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Cues from the Coach: Q and A

Last month we discussed questions from a first-time novelist who had been devastated by the harsh criticisms of a critique group. This time we’ll consider comments from a writer who had completed four historical fiction novels, but who had never worked with an editor and had not been published.

She said, “As a new writer, I was paranoid that no one would like my stories. Would my editor be able to keep my ‘voice’ and not make too many additions of her own? I believed a good editor would instill confidence in a writer’s skills and ideas and yet be honest when something didn’t work or needed a change. A good editor would also convey this in a way that would dignify a new writer and encourage her to improve, not to give up.”

These may sound like simple comments, but this writer expresses major concerns in these few sentences.

First, she worried that nobody would like what she wrote. This is a common fear among writers, particularly first-timers. Even established authors can pen a book that misses the mark with readers—rather like a famous actor can star in a box-office dud. It goes with the territory. We learn to live with it, and it keeps us on our toes to put out the best stories we can—which is still no guarantee that our books will be loved.

Second, her comments about voice have been reiterated many times here on BRP, as well as elsewhere. However, a surprising number of writers, experienced as well as newbie, don’t have a clear concept of what voice is. Wikipedia defines it as “a combination of a writer’s use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).” In other words, “voice” encompasses all the unique ways in which an author creates, processes, and presents material. It may take some time and a number of books before an author develops a distinctive and recognizable voice, but it eventually happens. Case in point: my brother, a devoted Robert Ludlum fan, noted that the books featuring Ludlum characters but written by other authors after his death had a very different voice. And none of those writers, he said, had mastered Ludlum’s extraordinary ability to hook a reader right from the beginning.

No good editor will tamper with a writer’s voice. New writers, as mentioned above, most likely have no voice yet. Furthermore, they tend to be all over the place stylistically and grammatically. That same good editor, however, will help a writer find his/her voice and remain true to it.

Third—and this can be a bone of contention, especially for first-time authors—editors do note where changes/additions need to be made and do, now and then, write some material to show the author the kind of change or addition that is needed. The good editor, however, will never insist on the use of his or her own words by any author, but will explain why such a change is in the best interest of both author and story.

Fourth, the job of the editor is never to discourage a writer, but rather to be a mentor. Teaching a writer to write well, to make the next book better than the present one, should be an editor’s goal. This can often be accomplished by a simple explanation.

Most writers who complete a book display some degree of skill or some area in which they can be commended. Focusing and building on that positive area creates a working platform and a springboard from which to address other areas that need work.

Finally, dignifying the writer goes a long way toward building a powerful working relationship between editor and writer, and it encourages writer improvement. We all respond to deserved commendation. Writers pour heart and soul into a work that may have rough edges and a rocky interior. But like a bit of carbon that is, over time, heated and pressed into a diamond, that work may be heated and pressed into great novel or even a bestseller. A strong, positive relation between a potentially great writer and a powerful editor demonstrates synergy at its best. The two together can produce an extraordinary story with the writer as the student and the editor as the teacher and nurturer.

As a writer, what have been your concerns about voice when working with an editor? Have you had a good experience—or a bad one?

As an editor, how have you dealt with writer concerns about voice? How do you put a writer at ease?


Linda Lane and her editing team mentor serious writers who want to hone their skills. Learn about their work at

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  1. Thank you for the article. Sadly, there is a spelling error in the credit:
    Linda Lane and her editing team mentor serious writers her want to hone their skills.
    As a blog site run by editors, this should not be happening.

  2. Editors are so important, and I agree a bad experience can scar a writer. The first editor I engaged for my MG adventure novel clearly had no idea what I wanted. He pointed out a few adverbs and commas and that was it. I had chosen him because his resume said he also wrote children's book and had a lot of experience with educational books. Not shy with his prices, he also charged a lot. I was not happy. What a waste of time and money he turned out to be. I felt my book was a huge lumbering creation that needed trimming. My US publisher (I live in South Africa) appointed a fantastic editor who got right to the heart of the story and, apart from lots of red pencil online, loved it. I am about to send her the second book in the series. I also write historical romances under contract and the publishing company appoint a different editor for each book (I am on my third). It's a wonderful experience working with different editors who are able to correct one's work, and teach in the process. Having a variety of editors has taught me so much. My writing has improved in leaps and bounds. Now, it strikes me that the better experience came with female editors. I wonder how other writers view this?

  3. Thank you for catching that error.
    "Her" should indeed be "who" in the credit. It will be fixed this morning - and you're right that this should not happen on an editing site.

  4. What a great post. I wish that agents, publishers and editors would understand how fragile a new writer can be and encourage rather than discourage them. I've never worked with an editor, but have heard some horror stories from other authors. That goes for critique groups too. Fortunately I found one that was great and gently pushed me toward finishing my first novel. I am working on my sixth one now.

