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What to Expect from a Book Editor

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

The role that editors play on behalf of their clients is more complicated than most novice writers understand. This has everything to do with the fact that there is no one level or one definition of editing. In fact, there are four levels of editing—five, if you count proofreading as a level of editing—that I envision as an inverted pyramid: developmental, substantive, line, copy. Part of the trickiness of starting an editing project is choosing which level is needed. Why is this tricky? My experience is, what a writer thinks a manuscript needs and what I think it needs don’t always agree.

Complicating matters further, there is limited agreement among editors and even publishers as to exactly how to define what work is done at each level of editing. As a professional editor, I am frustrated that the work done at each level can’t be standardized industrywide. But I’ve found an easy solution to this problem.

Be Clear About Your Responsibility

If you are an editor, you must decide on and make clear to potential clients what editorial work you will do at each level. I have a page on my business website called Services & Rates. Here, I define in detail what I will do at each editorial level. When I sign a contract with a writer for editorial services, I again detail what services I will do to fulfill the contract. This avoids confusion as to whether I have done what I said I would do, per the terms of the contract. It has never happened to me (probably because I’m detailed) that a conflict about service has occurred with a client. But I do know other editors who have not been so fortunate.

As an author, you have the responsibility to make sure you understand what services you will receive from an editor that you hire, and not expect or demand work beyond the scope of an agreement. You should expect to be spoken to with respect (after all, you are paying the editor to work for you). Likewise, you should be respectful of your editor, to ensure a professional working relationship.

Conflict: What You Want vs. What You Need

Sometimes, conflict arises between what the author has written and what the editor wants to change to meet established grammar and style rules, or as a matter of clarity. I want to lay out here what the responsibilities of the editor and the author are.

The editor is obligated to work in harmony with the author to produce the most correct, readable, and accurate manuscript possible. Editing is always a collaborative effort—a good editor is a partner in the creation of a manuscript that is publishing-ready. A writer has the right to maintain some degree of control over the point, purpose, audience, and voice of the manuscript. The editor, first and foremost, works to produce a high-quality manuscript that meets the writer’s expectations for the manuscript.

The author has responsibilities to the editor, as well. The author is obligated to respect the experience and expertise of the editor they have hired. To employ an editor and then disagree or argue with them about every change they recommend will result in an unnecessarily contentious and exhausting work experience. Some writers have accused their editors of hijacking their work, stealing their voice, and making edits just to make the manuscript read the way they prefer. Writers should stay open-minded when working with an editor and acknowledge that they might learn from the editor. And become better writers in the process.

So how can conflict be avoided? Or reconciled?

Mutual Respect is Essential

Professional editors are not only knowledgeable about grammar, word usage, punctuation, and spelling, but they present a professional attitude toward their clients that is one part partner, one part mentor, and one part teacher. An editor should be able and willing to explain the reasoning behind the changes they make, be it word choice, word order, or even the justification of their edits by explaining the basic rules of grammar and syntax.

What is the minimum a writer can expect from an editor? The editor’s critique should be worded in a constructive—not accusatory—manner. And most importantly, in my opinion, an editor’s comments should never personally attack the writer, never belittle, and never, ever take an adversarial position.

And what is the minimum an editor can expect from a client? Appreciation for the experience and training they bring to a project. And the humility to acknowledge that the editor really knows their stuff.

Authors, are you part of a writers’ group? Are you a beta reader? I believe The Golden Rule of Critique is, treat other writers as you wish to be treated.

When It’s Just Not Working Out

Once in a while, the working relationship between an author and an editor doesn’t click. It might be a personality clash. Maybe a disagreement about the point and purpose of the manuscript. Maybe someone feels disrespected by a comment and it taints the relationship beyond repair. It happens.

I know stories of authors who fire their editors. And I know stories of editors who have quit the writers they’re working with. Once hard feelings develop, it might signal the end of the collaboration. Such a situation shouldn’t leave either party permanently jaded. Sometimes, things don’t work out. Move on.

Editors can learn how to revise their contracts to be more specific, refine their review process to ensure neutrality of tone, and recognize a type of client that they are likely to experience conflicts with.

Writers can learn how to ask for clarification of the services the editor will perform, understand and agree to the way the editor will communicate with them (phone calls, Zoom, email, etc.), and get a feel, before a contract is signed, as to how collaborative the editor is likely to be.

Editors, please share with me your experiences, good or bad, with clients. What worked well for you? What resulted in a project falling apart?

Authors, please share with me your experiences, good or bad, with editors. Was there confusion over the type of editorial services to be performed? Did you ever feel belittled or insulted by the editor? Did you have a great collaborative editor who served as a mentor to bring your manuscript to fruition? Or the opposite?

In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.

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