Here’s the most prevalent and widespread belief about publishing I’ve ever seen: editors do not edit anymore, they just plop a book down on the market in whatever shape the author left it in, and thus poor authors are left wandering in the wilderness, editless and alone, looking up the sky and shrieking, “If only my editor edited my work!! Why God?? Why?????”
Now, first off, distinctions must be made here. There is a common sub-myth that editors are the ones who spot the typos and punctuation errors, and some people out there delight in finding typos as proof that the publishing industry doesn’t care about the English language and is headed straight down the toilet.
(People, it’s a typo, not the apocalypse.)
But anyway, the people responsible for catching said typos are “copyeditors,” who are actually a magical breed of elves whose ears turn white when they see an improper comma splice. Humans need not apply.
Now, as you may have noticed, I’m pretty short in the tooth and thus can’t really tell you what things were like in the publishing industry 50 years ago. Maybe editors back then edited more and things were all rosy and happy and sepia colored (I mean, what else were they going to do with their evenings besides edit books, they didn’t have America’s Next Top Model back then).
BUT. I can tell you that the editors of today edit. There are ridiculously talented editors out there who can take a manuscript and make some truly magnificent suggestions that make the book so much better. They go through manuscripts with a fine toothed comb and suggest line edits and overall edits and title changes and are there on the phone when a panicked author can’t decide what to do with their plot.
So, in case you just skipped to the end: The publishing myth that editors don’t edit: FALSE
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Art: Lady Writing a Letter by Albert Edelfelt
>[editors] make some truly magnificent suggestions that make the book so much better.
great post, but…maybe you could wax eloquent on what or how they make the book so much better since writers are instructed repeatedly to only submit manuscripts that are in tip top shape (meaning structure, pacing, voice, etc..). A lot of time the agent has provided suggestions for enhancement before an editor even sees it.
Is it a myth that writers are submitting the best ever manuscripts? Or is it more a matter of editors adding elements that they like to see in a story, i.e., that the story might have been fine without said elements, but what the heck, it couldn’t hurt?
Color me confused.
Nathan Bransford says
Authors should definitely submit their best-ever manuscript, but manuscripts can always always get better, and that’s where an editor comes in. The editor’s job is to make it still better.
The methods of editing varies — sometimes editors will suggest new plot points, elimination of plot points, strengthening of certain characters, changing of pacing… it varies completely on the project.
How long does an editor usually work with a client, and does that time shorten with subsequent books?
BTW did you see ‘Stranger Than Fiction’? Was that an Editor sent by the publishing company or was Queen Latifah a thug paid off by the publisher, but contracted by the mob for a little persuasive nudge?- and is that common practice too? 😉
Nathan Bransford says
It varies greatly depending on each book — sometimes there will be a lot of edits, sometimes hardly at all.
And no, I haven’t seen that!
I suspect part of the reason this myth exists is because wannabe-wrtiers sometimes say, “Oh, well its ok if my speling sux cuz dats wut editers r 4.”
And then someone else comes along, laughs heartily at their naivete, and says, “Well, dingdong, editors aren’t there just to correct your spelling, and if your work is awful no editor will touch it with a ten foot pole.”
Maybe the myth is more akin to the fact that some people don’t really know what “editing” actually means.
The word is “copyeditor,” not “copy-editor”
Nathan Bransford says
That’s why I’m not a magical elf.
Susan Helene Gottfried says
So that’s it, then? My whole problem in life is that even though I’m no longer copyediting, I’m still an elf?
Good to know. Thanks. Lord knows I’ve got the stature for the job!
I loved this line:
“who are actually a magical breed of elves whose ears turn white when they see an improper comma splice. Humans need not apply.”
It makes me wonder though…are you implying that there is such a thing as a “proper” comma splice?
(I previously polished my L.O.O.N badge today.)
This is very comforting.
But I wonder, why is this myth so prevalent if it’s not true?
“It makes me wonder though…are you implying that there is such a thing as a “proper” comma splice?”
Is this sentence your idea of a proper comma splice?
Works for me.
I knew someone who hired an outside editor and ended up with about 200K more words of the editors who even stuffed in a few more characters. She’s been trying desperately to fix it ever since.
I would certainly hope to have my work edited. I present the best I can, but being human I know it would benefit from expert editing.
A Paperback Writer says
Perhaps those elves that do the copy editting were English teachers in their former lives. I know I tend to whip out a pen and correct errors on posters and such when I see them. (Why can’t people do plural possessives anymore?!!!)
This reminds me of another question I had that I’m too embarrassed to ask my agent about. As I’m working on my next book, I’m worried that I won’t have as much time to edit it as I had on the last one. I had months and months to edit that one as I tried to land an agent.
In general, how much more editing do subsequent works by a writer need compared to the first book, considering the first one may have had months or years to reach the quality at which it was submitted?
Dan said, “But I wonder, why is this myth so prevalent if it’s not true?”
My (flippant) answer to this is there are too many books out there that really could have used some more editing! When I read J.K. Rowling’s fifth book, I thought, “Well, clearly no editor has touched this! I guess editors don’t edit anymore, or at least not Rowling’s work.” There have been other books like that too, though not as strikingly in need as that one.
(Of course, I know that my opinion of that book is completely my own. Several people I know completely disagree with me. One of them even favors that book above all the others!)
