Writing 101: What A Good Editor Will Do

Reading & Writing


Sometimes I get bugged when people say they ‘haven’t got around to writing a book’ as if it’s a whiffly-whaffly hobby you pick up, like doing some knitting. Writing is a real challenge, I’m still learning, and the process is long. What’s more, it doesn’t end when you think it does. Next comes editing.

Editing is hard work, both for the editor and the writer. On the left is a column of notes I had this week from my editor. Dealing with all of these queries can be tricky and head-spinning.

A couple of months ago I wrote a short piece about the new breed of editors, and said this;

It’s important to match the right editor to the author. An editor may ask for much more than just minor changes and even demand a complete reworking of material. I can see a future where writers must be prepared to think very differently about books. The work won’t stop with the delivery of the manuscript. That’s where it will start to get interesting. I for one can’t wait. Writers work alone, get no feedback and often go off-track. If there’s trust, an editor can collaborate with the writer to ensure that the book stays focussed and sharp, and become something unique.

Well, that prophecy is coming about sooner than I expected. At the moment I’m at different stages on several books. Each book has three edits and a proof. The first edit is thematic, the second detailed, the third a fine-tune, and the proof is for cleaning out mistakes. Sometimes you’re doing more than one set at once.

One of my editors is older and more instinctive. He’s a seasoned professional who gets to know the writer, trusts the work, nudges me in a certain direction and suggests guidelines. We communicate by email using electronic editing software.

The other I’m working with is a new breed, more of a collaborator. He has a vision of the book that may not match mine, but is prepared to thrash it out in order to raise the work to a higher level, from a ‘maybe’ purchase to a ‘must-have’. We work in the same room together on bits of paper, with pens. This one is younger.

They’re radically different styles and both are equally valid. I enjoy both, but lately have particularly enjoyed the latter because I love collaborating. I’d really like to work with another writer on a project and mash up something, probably because that’s how I was trained. I don’t think I have a logical mind, but editors provide and demand logic. If you don’t take this stage seriously, you have no book.

8 comments on “Writing 101: What A Good Editor Will Do”

  1. C Falconer says:

    Oy – knitting is not a ‘whiffly-whaffly’ hobby – Ive knitted hats for merchant sailors unused to cold northern winters, and there are initiatives for trauma teddies for small children and boobs for women who have had mastectomies to fill out their bras, as well as tiny clothes for premature babies, and blankets for refugees etc. So hopefully this is just an unconsidered thought – grump over.

    OT : I’ve just finished and really enjoyed London’s Glory – so nice to have the well fitting extras

  2. admin says:

    I love this. I write a column about editing and get a comment about knitting. Democracy in action, folks!

  3. Brian Evans says:

    My partner edits the 3 annual Bulletins for the Virginia Woolf society. He said, only yesterday as it happens, that the less experienced the writer (amateur ones) the more exception they take to editorial comments.

    He has just read your piece and was very interested. He feels that editing is not as good as it used to be in the academic world. Whilst his two last books (annotated essays by Virginia Woolf) were very well done by his publisher, fellow academics moan to him about how bad editing is now due to financial constraints and “farming out.” Mistakes still get through to the final publication, even if they are spotted in the first place.

    He, Stuart, was at great pains for me to convey the fact he is in no way contradicting you, he couldn’t write a novel to save his life. He just thought you might be interested in the world of “non-fiction,”

  4. Brian Evans says:

    Whoops! There we go. My above offering could have done with a good editor. Instead of “his two last books”, read “last two books” He has by no way finished. More’s the pity.

  5. admin says:

    That’s interesting. I always assumed that academia remained rigidly proper. I’m surprised how many mistakes there are in Kindle books – sometimes pages are transposed.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Some authors are well edited and/or write very cleanly. You are one, Chris. Gordon Galbraith is another but “bored of” slipped past everyone in her latest. Things that bug you just leap off the page.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Hmm, think I meant Robert Galbraith.

  8. Ruth says:

    At a recent book festival, I went to two events where authors said that their editor had suggested taking an action scene from the middle of their book and putting it right at the beginning to make a bigger impact.

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