Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#17: Have Faith In Your Editor

by Seanan McGuire

This is actually a thought that applies to everyone who writes, whether you're doing essays for a class or trying to craft the Great American/European/Australian/Martian/Whatever Novel. It's publishing-oriented in the sense that I do believe that work intended for publication requires more extensive editing, and we'll be talking about that. It's also writing-for-fun-oriented, in the sense that we want our readers not to bludgeon us to death with trout. Here's today's expanded topic of discussion:

A good editor looks good when you look good. They're trying to help you. Listen to them. Not everyone is a good editor. After a few experiences with the bad ones, you'll learn how to recognize the difference.

It's impossible to provide the experience necessary to tell a good editor from a bad one, at least in part because that definition will vary from person to person. Sometimes the variation will be slight; other times, the variation will be large enough to become incomprehensible. So we're going to try to cover the generalities today, and more importantly, we're going to be discussing the reasons that we need to be edited at all.

Ready? Excellent. Let's get started.

Lies we tell ourselves.

All of us, as writers, will lie to ourselves. That's the nature of the game. Lying is, after all, very closely related to storytelling, and when you spend the whole day telling the big lies to the paper, it's easy to tell small lies to yourself. (Please note that I'm not saying 'all writers are liars.' As a class of people, we're just as honest or dishonest as any other class of people. I'm pretty sure everybody on the planet lies to themselves. I'm just talking about the lies that writers, in specific, like to tell when the doors are closed.) There are some lies that seem to be pretty close to universal. Here's a sampling:

"I don't really need an editor."

"I think that having someone review your work saps it of creative freedom."

"Revision isn't good for the story."

"I always get it right the first time."

"The roughness lends it a feeling of urgency."

"I always got great marks in spelling. What can a spellchecker tell me that I don't already know?"

I have encountered every one of these big fat lies in at least three other authors. Note the phrase 'other authors.' I have also encountered every one of these big fat lies in myself. It's late, I'm tired, I'm feeling fragile, I don't want to submit my work for review. I don't want to run it through a spellcheck and get told, again, that I can't spell 'embarrassing' right (seriously, I have come up with more ways to mangle that word...). I'm a competent writer. I'm even a good writer. I don't need somebody to go over my work with a fine-toothed comb and pick it to death and make me feel stupid for using commas wrong. Right?

Wrong. Wrong, and wrong, and wrong again. Yes, I'm a competent writer. Yes, I'm a good writer. And yes, I need to have somebody -- preferably multiple somebodies -- go over my work before I release it out into the wild. Is there a certain raw urgency to unedited text? Sure. I don't usually submit my off-the-cuff poetry for peer review, because in a short form, that raw urgency can be a whole lot of fun. Do I spell most words correctly? After more than twenty years of flinging words at pages, yes, I've figured out how things are normally spelled. Those are just the superficial aspects of a much larger necessity.

Yes, a bad editor can be creatively and emotionally bad for the writer, as well as for the work. Then again, a bad anything can be creatively and emotionally bad for whatever it is they're trying to do. Bad cooks make bad soup. Bad teachers give bad lessons. And bad editors give bad edits. Still, one batch of bad soup doesn't mean that all soup is to be avoided; one bad French lesson doesn't mean it's time to bomb France back into the Stone Age and wipe the language from the face of the world.

If you want to be a serious writer, whether you're writing for fun or for publication, you need to be edited. The extent of that editing is determined by a) your own goals, b) your intentions, and c) the quality of your editors. You get to set the bar, at least early in your career, but as things go on, you're going to find that the bar is taken away from you. It's best to be prepared for that.

What makes a good editor?

In an effort to do some research beyond my own experience, I punched the words 'good editor' into Google -- the lazy researcher's second best friend, after Wikipedia -- and skimmed through the results. What I found was the usual mish-mash of opinions and statistics, some of them better formatted than others (and some, comically, in need of a good editor themselves). Just about everything either covered the hard skills -- which I'll go into in a moment -- or were just as based on opinion as this essay. So I'll rely on my own experience, and note that for you, the 'soft skills' part of finding a good editor is probably going to be entirely subjective. Go forth. Find your own balance.

