Editing Principle 14: Bad Editors are Doubleplusungood

Every so often I’m approached by someone who is looking for a new editor after having had a bad experience with an editor in the past. Sometimes they’ve tried to work with an editor multiple times, and come away unhappy each time.

I never like hearing these stories, even though I’m glad to have the opportunity to offer them a happier experience.

The complaints people have about their bad editors come in a few varieties. The most common complaint is that the editor insisted on a revision plan that the author intuited was not right (for them or their work) and the author felt manipulated, maybe even bullied, into going along with this plan. I’m talking wholesale rewrites involving changing the p.o.v. of the narrator, or shoehorning the book into a theme or genre that the editor declared more sellable than the one the author preferred. Sometimes the author felt that a layer of political argument was molded onto their story, and again they weren’t comfortable with that.

Unfortunately it’s not obvious that the editor-editored relationship is going sour until fairly deep into the process, and at that point, considerable money and time has been spent, and the tendency to cling to the sunk cost fallacy is high. It’s bad all around.

It can also be hard to tell that it’s going sour because some stages of the editorial process are (1) annoying and difficult, regardless of whether you have a good editor or a bad one, and (2) some parts of the process remain invisible to you as the author, especially if they’re working on an intensive line-edit on a lengthy manuscript. Imagine hiring a gardener and watching her plant seeds in your garden in early spring. She might be great at her job. But you won't see the full fruits of her labor until midsummer.

All this said, I’d say there are telltale signs in the conversations you have with an editor or prospective editor that can give you an early indication of trouble ahead:

  • Their questions all interrogate the ideas presented in your writing, and even ideas not explicitly in your writing. You’ll feel like you’ve been dumped into a college classroom debate. You feel put on the defensive. You may not even know what you’re defending yourself against. But you certainly don’t feel encouraged to say more, or to further develop your original inspiration.

  • You feel misunderstood.

  • They have immediate solutions for every writing problem you're facing. This works as well in an editor-edited relationships as it does in marriage. Not every problem has a solution that’s readily apparent, even when a solution is readily apparent, it may not be the best one! Some knots in our thinking take weeks, even months, to comb out. And that’s fine. I’d argue it’s even good, because it underscores how much is at stake. If stating what you really meant were so easy, you would have done it already, right? Truth is, for some of our deepest, most tangled, emotionally resonant thoughts and insights, we need a partner/collaborator—an editor—to help us unearth them and articulate them clearly. That’s a process, not a once-and-done, here’s your Band-Aid and now go play outside sort of thing. Also, final point here: Sometimes you don’t want someone to solve your problems. You just want to talk about those problems for a bit. So if they do immediately start yammering about what you need to do differently from now on, we’re back at no. 2 above: You feel misunderstood.

A good editor will never be short on ideas for how to improve your writing, of course, but they have a strong sense of boundaries. They respect your work, and understand their job is to assist you, not smother your work with their brilliance.