What do you expect from your editor?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After Jim’s post yesterday about rejection letters, I started to think about expectations and how, for many authors, that is the hardest thing to manage. Your expectations when you send out that first query letter (a thousand calls to represent you!), your expectations about the acquisition process (everyone will fall in love with the book instantly!) and then, of course, the expectations once you are published (immediate bestsellerdom and movie deals by the fistful!). When I started out I had no real idea what to expect from any element in the publishing process. I certainly had no idea what to expect from my editor. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised and I remain very grateful to have had three great editors – yes, three…so that was one part of the process I hadn’t anticipated- that two of my editors would fall pregnant, have babies, and then leave the publishing house! All this before my second book had even hit the shelves!

So what should we expect from an editor? At the very least I think you should receive professional support and editorial guidance but in an ideal world, I believe an editor should be:

  1. Your greatest champion within the publishing house. This is easiest when your editor is the one who acquired your book, but even when an editor takes over a project, I think authors should feel like their editor is the one singing their praises and going in to bat for them.
  2. Your greatest and most constructive critic. A great editor can help transform your work into something better than you thought possible. Editing itself though is only part of the process, I also think a great editor should be able to communicate her thoughts as constructively as possible so an author truly feels as though she has a partner in the process.
  3. Your Organizer/Juggler Extraordinaire (or the one who makes sure all the work that needs to be done gets done on time!). An editor is like the foreman on a construction site, supervising all the work that needs to get done within the publishing house: from blurbs to jacket/cover and layout. I also think an editor who can effectively juggle all the other department needs (publicity/salesforce etc.) to make sure the author’s interests are served is worth her weight in gold.
So how do these three ‘ideals’ measure up to your expectations when it comes to an editor? What do you want to see and have you received the level of support you wanted in the past or not? I suspect many authors’ expectations differ from what their publishers/editors expect – so, for all you editors and writers out there, how do you deal with mismanaged expectations? What should a writer realistically expect from an editor and what can an author do to make sure the partnership between editor and writer runs as smoothly as possible?

8 thoughts on “What do you expect from your editor?

  1. I think you’ve nailed it with your list of what an author expects from an editor. However, I’ll be interested to see how many authors actually get that level of support from their own editors. I suspect it varies, with A-list authors getting more attention than mid-listers. And if expectations aren’t met, probably the knee-jerk reaction is to look for a different publishing house. That brings up the question of whether the grass on the other side of the fence is really greener, or if it looks pretty brown once you’ve crossed over.

    Thanks for starting what I hope will be a good discussion. I can hardly wait to read what other authors say.

  2. It will be interesting to see if anyone fesses up to their own editorial experiences (it is a small world after all!). I have been fortunate so far but I do think that a good editor can make or break an author. Jumping houses may not be the answer – I think having a strong agent who can intervene if expectations aren’t met is critical. They can hopefully help if an author feels his/her editor isn’t pulling their weight. Authors must also moderate unrealistic expectations too – especially if they are first timers!

  3. What I expected (naively) was that the editor would guide me in what to do and what came next. As Sea Fare was my first book, I thought I would hand it to them and then magically it would become the bestseller. I didn’t realize how much work the author had to do on the back end. Nor was I told what to do or where to concentrate my efforts. I fumbled through the marketing and now realize I should have been prepared much earlier.

  4. Great post, Clare. And uninformed expectations can stifle the creative process, for sure. Like you, I didn’t know what to expect, but had high hopes. How I dealt with them from the start was not to celebrate anything too much. I looked at my progress as merely steps in a long career. I think in hindsight that was a bit of a mistake. I should have celebrated more, but I’m a low key person and have learned to curb my expectations, especially as reality and experience sets in.

    One of my favorite authors, Robert Crais, says that he constantly writes in fear. Personal fear that he will somehow lose his readers because of choices he makes as an author, but to get himself out of it, he TRUSTS THE TALENT that got him there. So I have that phrase on my computer.

    It’s always scary to expose yourself to criticism or rejection, but if you can stifle the natural fears you have of not succeeding and you trust your ability to write and tell a story, it’s probably the best you can do. Human nature will always make us insecure. We just have to find ways to control the negativity.

  5. Good points, Clare. I’ve had the good fortune to work with some superb editors over the years. I think the greatest thing an editor can do is help you make the MS better without hurting either voice or vision. A true mind meld, if you will.

    I actually don’t think I’ve ever had a terrible experience with an editor….except at the copy editing stage. I advocate 0 – minimal use of adverbs in dialogue attributions. I once had a young copy editor stuff all my attributions with adverbs! So a line like, “As if that matters,” she said became “As if that matters,” she said sarcastically.


  6. There are two levels of editing that authors usually get: senior and copy editor. A good copy editor can save your life, keeping you from committing major gooflaws. A senior editor will point out high-level issues with your story, such as places where the pacing needs to be picked up or where things don’t quite work But don’t expect editors to be magical beings who will nurture your literary career like fairy godmothers. Not gonna happen.

  7. Victoria – I fumbled too! Jordan, I also think I should have celebrated more and not looked at the first stages as merely baby steps. As Jim and Kathryn point out a great editor can improve your MS but they cannot be a fairygodmother/miracle worker. As for copy editors well they have saved my bacon – you just never know what little errors creep in without you realizig and I had an amazingly methodical first copy editor. She saw things I would never have spotted (and I had read the MS fifty times at least!)

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