So what are the 'hard skills' that a good editor needs to possess? That depends very much on what that editor is being asked to do. For example:

My work goes through three tiers of review before it reaches my agent. The first-tier readers are asked to review for punctuation, spelling, word use, and continuity errors; I'm likely to disregard or shelve any comments they give me on pacing or logic at that stage, because I'm still feeling my way through things. The second-tier readers, on the other hand, are explicitly asked to attack pacing and logic, and have the quantity of text necessary to really dig their claws in and start shredding. By the time I reach the third-tier, most of the major issues have been resolved...which results in a lot of smaller issues becoming visible. The process of editing is a lot like the process of cleaning a very messy bedroom: until you have all the laundry off the floor, you don't realize that there's other stuff scattered all over the place.

My agent gets the work after it's been 'signed off' by all my initial readers. Now, note that she's getting her hands on something all of us have declared to be clean and ready for prime time. We've done our editing, and we're feeling good about it. You could typeset that puppy right now. Right? Um, wrong. Inevitably, my work comes back from the agent with a few suggested changes, and those changes are, almost invariably, genuinely beneficial to the text. Does she do the early labor, the heavy-lifting of getting the bed off the floor and sweeping underneath it? No. But she's the one who points out that maybe before we have guests in, that bed should be made. And all this happens before we reach the big editor, the one at my publishing house.

How many of these editors you have will depend entirely on what kind of work you're doing. You may have one person who reviews all aspects of your work; you may have all the same people that I do. If you don't have an agent, you may go straight to the big editor. It's all very personal.

What hard skills do all these editorial levels need to possess? First, a reasonable command of the language. Having someone who doesn't speak English edit an English-language manuscript isn't just unhelpful, it's silly. Second, a reasonable understanding of flow and pacing. Third, a reasonable understanding of the rules of grammar and punctuation. My model doesn't require any single person to be able to do all these things (although my agent and my big editor absolutely need to encompass them all). Your model may.

Please note that these are just the hard skills: the things that are absolute yes/no qualities. It's possible for someone to be firmly grounded in every single one of those hard skills, making them a wonderful editor on paper, and still be a terrible editor for you. That's where the soft skills come in.

Soft skills are people skills. They're not only having the capacity to spot a continuity error, but the capability to point it out without utterly crushing the author's ego. They're the skills that make an editor a nice person. Basically, imagine your potential editors as employees in a tech support call center. There's the one guy who's been there since time began. He knows everything. He can fix any system, no matter how broken. Trouble is, he's an asshole. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there's the really sweet new girl who's willing to stay on the phone with you all day if that's what it takes. Maybe she's not very good with the systems yet, but she'll hold your hand all the way through.

The hard skills will remain necessary throughout the length of your career, although your dependence on them may lessen as you grow more experienced. I get a lot fewer punctuation-corrections than I used to, although I'll never be past needing them. Your need for the soft skills, on the other hand, will gradually decrease, until you can just go straight to that asshole in the back of the room. It's all a matter of what makes a good editor for you, right now.

So what makes a bad editor?

The nasty thing about bad editors is their ability to sneak up on you. See, they can have all the hard skills necessary for a good editor. They can even have the soft skills. Hell, they can even be good editors for that guy over there -- but that doesn't mean they can't be bad for you.

If your editor can't stop trying to take control of your story, they're a bad editor. If your editor insists on critiquing you, rather than critiquing your text, they're a bad editor. If your editor is more interested in looking cool than helping you, they're a bad editor. Bad editors are just as subjective as good ones, and can be very subtle. If you find that you're not working well with someone, they may simply be a bad editor for you. Admit that you can't work with them, and move on. No harm, no fail.

That's not very helpful.

Sorry. You figure out what makes a bad editor through experience. I can't give you that. I can tell you that I encourage my editors to be extremely harsh, because I've had the time to build up a reasonably thick skin; I would never turn them loose on someone who wasn't prepared to be skinned alive. They'd be very bad editors for a beginning writer as they are right now. (This is my 'at home' editorial pool I'm talking about, not my agent or the editor at my publishing house, both of whom are skilled enough to adjust their approach to authors of any experience level.)

At the end of the day, it really does come down to the simple fact that a good editor looks good when you do, and a good editor is a lot more objective about your text than you are. I love every book I've ever written. I love every draft I've ever done. I've needed editors every step along the way, because they were the only ones who could tell me that my book was lovely, sure, but also deeply flawed and in need of help. Have I made progress without editors? Yes. But the really big steps, the really impressive changes, were almost all inspired by solid critique from people I trusted.

Find good editors. Listen to them. Trust them. The only thing a good editor wants to do is help, and they're almost always going to be right. Learn to listen for that 'almost' -- nobody's right all the time -- but still.

They'll make things better.
© 2010 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue was published by DAW in September of 2009. A sequal, A Local Habitation, is due out in March 2010.

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