5 things editors wish creative writers knew
Let’s get on the same page (insert eyeroll emoji here)
Creative writers are so fun to work with. They have stories to tell, unique points of view, well-developed character voices and plots that are so gosh-darn engaging I want to tell everyone I know to read the books.
Of course, I can’t, because the books aren’t yet published. That’s why my role as an editor is so pivotal: I help take these writers from super to stellar to ensure their publication.
“Editors are a lot of things. The way I see it is they work for readers. Readers unknowingly hire them every time they buy a book. And that’s a kind of weird relationship, because editors are also usually pretty obscure. Most people don’t know who they are. But writers do. Editors, through their tastes, build a world of books populated by their writers and then they get to publish that world.”
— Monika Woods, agent at Curtis Brown
And while I love collaborating with writers, there are five things I wish they understood about our work together to make our projects run more smoothly.
Working with an editor is not free. I fear many writers search for the cheapest editor to work with, since their creative pursuits are typically extracurricular and they don’t have loads of dollar bills at the ready.
Have you ever had a crummy editor? Someone who can’t understand your voice, doesn’t respect your work, wants you to change genres, doesn’t catch your typos?
You guys. It is so not worth it to pay $10/hour for a simple proofreader. If an editor is charging so little, what does that tell you about how they value their own know-how? What you need as a creative writer is someone trained in the three types of editing (I’ll talk about them next) that best serve your storytelling, and there’s a dollar value attached to that expertise.
Most editors (including yours truly) offer a sample edit before embarking on a full project. That’s one hour, at cost, for them to edit as much of your work as possible. Doing a sample edit gives me the opportunity to make sure we’re the right fit for one another (I’ve never turned down a project due to genre, language, sex, religion or politics, but I don’t want to do you the disservice of not giving you the time to be sure I should be your editor). It also — and, more importantly when you’re on a budget — lets you read your editor’s one-hour revisions to see if they’re who you want critiquing your work and guiding you through the manuscript revision process.
Again: My expertise as an editor has value. You do have to pay me! I graduated from Saint Louis University with a B.A. in English, minor in Creative Writing and certificate in Creative and Professional Writing. I spent three years working in daily journalism as a news editor and many more years as a freelance journalist, followed by four years at an email marketing company, where I created and edited marketing and technical writing.
Guess what? My employers at those jobs paid me, too.
Types of editing
In every, single editing project of mine, I include three types of editing:
- Developmental editing (pacing and plot)
- Proofreading (cosmetic errors)
- Copyediting (comprehensive restructuring)
Many editors parse these out and charge separately, but I value complete, honest editing too much not to incorporate all forms in my projects. It would feel yucky to change “there” to “their” but not let you know that your main character’s name’s spelling changes in Chapter 3 or that the plot segue you created halfway through could stand to be moved up by eight chapters.
When you’re working with an editor who doesn’t stipulate the type of editing they do, be sure to ask.
I think of every editor-writer project as a collaboration. I’m your partner in the editing process: I want you to succeed, your manuscript to be its best, your characters to grow and your plot to arc artfully. You may receive back a manuscript that’s slashed and full of suggested changes, but it’s all in an effort to improve the work. As I always say, we work in joint tribute to the story.
“A real editor isn’t just someone you work with; he’s your guide. He sees your brain doing its thing and learns its weaknesses and abilities, and if he’s really good, he figures out what you need to hear to compensate for the former and accentuate the latter. He is the person you trust with the most intimate thing you have, your own voice.”
— Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply
It’s a huge, vulnerable act to hand over your creative work to someone on the outside. While my own editor worked through my book, I sat miles away (across an ocean, in fact), biting my nails and wondering what she’d think. Would she get what I tried to create? Would my characters impart their message? Would she hate the whole darn thing?
Can I just tell you that the day she returned my edited manuscript was one of the greatest ever? Because she wanted me to win at this whole book-writing endeavor. She was complementary, kind, insightful, skilled and judicious. I worked nearly 10 years on that book, but my goodness, I needed her. We partnered in elevating the story.
I’ve found there are two types of clients when it comes to scheduling:
- The Eager: This writer is amped to get started right away and wants their edited piece returned within a couple days.
- The Ghost: This writer asks after the editor’s availability then, when given times for a phone call or a deadline, is never heard from again.
I’d much rather work with someone eager to get started because I know they’re excited about their work. That excites me, too! Keep in mind that your editor balances other projects and likely can’t return your work within the week. That doesn’t mean your work isn’t prioritized; rather, your editor wants to do his/her best by your work by not cramming your edits between phone calls and projects started before yours.
To those who ghost when confronted with actionable items, I say to take another look at your work and a harder look at your heart to see if you’re really ready to start. It’s super scary to share your creative manuscript; I know how trepidatious that feels! But the editor you’ve consulted doesn’t forget about you: There are a handful of people who’ve reached out to me just this year — those whom I’ve even prepared contracts and set up invoicing for — who stopped responding to emails and calls. I wonder what happened to them, whether they’re well and their fictional characters are still breathing.
It takes more than two shakes of a lamb’s tail to revise a manuscript. I tend to edit 10–15 pages/hour, depending on the shape of a work (meaning how green it is, the number of typos, how rough the run-on sentences are, etc.) and prefer to work in double-spaced Times New Roman 12 pt. font.
That means if your manuscript is 100,000 words, you have about 412.8 pages. (I used this site to figure that out.) Assuming I’ll edit your piece at 12 pages/hour, that means it will take 34.4 hours, which is almost a full 40-hour U.S. work week.
It’s unrealistic to assume thoughtful, quality editing can therefore be performed in a couple days, especially if I have other projects already under way. I give my clients a true expectation of turnaround time and ask for the same transparency from them.
Does this help with your quest for an editor? I hope this gives you a peek into an editor’s mind and word process.
What other questions do you have about the writer-editor relationship? I’m happy to clear up any confusion!
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Thanks for reading! I’m Katie Lewis, a writer, editor and journalist. I work with creative writers, content marketers, community managers and others to collaborate on impactful pieces of writing — such as novels, short stories, email marketing campaigns, website content, modern resumes and confident cover letters. If you resonated with this piece, I’d love to hear more from you: in the comments, on Twitter or on my blog.