Re:Fiction - The Fiction Writers' Magazine

Working with an Editor on Your First Fiction Book

You've slaved away for years to get published, and it's happened at last. But now, someone wants to make loads of changes to your baby! Working with an editor on your first fiction book isn’t always easy, but it doesn’t have to be a pain.  

Based on our experience, here are some practical tips and takeaways to encourage new authors to see their editor as an expert collaborator rather than a fault-finding arbiter – and to find ways to work together for your book’s benefit.  

Start with a Shared Understanding

Ensure early on that you and the editor share the same vision for the book, that you agree on the genre, who its readers are, and what its core themes are. Explain what you see as the essential elements of the book: aspects of the plot, structure, voice or characters that you can’t imagine doing without. Then, see how your understanding chimes with theirs. 

If you can establish some common ground at this stage, it will make future editorial negotiations much easier. But listen to their thoughts, too. They may well have seen things in your book that you didn’t, and they may have ideas for changing the book, which, even if they’re on the radical side, would actually improve it.  

See Your Editor as a Collaborator, Not the Opposition 

It’s easy to get  attached to something as personally significant and intensively wrought as a novel, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the editor is on your side. They are not there to mark your work up to be cruel, but share the same goal as you: to delight the reader. 

Remember that your book doesn’t really exist until other people read it, and your editor is schooled in making that experience a positive one for your audience. And, they bring a valuable dispassionate perspective to your work at a point when you may struggle to see your work with any objectivity. As someone coming to the book afresh, the editor is able to offer an overall perspective that the author, who has been working on it on a detailed level, often isn’t. 

Editors Know the Business

Remember that an editor is likely to be abreast of market trends – what people are reading, what’s selling well, current political sensibilities and taboos, the likes and dislikes of top reviewers, bloggers and others who can help make your book successful. Welcome this expertise! It’s a big part of what the publisher is bringing to the table. 

Accept the Potential for Changes 

It sounds obvious that editors will in fact edit things, but some writers harbor the belief that – although everyone else’s work needs tweaking – theirs will probably just sail through the process. This never happens. Editors spot things that you don’t, save you from yourself, and are detached and experienced enough to know what works.  

For example, the editor of my debut short story collection spotted that I had massively overused the word “guffaw” throughout my stories, that too many of my characters had similar names, and that some of the scenarios in the story were, when read as a whole, too samey. In every case, I am so glad she spotted these things, and much else besides! 

Keep an Open Mind  

There may be an aspect of the book that you consider to be utterly nonnegotiable, such as a key turning point, the death or survival of a character, or even the inclusion of a major character. And then the editor suggests an alternative that changes everything! Sometimes a character has been hanging around from the start – maybe even one of the protagonists – and they’re just not pulling their weight in the narrative, or they could be combined with another character to simplify things. Your natural instinct is to argue your case, but it’s better to consider the alternative rather than automatically reject it. In the long run, your book may thank you.

Don’t Take it Personally – Respect the Process 

Writers often have a strong reaction when the first version of the manuscript comes back. They have worked so hard to get the story to that point that it’s easy to feel that the work is done and the editing is just a formality.  

But remember that it takes several steps to get a book to its best place, many of which you have already been through: showing your book to beta readers, taking on feedback from family and friends, reading out sections to a writers’ group, making more edits for an agent. Every step helps to improve your book. The editor is there to bring it all together and add the final polish. So don’t take it personally when the comments and changes come back. It’s all part of the process.  

Pick Your Battles 

Like your editor, you are probably in love with language, and over time you’ve developed a list of words to use or avoid, points of grammar and style that you would never write, the right and wrong ways to do things. We see all of these as immutable rules, and other people’s rules are mere prejudices, even though many of these strictures – such as the comma splice, the preposition at the end of the sentence, beginning a sentence with “and,” split infinitives, and all the rest – do not stand up to expert scrutiny

Inevitably, the two of you will disagree about various points of style and language. Let go of the idea that you are always right, and that you know best because it’s your book. Reflect on the experience and wisdom of the person who’s working to polish your book. Think twice before you have a temper tantrum about a comma. Do you really know best? And does it really, in the grand scheme of things, matter? Save your pushbacks for the things that really do.  

Recognize that Editing is a Creative Craft 

A writer can be tempted to see the editor as a killjoy who comes in and removes all the flair from their work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Editors are creative people who are highly skilled in working with someone else’s writing. They are not interested in imposing their own vision or applying petty rules for the fun of it, but in helping your work shine. Many editors are experienced writers, too, which only adds to the value of their insights into character, structure, plot, pacing and more.   

Be Amenable to the Death of Your Darlings

As the author, you are naturally inclined to retain as much of your original manuscript as possible in the final book. It is, after all, the product of months of hard work. Consequently, you’ll do whatever it takes to shoehorn every passage in, even if they no longer fit with where the story eventually went. The editor will disagree, and you need to accept the hard truth that sometimes darlings must be taken out

Answer the Phone

Many small matters can be dealt with by email or on a shared Google Docs file. But if there’s any serious discussion to be had, it’s always better to do it over the phone and avoid misunderstandings, grievances, or causing offense. Putting things like this in writing inevitably escalates a problem, whereas on a call, there’s much more scope for a healthy debate.  

Cool Off 

There may be times when you really struggle to accept some feedback, perhaps because it’s a section you’re especially proud of, though this may be the problem – a darling that needs to be murdered. If you’re struggling to get on board with a change or comment, remember you don’t have to fire back a response straight away. Take a moment to cool off, get away from the screen, and do something completely different – go for a walk, have a bath, or do some cleaning. Give yourself time and distance from the project – a night if possible – so you can come back with a fresh perspective the next day.    

Be Respectful of Your Editor’s Time 

Editors have to be very organized and efficient, and they are likely to have other projects they are working on as well as other commitments on their plates. So let them set the timetable and make sure you hit your milestones.  

Be Pragmatic

Always bear in mind during disagreements that the editor is just trying to do their job. They have a vested interest in the book’s success, so always be friendly and courteous. Remember that the editor represents the publisher, who you want to be 100% behind both the book and you when it launches. If you have a disagreement, be pragmatic. Try to find a compromise that will allow you both to climb down from your opposing positions and fine-tune a solution. 

Invest in the Creative Chemistry

If you’re lucky, your relationship with your editor is something that lasts much longer than just your first book. If you’re lucky, it might last for your whole writing career – or the rest of their editing career. An editor that you trust to improve your work and save you from all your writing foibles is a very valuable person to have on your side.  

An editor wants to work with someone whose writing they admire, but who is also easy to deal with since the process can be an intense period lasting weeks, with emails and calls between you on a daily basis. So make yourself easy to get on with. Be organized in responding to queries, listen respectfully to their notes, and stay courteous and professional at all times. 

Dan Brotzel and Alex Woolf are co-authors of a new comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound). As a reader of this website, you can pre-order Kitten on a Fatberg for a 10% discount – simply quote promo code KITTEN10. 

Alex has written over 100 books for children and adults, published by the likes of OUP, Ladybird, and Heinemann and Watts. Dan’s first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone.

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