  5. GREAT post, Linda! I agree 100% with all.
    I think being able to do all of these things speaks to a very experienced editor, which is the difference when sifting the wheat from the chaff of folks out there doing this.
    Just a great post!

  6. Linda, I have had some horrendous experiences with editors, but never generalized from those encounters. Having been on both sides of the editor-writer divide (and it is a divide), I appreciate the special challenges and risks in both territories.

    Voice is such an elusive thing, that I only know it when it is taken away. I tend to accede to most editorial changes, but every once in awhile my reaction is, "But I wouldn't write it that way!" Then I know that the original was in my voice, and I try to edit the edit in order to incorporate the correction but put it back in my voice.

    In dealing with that delicious dance between editor and author, I learned an important lesson in my years as a columnist. If you disagree with an editor, don't argue or start a long debate. Just put dots under the changes and "stet" in the margin (or the modern equivalent with Track Changes). I rarely do that, because I so respect the professionalism of my good editors, but I have yet to have a professional editor who did not, in return, respect that four-letter Latin word.

  7. Excellent post, Linda. It does highlight the importance of having a good editor/writer experience. To ease the fears of my clients, I tell them that ultimately the story is theirs and they can accept or reject my suggestions. I then do about ten pages of editing free, so they can get a sense of how I work and see if they are comfortable with it.

    While I do try to nurture as much as possible, I do not treat the writers with kid gloves. They do have to learn that once out in the publishing world they may be dealing with people who don't pamper a writer. I once had an agent who told me right off that she would not be able to hold my hand and constantly stroke my ego. She emphasized that this is a business and the work was the work and our personal relationship was separate. If she did not like something I wrote it did not mean she did not like me. That ability to separate ourselves and our egos from our work is a good first step in becoming a professional in this wacky business. At least I think so.

  8. Fiona, you are experiencing the best of both worlds (working as a writer who is honing her skills and working with an editor who is nurturing her in that process). A good editor is worth her (or his) weight in gold, as the cliché goes. A bad one, on the other hand, can devastate a writer and perhaps even squelch what might have been a promising career.

    Cozy in Texas, it's quite possible to be encouraging while making needed corrections. I can't speak for other editors, but I was a writer first. Having been there and having had my first novel trounced on by a critique group member who informed me that I didn't even know who my protagonist was, I am very sensitive to writers' feelings.

  9. Great discussion here today. I think your sensitivity to writers' feelings makes you a great writing coach, Linda. I align a little more closely with Maryann's second paragraph. This speaks to when it makes sense to bring in an editor: when you think the project—and you—are ready to play in the big leagues.

    I am struck by your questioner's comment: "I believed a good editor would instill confidence in a writer’s skills and ideas and yet be honest when something didn’t work or needed a change." I do not believe confidence can be "instilled"—and being honest certainly doesn't perform that trick! It hurts to find out we're not wunderkinds.

    Confidence is earned from the bottom up through trying, making mistakes, trying again—and ultimately learning your craft. It is a toughening in response to pain, like the school of hard knocks. Editors play a role in that process. But our fees are based on what our time is worth—so you can pay us to stroke your back, or get that from your friends and allow us to instead offer up our expertise.

    If I am moved to laugh or cry or am otherwise impressed by a writer's efforts, I note it—but I'm not going to get out a magnifying glass to find such things just to say something nice. That's a misuse of my time and energy. The whole point of hiring me to evaluate your manuscript is steeped in optimism—I can identify problems! Problems have solutions! I can point you in the right direction!—so I say let's put my energy that into that so you can make your project shine! There is nothing like a shiny project to seed the growth of confidence!

  10. Maryann and Kathryn, I agree that writers should not be handled with kid gloves - the publishing business isn't for the shy and retiring or for those who wear their feelings on their sleeves. However, my experience has been that many writers, especially newbies, are very sensitive about their work and often insecure about how others will (or won't) accept it. We all have different ways of "telling it like it is," but we needn't be harsh in doing so -- usually.

    Occasionally, however, we find an exception. A couple years ago, I did a rewrite of a very poorly written but ugly murder scene for a writer. I changed none of his information, but chose as the POV character a little girl of about five who appeared in his scene. (He had no POV character.) She witnessed the murder of her mother and was herself killed at the end of the scene. The writer read the rewrite, called me, and said it had made him cry and that's not what he had written. It was, in fact, exactly what he had written from an omniscient POV. The story had no heart and was just a compilation of despicable crimes and shallow characters that, he told me, were based on portions of his life. The writing was horrible by the most lenient of standards, and I did not soft-pedal my comments when we spoke. Nothing in his story deserved commendation, and the rewrite said more about its lack of redeeming value than I could ever have said. He got the point.

