The following article was written upon request for Queer Company 2015, an event run by Manifold Press. My target audience was novelists who’d never before worked with an editor, and the goal was reassuring them that their book would be in safe hands. My perspective on editing, however, applies to all types of writing and writers.
“I was worried an editor wouldn’t understand my method and would laugh at me. But you gave me a lot of great feedback and it improved my book. I wouldn’t have been able to publish it otherwise.”
– Some of my favourite client feedback
I still remember the first time I sent a short story to a friend for feedback. Instant messenger was on, but neither of us were at the computer. She was reading my story and I was pacing the room, waiting for her response. My hands were shaking. My stomach wouldn’t settle. I couldn’t take it any more and sent her a message:
– How bad is it?
After a couple of minutes, she wrote back:
– It’s not bad at all. It needs work, but it’s not bad.
You don’t know the relief I felt. Or maybe you do. It’s been many years, but I will always remember that incredible moment of being told that my writing wasn’t bad.
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, your words aren’t just marks on a page. They’re part of you. They represent something important. You chose those words. You agonised over those words: Is that really what I mean? Am I accurately translating the images from my head into a language people can understand? Does any of this make sense? Is anyone even going to want to read it?
Will people laugh at me if I share my words with them?
You have enough doubts and worries about writing, so let me set your mind at ease about editors: We are not here to laugh at you. We are here to help you. We are here to work with you. We want your story to shine and be the very best it can possibly be.
We want this because we like to help, it’s our job and, quite frankly, if you look good, we look good.
Editing is all about trust. My clients trust me to tell them the truth. They want to hear what is working and what needs improvement. They trust me to be direct and honest.
It doesn’t help my clients if I say, “Have you considered possibly maybe that this sentence just might be a little bit unclear? Maybe? Just a little?”
That’s patronising. My clients don’t want to be coddled. They want to hear the truth.
In turn, I trust that my clients are understanding and intelligent people. I trust that they care about their work; that’s why they’ve come to me, after all. I trust that they will listen to what I have to say and consider my comments carefully.
This is why I provide alternatives and make suggestions. For example: ‘The meaning of this sentence isn’t clear. Do you mean X or Y? If it’s X, you can use these alternatives. If it’s Y, the information is already in the previous paragraph and you can remove this sentence.’
I give my clients useful information and I trust them to use it. As the above example shows, being direct doesn’t mean being cruel. It’s not who I am and that’s not what being an editor is about.
And yes, I absolutely give positive feedback as well. Ask any of my clients. They’ll tell you how their manuscripts are filled with comments like, ‘This is hilarious!’, ‘Great character development’, and ‘Don’t open that door what are you thinking nooooooo!’
Take our handy quiz and find out!
A. Have you written a book that you intend to share with a wider audience? Yes/No
B. Are you a human being? Yes/No
If you answered ‘no’ to the first question, then you probably don’t need an editor. If you answered ‘no’ to the second question, that is pretty cool and I have a lot of questions of my own.
If you answered ‘yes’ to both of these questions, then you need an editor. Here’s why:
1. We’re human. We make mistakes. It’s not a moral failing; it’s just part of life. An editor will help you spot errors before your readers see them;
2. We’re all too close to our work to be objective. An editor can provide you with a fresh perspective. Your main character’s motivations are perfectly obvious to you because you created the character. You’ve lived with the character and know everything there is to know about them. An editor will let you know that what is clear to you isn’t clear to the reader, and that you’ll need to do some revising;
3. We all need to hear what we’re doing right. An editor can tell you the strengths of your work. That will not only feel good, it will build your confidence and help you hone your skills. Maybe you’re much better at writing mysteries or comedy than you thought, or you’re really good at creating vivid descriptions;
4. We cannot know everything there is to know. What if you included a fact that was incorrect? What if you used a slur or perpetuated a stereotype? What if a word that is harmless in your part of the world is not-so-harmless elsewhere? Wouldn’t you rather know before making your work public?
Editors step into the role of the reader for you. If we pick up on a problem, you can be sure your readers will as well. The difference is that your readers aren’t going to tell you.
They will tell other readers, though. Or they will just stop reading your work. That isn’t what either of us want.
It’s definitely nerve-wracking to share your work with another, especially for the purposes of correction and feedback. So if you’re still unsure about working with an editor, ask them your questions beforehand. If you need some reassurance, then you need some reassurance, and no decent editor will get angry with you or turn you away because of that.
You might not know that editors are often writers themselves. So believe me, we feel your pain. We know how hard it can be to finish a book. We therefore have no interest in attacking you or criticising you personally. Any feedback you receive is about the story, not about you as a person.
We’re not going to laugh at you.
We’re not going to mock.
We’re going to help.
© Two Marshmallows 2015; 2021
* Voor mijn Nederlandse bezoekers: Ik spreek zowel Engels als Nederlands, dus u kunt voor vragen over schrijven en copywriting in beide talen bij mij terecht.