I wasn’t expecting him to be fired, but in a way, I was glad he was, because I didn’t want anyone else to go through what I did. When you’ve put your heart and soul into writing a 90,000-word book, the least you expect from an editor is, at the very basic level, fundamental editing skills. Till this day, I do not know if he was incompetent or just out of his depth. And I’m not interested in finding out. More on this…
Why you need an editor
Every writer needs an editor, even Nobel laureates. In fact, it is doubtful if the Nobel Laureate would’ve won their prize where it not for their editor’s red pen.
The editor’s job is simple: to turn your dross (your draft manuscript or your raw mineral, if you will) into a polished diamond. It is a specific skill and different from writing – think of editors as the Juliet to your Romeo.
There are different types of editors and you need to be clear which you need at various stages of the editing process:
- Stage 1: Substantive editor (also known as the structural or developmental editor) focuses on the overall structure of your book and how it holds together; the structure, the plan, the narrative. They are like manuscript surgeons in that they look at your work with an objective, analytical, critical eye, tear it apart and work with you to take your manuscript from so-so to fab.
Substantive editing is the first stage of the book editing process, and can take anything from a few weeks to a few months (if you’ve got a traditional publishing contract, it will be rare for your book to take months – only big-name authors have this luxury. If you are self-publishing your book, I would urge you not to draw out the process – time is money).
Substantive editing can be a brutal process, but the trade-off is a great manuscript at the end. One you can be proud to call yours, and can help turn your readers into fans. You know, people who rush out to BUY your books, because they KNOW that you will deliver the goods.
- Stage 2: The copy-editor (known as the sub-editor in newspaper/magazine industry), is the grammarian and fact-checker. It’s their job to ensure that your book holds up to public scrutiny. If you wrote in chapter 2 that your character had brown eyes, or that the Eiffel Tower was built in 1942, and in chapter 5, the same character was described as having green eyes, and the Eiffel Tower was built in 1959, it’s the copy-editor’s job to catch those mistakes (and ensure you have the right date for when the Eiffel Tower was built).
Their questions might seem annoying at first, but you will appreciate the value of their eagle eyes (or lack, thereof) when after your book is published, your readers start emailing you with mistakes they’ve found in your book, or, as some particularly vindictive people are wont to do so, list them all on social media.
So when you get a query from your copy-editor, don’t whine, huff or puff; their job is to make your book shine and their queries is just that: them doing their jobs.
Stage 3: The proof-reader. Not quite an editor, but in my opinion still a vital part of the editing process. Back in ye old days, the proof-reader would receive a ‘proof’ of the manuscript. This was literally a mock-up of the book and it was their job to go through the proof and weed out all the lingering editing and other mistakes, before the book went to the printer. Think of the proof-reader as the last checkpoint of the editing process.
Incidentally, it is this proof (called Advanced Review Copy – ARC) that’s also sent to book reviewers, so that they can review the book ahead of launch.
Nowadays, with pdfs, the role of the proof-reader has been sidelined, however, I believe that they still have a vital role to play in the editing process.
How to work with an editor
Make no mistake, editing can be gruelling, almost as gruelling as writing the book itself, which is why it’s important to get the relationship with your editor right from the very beginning.
If you’re a first-time author, it’s understandable that you’ll be nervous. You’ve sweated blood over your masterpiece and now, you’re expected to hand it over to an editor who will no doubt tear it to shreds – Abidemi Sanusi (tweet this – just highlight the text)
At least that’s what most first-time authors think.
If you are working with an experienced editor (and this goes for you whether you choose the traditional or self-publishing route), they will understand your concerns and work with you to ensure they are addressed.
Here are a few pointers to working with an editor
1. Find out as much as you can about them before working with them
This goes for you whether you have a traditional publishing contract or are self-publishing your book.
Read at least one of the recent books they’ve edited: What did/didn’t you like about it and why?
Are the books they’ve edited in the same genre as your book?
If you have a traditional publishing contract, you need not worry about this, as you would be assigned an experienced editor in your genre. However, if you are looking to publish your book yourself, the temptation is to go for the cheapest editor, who might not necessarily be the best fit for your book’s genre.
Think about it; your book is an autobiography and you want to commission an historical fiction editor to edit your work. Do you really think that’s a good idea?
2. Be clear about your expectations from the very beginning
In your first meeting or email:
- Let your editor know your concerns about the book. For example, I think the Jane Brown character needs more work, but I don’t what to do or how to do it. Can you help me, please?
- Ask about the editing schedule: What’s your expected turnaround per edit – a few days, a week? What’s the deadline for the final edit?
- How do you both prefer to communicate? (this is important!): Weekly emails or as and when?
- Talk about your sensitivities: I’m a bit sensitive to criticism, however constructive, so please be gentle with me!
3. During the editing process
If you have a concern or query about the editorial decisions being taken, talk it through with the editor instead of stewing and suffering in silence. Your editor is human – they can’t hear your thoughts, you have to voice them out loud.
Be open to the editorial process. You wrote the manuscript, and as a first-time author, (most likely) you’re yet to separate yourself from your work, so anything short of admiration is likely to be perceived as a personal slight. To which I say; get over yourself and welcome to the creative industry – Abidemi Sanusi (tweet this – just highlight the text)
About the editor that got fired…
The book was Eyo.
I’d written a 90K opus. I started off in religious publishing and this was my break-out book, my chance to show the world that I could write general fiction and essentially, leave the religious writer label behind. I couldn’t wait for the editor to tear my manuscript to pieces and help me rebuild it from the ground up.
I’d never worked with him before, so I researched his previous work; he’d only edited academic books. I was uneasy as my book was fiction, but I trusted my traditional publisher. Besides, the editor was crossing over into fiction, so I decided to give him a chance.
I delivered my manuscript and waited for my 5-10 page report from him. When he came back a week later with nothing but an email saying the manuscript was fine, that it had only a few typos and we were ready to go to typesetting, I lost it.
I told him that even though I’d written three books I knew I was no Shakespeare. The manuscript needed work and I was expecting him to guide me as my EDITOR and turn my dross into a diamond.
I asked for my editor’s report (this is what you get from your substantive editor the first time they read your manuscript. It’s a comprehensive report highlighting areas that need work on your manuscript and recommendations for improvement).
I said more, which I will not rehash on this post, copied my literary agent in the email and sent it off in a cloud of red mist.
Readers, things did not get any better. In fact, they got worse. Much worse. The final straw was the day we discovered that the editor had sent off the draft (yes, the very first draft) of my manuscript to the printers, so the publisher was now stuck with 1000s of copies of my error-filled, undeveloped first draft of my book. It was this same copy that was sent to the judges of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
And for those who haven’t heard of this prize, it’s a BIG DEAL.
I didn’t even know that the book had been sent in for consideration. It was only when I was nominated that I was told.
Well, I didn’t win, but neither did the Booker Prize and Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously known as the Orange Prize) prize winners I was competing with, so that was a small consolation. But, I couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if I’d had another editor. I guess I’ll never know.
So what happened after? Well, the printed books had to be pulled from the market, the editor was fired and the publishing director’s grey hairs went back to their original colour.
The moral of the story? Pray you never go through such an experience.
Over to you: what insights can you offer budding authors on the editor-writer relationship?
Also published on Medium.