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There’s an article that’s been making the rounds with editors over the past week – 10 Things Your Freelance Editor Might Not Tell You — But Should, by Tanya Egan Gibson in Writer’s Digest. In it, she hits every note in the editor-author songbook, from describing what different levels of editing involve to identifying the often unspoken understanding that “the editor’s job is to make your book the best it can be.”
Many editors who read this piece said they would recommend it to their clients. Many also said they wished they’d written it themselves. Editors know how important clear editor-author communication is, but that doesn’t mean they always achieve it. Unspoken expectations on both sides of this relationship – about fees, timelines, who is responsible for what – can lead to disastrous results, and both parties pay a price.
Between points 1 and 10, Gibson raises the delicate question of whether or how well editors are able to provide the kind of honest criticism that is as difficult to deliver as it is to receive – the news that an author’s work might not be ready for publication. If, after all, both editor and author agree that the editor’s job is to make the book the best it can be, then they may also tacitly agree that it is the editor’s job to bring the book up to scratch.
But never mind publishing. What if the author’s manuscript is not ready for editing?
The same day that Gibson’s article appeared in Writer’s Digest, Catherine Ryan Howard, at her self-publishing blog Catherine, Caffeinated, published the results of a poll that asked: Do you read self-published books differently? The answer? A resounding “yes.” Howard suggests that reasons might include obvious errors (typos? formatting?) and the impression that the book was not finished. In other words, Howard’s respondents regard self-published books as WIPs. Ah.
I learned of this survey in an online group, where editors discuss (mostly) work-related topics, and this subject comes up again and again. Typically, someone will query the other editors, asking for an opinion about how to handle an aspect of a manuscript. Inevitably, options and opinions go back and forth until someone says, “It sounds like this manuscript wasn’t ready for editing,” and the one who queried replies, “I have tried to tell the author it needs more work, but he/she insists it’s ready and wants to move ahead.”
Response to Howard’s poll in the editors’ group was even more pointed. Many agreed that they receive manuscripts that need considerably more work before they’re edited, but that eager authors just aren’t receiving the message that their money might be better spent initially on writers’ workshops or courses. They would rather take the exotic route, it seems, and use feedback from reader reviews to revise their work after they’ve published it.
There are lots of options out there for writers who want to perfect their skills. They focus on mechanics and other aspects of writing and also offer constructive feedback – writers’ groups and workshops, classes, online courses and writing coaches, to name a few. There are platforms such as Wattpad, where you can post your work and receive feedback before you publish your book. Litreactor is another online writing community offering workshops and classes. Many editors will provide an express manuscript evaluation, assessing a portion of your book and pointing out where and how it can be improved.
Editing is expensive. Self-published authors who invest in professional editing are hoping for a return on this investment, but this is less likely to happen if they haven’t also invested the time it takes to improve their craft. Editors can and want to help, but can only do this effectively if authors are willing to take the additional steps required to make their work shine. It’s a conversation. Editors, speak up! Authors, are you listening?
Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously credited Brian Klems as the author of 10 Things Your Freelance Editor Might Not Tell You — But Should. Apologies to Tanya Egan Gibson.