people who have read and given me feedback on my work. I'd love to hire an editor to go through my novel with a fine tooth comb, but I can't afford it at this time. It doesn't mean I don't care or feel I'm above needing an editor's help. It just means I can't make it happen right now. In six months that could change.

  16. As a writer, I know we get a little defensive about an editor that makes changes. Recently I worked with three separate editors to get a feel for who I wanted to hire. All three pieces of fiction were from different stories and novels.

    I found they all made changes of sorts. Many of them improving the flow of the story. By the time I worked with the second I said 'to hell with it." I decided instead of getting all defensive I would use their suggestions unless of course it messed with my voice. Having a good relationship with your editor is essential. Writers need to remind an editor if they are getting off track.

    Writers live with the characters for so long we know how they react under any set of circumstances, but when you start to work with an editor they may not understand in the beginning.

    Listen, learn, and be open to changes.

  17. Wow! What great comments!

    Jodie, by extension you touched on something that writers may not know. Editing is not limited to reading a manuscript with a red pencil in hand (so to speak) to mark comma errors like an English teacher. So much more requires an editor's attention: flow, consistency, character development, plotting, grammar and punctuation, sentence structure, effective word/verb usage, POV, writer intrusion, dialogue, show vs. tell, and the list goes on. If the editor is working for a flat rate, he or she will no doubt exceed - sometimes by a lot - the estimated time required to polish the manuscript into excellence, and thus be working for a small hourly rate. And as Maryann mentioned, that editor becomes a teacher, a coach. It's really impossible to assign a dollar figure to the invaluable lessons learned from a great editor, lessons that serve a writer for a lifetime.

    As Brianna noted, however, the cost of an editor may not fit into a tight budget. Having said that, I commend you, Brianna, for recognizing the value of editors and for putting your manuscript out there for feedback from others to help you in your self-editing process. Late last year, someone mentioned to me that grants were, on occasion, availabe to help writers with the cost of editing and publishing. Some criteria applied (which I don't recall), but this might be something to look into. Also, as discussed here before, a good critique group can be a huge help.

    Dad Who Writes, you made an interesting reference to the "commercial relationship" between author and editor. My experience has been that the most effective edits come out of a personal (albeit temporary) relationship between the two. For the editor to do the best job, he or she must spend some time inside the writer's "head," in effect, becoming one with that writer for the duration of the project.

    To my fellow blog editors - Maryann, Helen, Kathryn - thank you for your wonderful comments that added so much great information to my post and explained in detail the value we bring to the table for the writers whose works we edit. Respect for the writer and his/her work is paramount, Maryann noted. As Helen (and Jodie) said, the writer is always in control of whether or not to use the suggestions of a hired editor. Kathryn, I loved your comparison of editing to a weeding project. Beautiful gardens blossom forth from the careful attention of great gardeners just as wonderful stories emerge under the tutelege of a competent editor.

    Again, thank you all - editors and writers alike. Your input makes this blog the great wealth of information that it is.

  18. This post did tweak my interest. I agree with you, someone not so personally in involved in "the birth" of your book, needs to fine tune it.

    But I know nothing, I have neither an editor, nor coach, nor publisher. I had dreams...

  19. I definitely agree. All writers need editors, even editors. I'm not ashamed to say I need one, and I have a great one, Helen Ginger!

    Morgan Mandel

  20. Gail, you said, "I have neither an editor, nor coach, nor publisher. I had dreams..."

    I hope you still have dreams. When I was a child, I had a dream of writing a novel. Throughout many of my adult years, that dream sat on a shelf - almost out of sight. Then, when I was in my sixties, I got it down, dusted it off, and put it to work. It took 5 years, but it happened. I published my first book. Since then, I've published another and have a handful of manuscripts in various stages of development. Please don't give up your dream, Gail.

  21. Very interesting post, thanks. As a writer I know I need a good editor to pick up on my many problems. However, I've come across a fair number of editors, mostly working for digital publishers, whose input was limited to: changing my British language to American; removing every last instance of the word 'was', even where it no longer made sense, because 'was is passive'; and insisting I rewrite in the style of the Chicago Style Manual. Since this would have completely changed my 'voice', I've walked away from several publishers over the last few years.

    I have just found an editor who edits intelligently, with suggestions like the ones you mention (pacing, assuming my readers are telepathic etc), and the contrast is staggering. If only more were like her!

  22. Fiona: Not all editors aim to perform the same service. Developmental editors explore the underlying structures to make sure you've plumbed relevant conflict, achieved the necessary psychological tension, and arrived at a heart-warming (or wrenching) conclusion, while copy editors polish up the surface issues you described. I specialize in developmental editing because I find it abhorrent to slap a surface polish on a project that has deeper problems--you've worked too hard and book sales are too tough to move forward with a troubled project--yet reality is, many authors are at a point where they aren't game to make such changes, so they hire an editor solely for the polish. Copy edits are typically cheaper, as well. So those who really want an assessment of the entire project should look for a developmental editor.

  23. Kathryn - thanks for explaining the difference. I'd not come across the term 'developmental editor' before but it certainly makes sense.

  24. Fiona, another issue you raise is British vs. U.S. English. Are your stories set in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, other European countries, etc.? If so, why use the U.S. brand of English? If so many words are different that it affects reader comprehension, they can be listed in a glossary in the back.

    Are your grammar and punctuation so contrary to the CMS that they challenge your reader to figure out what you're saying? Are they correct according to accepted British rules of good writing? If so, why change?

    Let's talk about passive voice - is, are, was, were, etc. They have a place in our shared language, and you can't always create a sentence that flows and maintains integrity of voice without using them. Overuse, however, is another matter. Strong verbs create strong emotions and strong stories. They can also exhaust the reader. Occasional inclusion of the gentler passive verbs can give the reader a needed moment to catch his/her breath. Balance and discernment are the keys here.

    Congratulations for finding an editor who is a great fit for your work and your voice! I commend you for acknowledging your need for the right editor and your perseverence in locating that person.

  25. Hi Linda!

    Yes, I'm British and my stories are all set in Britain; I prefer to use British spelling and grammar (where it genuinely differs from US) because my characters wouldn't be speaking in American English or even thinking it to themselves - although I'm happy to change to US spelling for the sake of consistency (in an anthology, for instance).

    As to passive, I've been told by more than one editor that it's (I quote) 'passive tense' and that any past tense use of the verb 'to be' is passive. So the sentence 'He was hitting the ball' is, apparently, passive. Go figure. Needless to say I didn't have great faith in those editors after that...

    Sorry for the rant, btw - I just wanted to make the point that I can sympathise with your original Anonymous if they have also come across some less-than-helpful editing by less-than-helpful editors!

  26. Fiona,

    Passive verbs do include all forms of "to be." What makes a verb passive is that the action is passed onto the subject of the sentence rather than the action being performed by the subject.

    The horse pulled the cart. (active)

    The cart was pulled by the horse. (passive)

    Now let's add to the confusion with progressive conjugation, which is active voice:

    The horse was pulling the cart.

    Please note that the subject (horse) is acting on the cart (pulling). Whoever told you this structure is passive form was misinformed. Isn't English fun?

    No need to apologize for the rant. We're all entitled to a good one now and then. FYI, I didn't disagree with Anonymous' complaint about some editors. My concern was the all-inclusive nature of the comment. Many editors are worth their weight in gold, but sometimes you have to sift through a lot of dirt to find that nugget.


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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