Right now, not for the first time, I find myself on both sides of the editorial process. On the one hand, I am co-editing the DERELICT anthology, reading submissions and starting to think about how authors might want to improve the stories that will be appearing in the collection. At the same time, I am starting to process editorial feedback on an upcoming novel that I’ve recently sold. As I have written before, the editor-author relationship is complex, sensitive, at times fraught. Working on both sides of it has taught me a great deal — about being a better a writer, and being a better editor.
I’ve written about this before from the writer’s side, focusing on the the following points: 1) Editors are our allies. The good ones, of which there are many, are interested in helping us make our stories or novels as great as they can be. 2) It’s never easy to hear criticism of our work, but it is essential to the creative process. Effective editors know how to present criticism in palatable ways so that we can use the feedback as it is intended. 3) When handled correctly on both sides — with sensitivity on the part of the editor and an open mind on the part of the writer — the revision process can be incredibly rewarding.
I have been editing for a far shorter time than I’ve been writing — three years versus, well, forever. But, of course, I come to my role as editor with more than a passing understanding of the process. In a sense, facing the difficulties of being an editor should be easy for me. From personal experience, I understand that authors don’t always respond well to critiques of our work. We can be resistant to making changes that steer our narratives away from our initial vision and suspicious of suggestions that the initial vision itself might be flawed in some fundamental way.
I have learned, though, that editors can be every bit as invested in the work as writers. Certainly editors form a different sort of attachment, but that doesn’t mean it lacks power, and it doesn’t mean editors are inured from frustrations of their own. I know that when I pour my energy into a piece, making notes and looking for solutions that will strengthen the narrative or clarify character motivation or punch up the prose, I find it deeply troubling, even hurtful when writers ignore my notes and recommendations.
Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that every single bit of feedback I offer as editor has to be acted upon and followed as I suggest. The writer in me rebels at the very notion of this. But I have seen writers ignore editorial feedback entirely, either because they feel they know better, or because they refuse to accept that their piece is anything less than perfect. That’s deeply frustrating.
The editor-writer relationship is built on trust and mutual respect. Writers have to trust that the editor wants the same thing they do — for the story in question to be as powerful and entertaining and affecting as possible. And they have to respect all that the editor brings to the process — experience with the written word, understanding of storytelling and its components, and the ability to discern where those components are working and where they’re not.
Editors have to trust that the writer made her decisions about wording, character arc, plotting, etc. with purpose, that she didn’t do these things haphazardly, but rather knew at every step how each phrase would contribute to her story. And they have to respect the sanctity of that vision I mentioned earlier, understanding that every change to the original document might pull it away — however incrementally — from the author’s artistic intent.
Writers and editors also have to keep in mind that neither party is perfect. Authors mess up. So do editors. Speaking as an author, I can tell you that no manuscript is perfect. Speaking as an editor, I can tell you that we don’t have a monopoly on wisdom.
Ultimately, when both sides dig in, it falls to editors to surrender. I say this not because I’m a lifelong writer, but because it is the writer’s story. Her name is on it. She created it. And I say this because every decent editor I have ever worked with has said the same to me. “It’s your story.” With that in mind, though, I would advise every writer reading this to give careful consideration to all the feedback editors give you, even if ultimately you reject some of it. They didn’t offer their criticisms lightly. They saw and identified elements of the story that needed work, and even if you don’t follow exactly their prescription for fixing these things, you should consider how you might make changes that will address their concerns.
Trust and respect, and, most importantly, a shared desire to get the most out of a story idea. These are the foundations of the writer-editor relationship. Having worked extensively on both sides, I can tell you that when all three pillars are present, the relationship can be incredibly rewarding.