Get the Most from Your Editor by Being a Good Client
Showing your writing to a stranger for editing is nerve wracking for most people. Maybe all people. So is going to the dentist. In both instances, you’re vulnerable and you’re paying money for something that isn’t entirely pleasant.
Let me stretch the analogy just a bit to point out that patients get the most out of their dentist when they cooperate. They answer questions honestly (e.g., How often do you floss?), they continue the work on their own (e.g., by doing the above-mentioned flossing), they ask questions (e.g., How long will this temporary last?), and they recognize the dentist is cleaning their teeth because it’s good for the teeth, not because they have fun making people’s gums bleed.
The same is true with your manuscript. You’ll get the most out of your editor by cooperating, actively working with this stranger so you’re happy with the results.
Be Honest with Your Editor
An editor can only do such much, so tell the editor about anything you want them to focus on. An editor will comment on characterization, but that doesn’t mean they’ll comment on a specific character or on a specific aspect of your characters. If you’re worried your love interest is boring, tell the editor that when you give them the manuscript. If you’re nervous the ending of your whodunit is obvious, direct your editor to evaluate it.
And tell your editor if there’s something you don’t want commented on. If you’re writing a book based on your faith and don’t want the editor to pick apart your logic, tell them so.
Little story. I once had a client give what he called an erotic novel, but the sex was just boring as anything. I spent time carefully explaining just why it was boring and why having boring sex in an erotic novel was a problem. About two-thirds through the book, I realized the book was actually a parable about why having sex is a bad thing and that the sex was supposed to be boring. I had to go back and take out hours of work and re-evaluate everything. A little honesty from the client would have saved me hours of work and allowed me to do a better job.
There’s no need for a checklist. Editors know to look at grammar and style and plot and so on. But if you’ve got specific concerns, let us know!
Continue the Work on Your Own
Writing is a life-long process of learning and criticism and trying again and revising and rewriting and more feedback and trying again forever in an endless cycle. Getting better at writing means doing more writing. Only by writing do we learn how to write.
Indeed, I’m not sure an editor can “teach” a writer anything. Certainly, editors cannot tell authors how to change things to be “correct” (except for grammar). We can only point to things and say that we think they are great or need to be improved and try to explain why. If an editor actually goes in there and tries to fix such things, they become a co-author.
An editing job ends when the client is satisfied, not just when the manuscript comes back with its edits and comments. If a client isn’t sure what a comment means, they should (and they are expected to by any reputable business) ask the editor to explain.
All questions about the manuscript are welcome. Perhaps something the editor said contradicts what you heard in a creative writing class and you want their opinion. A problem with writing is that it involves thousands of things, and fictional writing is so much a matter of taste. I recently had a client say they’d been told “backstory is the kiss of death.” Several of my favorite (and highly successful) novels open with backstory.
Good questions I’ve been asked include whether a character who worked as a poet had to recite some of their poetry to give them credibility. (I said I didn’t see the need.) Another asked me to elaborate on why I said all the characters sounded the same when they talked. (I pointed out more instances of when different characters used the same phrases, showed the same level of education, and used similar imagery.) Another great question was why I liked a minor character so much. (She had a great sense of humor, and she was never cruel.)
I’ll tell you the truth. Sometimes writing comments on manuscripts feels a lot like talking to yourself in an empty room. A little Q&A conversation makes for a lovely change of pace.
Sorry About the Bleeding Gums
I have a friend who says she loves getting criticism. I know she’s lying. She might value it, might appreciate it, but love getting it? No way.
Yet when you hire an editor it’s criticism you’re paying for. If an editor doesn’t say something negative (or at least not so positive) at some point in the process, they’re just not doing their job.
But one thing can help you read through an edit, even a very strict one, with a minimum of pain.
Always bear in mind that being an editor takes quite a bit of dedication, and it’s not the sort of job that’s going to appeal to someone who doesn’t like authors. I personally have enormous respect for anyone who takes the time needed to write either fiction or nonfiction. I spend my days reading, and I enjoy it.
It can be tempting to think the editor is sneering at you or is getting tired of your misuse of the semi-colon. It’s hard not to wince they tell you your main character isn’t convincing or not to feel pecked at when a comment seems a little short.
But trust me, nobody I know who edits enjoys the knowledge that we might hurt feelings. We work under deadlines, but we get nothing from being glib. And editors are paid to fix grammar, or we’re pretty useless as a species.
What’s most important here is not hurt feelings but what happens when a client no longer feels they can trust their editor. How can anyone get anything of value from someone they feel is making fun of them? If you’re starting to hear sarcasm when you read your editor’s comments, take a break and re-set yourself. When you’re feeling defensive, even “Do you mean for this period to be here?” can sound like some snipe from a snob.
And if, after that, you still think a comment is offensive, write to the editor and ask what’s going on. Learning how to edit is also a life-long process of learning and criticism and trying again and revising and rewriting and more feedback and trying again forever in an endless cycle.