Nathan Bransford says
Some second novels don’t need much editing at all, some need a lot. It all depends, and it’s impossible to make a general rule.
Do you ever see editing for the sake of editing? That is, an editor wants to put his or her stamp on a first novel, so make suggestions that aren’t necessarily better or worse, just different?
Nathan, could you talk about comma splices some more? I find them deeply fascinating.
Also, could you talk some more about how awesome editors are? I could use the positive reinforcement.
Demon Hunter says
Nathan, great post. I heard that editors take you through a few rewrites before you can submit the final product; depending on how much needed to be changed.
Jennifer McK says
I think the expectations of editors is a little unrealistic. In the small pool of epublishing, editors are often working full time jobs to make a living. They have lives, families, significant others and have a unique understanding of the author’s pathos.
I can’t expect an editor of my work to find every stinking mistake I make. I’ve been known to receive my galleys and find howlers that need correcting before release.
Does that mean the editor sucks? No. It’s MY work. I have to be MORE responsible for it than an editor.
The editors that I’ve dealt with have been (for the most part) helpful and professional. They definitely made my work better. I’m still learning my craft. The attitude that drives me crazy, on either side of the coin,is the one that implies “I don’t make mistakes”.
Everything I write needs a little tweaking. Sometimes A LOT of tweaking.
One thing about being in epublishing that has been invaluable for me is the experience of editing a manuscript.
With all due respect, I think this is one reason epubs are considered second tier. As a reader, I consider it the editor’s job to do exactly that. Just like a story isn’t ready until the writer has put in sufficient work, so it’s not ready until the editor has buffed off those rough areas and yes, that includes fact checking.
Nathan Bransford says
I agree with you about the benefit of mainstream vs. epublishing, but I just wanted to clarify that editors in mainstream book publishing don’t typically fact check, which, as the Wall Street Journal reports, was the subject of some controversy during the James Frey affair. Here’s the Wall Street Journal article that discusses the matter: https://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB113858811205659673-1oPuv_I9jyv2P9k_u8qNN_3obQM_20070130.html?mod=rss_free
Helen DeWitt says
I recently had some comments from my agent on a book. Responded, not very well. Was going through my papers, came across a print-out of a piece by the peerless Robert Gluck (a Bay Area writer, you lucky so and so), A Long Note on New Narrative. I read RG’s Jack the Modernist years ago and loved it; his Long Note described everything I hoped I was doing in the book.
Two weeks later, having sent the final final version to my agent, I came across more papers in my files: a photocopy of Chapter 8 of Wright’s Arabic Grammar. Wright is talking about Verbs of Vague Application – a set of verb forms, distinguished by different vowel patterns, which do not state the identity of the agent but imply vaguely that ‘someone or something unspecified’ is the agent.
Clearly the text as it stood could be improved, because I happened to come across these two radically different texts that were both CRUCIAL to what the book was supposed to be doing and had not been taken into account. So instead of happening to stumble upon papers in my files, I could have an editor!!! Someone who’d say, Look, I think the book needs to be completely reworked, have a look at Robert Gluck’s Long Note on New Narrative. Or Nan Graham, say, reads the MS and thinks: It’s close, but it’s not quite there. Isn’t there something in Wright’s Arabic Grammar? Goes to the shelf on which she naturally has a copy of Wright; flips through to Chapter 8; says YES! YES! YES! This is KEY! This is KEY! This is KEY! DeWitt has left out something CRUCIAL to the Kafkaesque core of the book!
It’s not that this couldn’t happen. A book could always be improved, and this is one way it could happen.
A more common experience. Elmore Leonard hates vivacity in the reporting of dialogue; he prefers ‘said’ to ‘retorted’ or ‘rejoined’ or ‘quipped’ or the like. Let’s say I write a book which includes a) a narrative where dialogue is reported with ‘said’ and b) a small child’s diary full of liveliness, where people reply and rejoin and query and interpose. The book goes to an editor, who is unhappy with the monotony of ‘said’. The editor recommends various verbs for the reporting of dialogue; ‘said’ is too monotonous. The whole book should be like the small child’s diary.
Editors certainly do edit, and any book can always be improved, but a trawl through one’s files often yields better results.
It really is kind of ridiculous to think editors don’t edit stuff. It’s where I have an advantage, I guess! Dealing with magazine editors all these years has taught me oh yeah, they edit all right. But it’s still good for you to be dispelling the myth.
Cyann Rose Jensen says
I'm editor shy!
This is the second time that I've been taken by an editor.I have recently been scammed again- by a seemingly reputable editor. She took my money($1,200)first installment,and never gave me a single page of work returned.Yes, there is a contract but the cost to enforce is more than the editing! However she did give me several outragous excuses and then no communications at all.
I did research and still managed to engage with two bad editors. I'm terribly sad as the book is a dedication/true crime that is written for my murdered daughter.
Because of my mistake,my daughter's book may never be published.
Most editors are trustworthy but it seems there are many who are not.
Cyann Rose Jensen
So editors still edit, eh? So how do all those typos and grammatical errors get into print? For instance, scan this hilarious paragraph from a relatively famous author's book and tell me you see a great editor at work:
"Rae's eyes were red and swollen. They sat on the couch side by side, in silence, waiting for the doctor."
Color me laughing.
Nathan Bransford says
You might want to check out this post.