Editing Is a Conversation


Editing Is a Conversation

Too often people view editing as a one-way service in which the editor “corrects” the author’s prose. To get the most out of the author–editor relationship, however, it’s important to remember two things:

• Editing is a conversation.
• Edits are suggestions.

(Though general principles still apply, the following is geared toward the relationship between indie authors and editors. In traditional publishing the author will usually not communicate directly with the copy editor or proofreader.)

The Conversation: Working Together

The author and editor are partners working in service of the reader. This relationship is laid out beautifully in one of my favorite books—The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller. (I will never stop recommending this book!)

The editor is there to help the author and to honor the author’s voice. As with any good conversation, this means that the editor must practice the art of listening so that they can hear that voice before they can edit effectively.

Of course, editors also bring expertise that authors may not possess. This expertise includes adherence with style guides and dictionaries, awareness of inclusivity concerns, and knowledge of publishing standards.

But, again, it’s important to remember that the author’s voice should always be honored, so if maintaining that voice and serving the audience means bending a guideline, then that’s what the editor will do. Style sheets exist in part to record exceptions to style so that they can be applied intelligently and consistently.

If an author has a style preference, they should let their editor know, and authors should feel empowered to “push back” against their editor. I’ve put that phrase in quotes because, when pushing back, authors will usually be surprised by how little resistance they meet.

Edits Are Suggestions

Whether an author is reviewing a tracked change or a comment, the author does not have to accept that change or suggestion. The author is paying the editor for the service, so it’s advisable to consider the editor’s suggestions, but the author always has the power to reject an edit.

If an author feels as though they’re fighting their editor every step of the way and arguing every change, then that’s probably a good sign either that they’re not ready for editing (which requires an openness to being edited) or that they’re working with the wrong editor.

If the former, then the author may need to open themselves to being edited and remember that the editor is there to help. It’s easy to be defensive, but too much defensiveness can work against the reader.

If the latter, then the author may need to rethink the relationship. A great author and great editor may not pair well for any number of reasons, and there’s nothing wrong with amicably parting ways.

The Conversation

Perhaps the most effective way to ensure that editing is a helpful conversation is to remember that it is a conversation. As with all conversations, politeness and respectfulness should be maintained at every stage, by both parties.

Before Editing

Sometimes an author–editor fit can be determined only by working through an edit, but authors can learn a lot about their editor by reviewing their website, social media posts, and listings in professional organizations.

A sample edit shows an editor’s editing style (heavy, medium, or light), their ability to use basic markup functions, and their commenting style (a good comment should explain the issue, explain why it’s an issue, and offer a suggestion or resource).

Email exchanges also indicate an editor’s professionalism, timeliness, and demeanor. Editors are sometimes open to video calls (though, of course, editors are notoriously introverted).

During Editing

The editor’s primary means of communication during editing is through tracked changes, comments, and the style sheet.

While an editor will usually make silent edits to clean up such things as double spaces, spaces around returns, and straight quotes), these silent edits will be listed on the style sheet, and other edits will be tracked for the author’s review.

This is part of the open conversation so that the author is fully aware of what the editor is doing and there are no surprises.

Comments are essential for explaining edits, querying such things as continuity issues, and even offering the occasional “Well done!”

Needless to say, an editor’s comments should never be condescending or mean spirited.

The style sheet is a separate document that details general guidelines for editing, exceptions to style, a word list of proper nouns and manuscript-specific styles, a character list with character details (helpful to ensure such things as eye color don’t change during the course of the story!), setting details, and a timeline (a big aid for continuity concerns).

After Editing

When the editor returns the manuscript and style sheet, they will continue the conversation with an editorial letter (usually an email) covering the work. I’ve also been employing Loom to use video to add a personal touch and demonstrate such things as good practices for reviewing tracked changes.

The conversation may continue if the editor will also be reconciling edits after the author’s review, and I always make it a point to encourage authors to send me any questions that arise while they’re reviewing the edits.

The Ongoing Conversation

It’s a beautiful thing when authors and editors work together to present readers with works that inspire, amaze, and take them to faraway places of wonder. Keep the conversation going, and make it a good one.

Leave a Comment