The Hardest Part of Being an Editor
After Five Years of Editing, One Thing Still Sucks.
I’ve been a freelance editor now for five years. It’s a big milestone. I’ve probably read hundreds, if not thousands of manuscripts at this point. My focus as an editor is science fiction and fantasy, young adult, and poetry, but I also often work with nonfiction clients.
As an editor, my job is to try and serve the manuscript and give the best advice I can, for that writer. I very much take into consideration what the writer wants to achieve with a book and why.
I’ve worked with small presses, indie authors, new writers, and experienced writers. Despite how different we all are as writers, we usually all have an inability to look objectively at our work. That’s why editors can be so valuable.
And there’s one thing that never gets easier to tell a writer.
Your writing just isn’t working.
This can happen for several reasons. What’s strange is that it’s often the most simple of things that are going wrong in a manuscript. But we writers (and I’m one too) are often unable to see that one thing that honestly isn’t working. That one thing can vary from author to author.
Here are some of the ways I’ve seen writers fail and fail big:
Your manuscript is too long, or too short.
One of the hardest edits to deliver seems straightforward. But it’s very often that a writer has gone way too far, or way too short.
I say all the time, “there are exceptions to every rule.” I’m not going to say that there isn’t a small chance you’ll find someone to publish a book that’s too long or too short. But the truth is that if your goal is to get an agent or publish your book, you need to be aware of genre guidelines and you have to find a way to make your book fit them.
You’re not following basic genre rules.
Look, I love genre-bending. But it takes a talented writer to pull it off. And sometimes, the crossgenre element, whatever it may be, just isn’t working.
The thing about writing in say, science fiction, is that readers are smart. They will know when you don’t know the genre. Read widely and break the rules after you’ve mastered them.
Your line-level writing still needs work.
I work with a lot of new writers. And sometimes, the honest truth is that it takes a long time to develop your voice. But what takes even longer is the mastery of that craft.
If your writing has too many grammar errors or is simply difficult to read because of awkward phrasing, it’s something that has to be pointed out. And it’s not the end of the world. Even bestselling authors need a proofreader or copyeditor!
You’ve chosen the wrong point of view, or too many points of view
It’s so easy to make this mistake. You’re telling the story from the point of view of the person outside of the action. But the readers want to hear the story of the person who is in the thick of it. Or, you’ve chosen an ensemble cast and your reader has a hard time following so many names.
This can be so hard to gauge. One of the best ways is to ask several people to read your book. If they all agree the point of view isn’t working…it’s time to rethink your strategy and find the most interesting character on the page.
Your main character is boring
Similarly, it’s really hard to pull off an everyday Joe character. One example I can think of is Blade Runner 2049. Joe thinks he’s something special, but it turns out he’s just a cog in the wheel. What allows this character to be interesting is the setting and genre elements. There’s also a hidden intrigue: IS Joe just another clone? Or is he something else entirely?
The very best characters are interesting. They have quirks and realistic weaknesses. They make mistakes. They put themselves into situations that end badly, making the reader think “How would I react? What would I do?” This is what draws a reader into a book.
Your plot is confusing
Even the best plotters get lost along the way. Plot is one of the hardest things to conquer in writing a book. A lot of times this is because writers make the mistake of thinking the *shit that happens* is plot.
But the plot is really the actions a character takes, the decisions they make, and the emotional thrust of the book. Your reader does not care if cool explosions are happening unless those explosions are going to mess up someone’s life and entirely change the course of their story.
Make the reader care and the plot could be mundane. Look at The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. The plot is sometimes small and domestic (unlike the television show, which had to add some action for the screen). But it has major consequences on the protagonist’s life.
You keep making the same mistakes
This one sucks so much to tell a writer. But the truth is, we all have our weaknesses as writers. We have themes we come back to over and over again. After all, writing is the act of getting our inner world on the page. Sometimes that inner world is haunted by ghosts and those ghosts keep cropping up again and again.
When your editor says “I see that you’ve slipped into passive voice again here,” it sucks to acknowledge it, but it’s better to know now than later.
Your book is set in an empty room
One of the reasons that people love to read is that they want to be transported — to Rome or to another world. Setting is one of the things that writers seem to miss entirely sometimes. A conversation between two people is fascinating, but for a scene to feel fully fleshed-out, it needs setting too. These are the basic elements of fiction that make a book feel grounded.
Your dialogue is flat or convoluted
Dialogue can go either way. I’ve seen writers write dialogue that’s so boring it makes my eyeballs peel. But I’ve also seen writers that are in *love* with dialogue to the point that it drags on for pages and makes the reader think, “where is this going?”
One of the best ways to write great dialogue is to give your characters something to do while they talk. But even better is to make your dialogue hide something.
Here’s an example I heard Ben Percy give. Two people at a dinner table are discussing something totally mundane, like say, the weather. But the writer reveals that underneath the table is a dead body. Immediately the dialogue takes on new meaning. Why aren’t they talking about the dead body in the room?
Give your dialogue a dead body.
Your story is emotionless
I see this mistake made by even bestselling authors. One example is The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. Forgive me if you loved this book, but I’m about to rip it apart. What I so disliked about the books was that I didn’t feel for any of the characters. In fact, I felt like the author didn’t care about them either. This is because readers need to feel the emotion a character is going through.
Placing distance between the reader and this emotion is a surefire way to make your book feel pointless. Emotion is key.
Think about every popular book. How does it make readers feel? Why do people love the characters? Why do they ship them? It’s the emotional factor that sells every time.
Your big idea has been done already
Ideas don’t sell books. Characters, fine writing, craft, and emotion sell books. But if your book is a very close copy of say, Harry Potter, it’s going to be hard to sell.
But don’t despair.
Even if you’ve accidentally written a book that’s way too similar to something already out there, that doesn’t mean it isn’t salvageable.
It sucks delivering bad news to a writer. I always try to find what’s working in a manuscript and give the writer a list of things that they absolutely shouldn’t cut. But it’s still hard to deliver the news that a writer has made one of the big mistakes above.
Do you know what the beautiful thing about every single item on this list is?
Every single one of these problems is fixable.
I also love when a writer takes my suggestions, finds a fix, and comes back with a manuscript that’s so great it punches me in the gut.
One of the most important things about being a writer is flexibility. If you can take a big mistake and make it work, you’ll have fans who love your book. What matters is how you deal with the bad news.
Are you going to give up, or are you going to make it work?
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.