    However, this hasn't been the norm among the writers I've worked with. Most sincerely want to write good stories and are open (more or less) to my suggestions. Like you, Maryann, I do a short freebie to show them how I can improve their work, and we go from there. I'm kind; but commendation, like confidence, must be earned, as you say, Kathryn.

    Great comments, both of you. Editing can be a tough game sometimes, but the editor is the writer's best friend. Many of them just don't know it. :-)

  11. Thank you for your comments, Susan. When it comes to editing, as in many other fields, experience is a great teacher, isn't it?

    Larry, your last paragraph noted a very important quality in an editor who deserves respect: professionalism. A relationship where writer and editor have mutual respect for each will only benefit the story. However, when they disagree on a point, that one word says it all -- stet.

  12. Argh! I went ten verbal rounds with a newspaper editor who stomped all over my column voice with Journalism 101 shoes. There were many times that entire paragraphs were reduced to gibberish because of his meddling. A sore subject, but I'd love to work with someone who was a bit more flexible.

  13. My current client is paying me to hold her hand, and I'm happy to do so. But then she is also well aware of where her weaknesses are and asked me to focus on certain aspects that she knows need to be fixed. And, I think, because I've been so tactful, she has been able learn from our edits because she hasn't become defensive.

    Like you, Linda, my first effort was trounced, not by a critique group, but by my lecturer, who had been teaching me through the first few chapters of writing that novel. I was devastated and very angry. How could she have been so positive as part of the course, but so negative afterwards? I went through her comments and rebutted almost every single one - I never sent her my diatribe, but I learnt a lot from doing the exercise: how to write so that readers don't misinterpret my writing even if they skim read, and how to and how not to do a critique.

  14. Elle, I may refer some clients to you who need a gentler spirit. ;)

    After taking such a hard line here you may be surprised to hear that I also became an editor to improve on a nasty personal experience at a well-respected (and expensive) writers' conference, during which my manuscript was essentially mocked ("This is just a chick book," one man said before the others piled on—and no, I did not try to disguise the fact that I wrote women's fiction.) I blame the workshop leader, because since then I've seen many great examples about how such a free-for-all can be diverted and turned into a true learning experience.

    What I needed—indeed, what I had believed I'd paid well for—was their help identifying problems and brainstorming ways of improving the ms. If I'd thought it perfect I wouldn't have submitted it for critique! But I left feeling pummeled by opinions—not buoyed by new craft, as people with other workshop leaders had—and in search of my own solutions.

    Much later, when I opened, I made a solemn vow to never leave a client holding only the burden of my "opinion," good or bad. I will analyze structures and character arcs and identify missed opportunities and identify problems in the writing and offer up solid craft that will address the issues.

    Even if I think the ms shows real promise (and most of them do) the writer might feel discouraged while first reading my evaluation. Writing a novel is always harder than people first realize, and of course the sudden introduction to previously hidden challenges is always painful. But I will always point him in the direction (or two) of a solution.

    Once the writer has readjusted his expectations, which can take a week or two, he'll be ready to dig in again, in a clear direction, with enthusiasm—and fall in love again with a vastly improved product.

    The take-away from these comments: Writers aren't the only one's with style! Editors are as different in personality as they are in experience. It's worth talking to them and reading their testimonials to get a feel for their style.

  15. Kathryn, I didn't perceive your comments as taking "a hard line." We do writers a serious disservice if we take them down the garden path, encourage them to smell and touch the flowers, and don't tell them the roses have thorns. Reality demands that we help them make their book the best it can be, even if the process pricks them at times.

    The reason I included my experience with the man in my comment to you and Maryann was to show you that I, too, am honest with writers. That particular situation demanded that the writer see what he had created, not as a bit of his own history that he felt sure others would relate to, but rather as an appalling chronicle of events that would turn off many readers. The fact that my playback of his scene made him physically sick helped him to understand that in a powerful way that no discussion or notations on his manuscript could have matched. He couldn't defend his position; he could only be horrified at what a reader (me) perceived from his words. By the way, I've never felt the need to do that again.

    We are all different, as you noted. Yet, I believe we have the same desire to help writers create great books. Recently, a first-timer hounded me about assessing his work after I had done a brief sample edit to show him how his diary-type story could be made compelling and how to paragraph dialog and make it interesting. I'm fairly certain that he didn't care for my comments that told it just like it was because I haven't heard another word from him.

    Love your input! :-)

  16. Thank you all for your wonderful comments. You have stated numerous reasons why the relationship between writer and editor must be strong and positive for a manuscript to reach its fullest potential. Your insightful posts are most helpful in encouraging both sides to work together for the good of the book and the growth of the writer.


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