Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWant to know what a real editor will do for your manuscript? So did we, and we wanted to know some of his secrets as well, which is why we’re so pleased that Dave King, professional editor and co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print, granted us this interview. Read on to learn Dave’s process, how having your work edited becomes a true learning experience, common mistakes he sees, and what he really thinks about show vs. tell. Enjoy!

Part 1: Interview with Dave King

Q: You mention the importance of fresh eyes in the intro to your book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Are fresh eyes truly the most valuable editing technique?

DK: Not for a professional editor, no. The most valuable skill a professional editor brings to a manuscript is familiarity with a wide range of writing techniques. Helping a writer find his or her natural voice is what editing is about. (It’s also, by the way, a real rush when it happens, for editor and writer both.) You can’t do it unless you know more than one way to approach a story.

This is why a good writer often makes a poor editor. Someone who’s brilliant at a given style often can’t see beyond it to what another writer’s trying to do. Good writers who try to edit wind up making you sound like them. Good editors will make you sound like you.

Of course, if you’re talking about editing yourself, then fresh eyes are probably the best thing you can bring to the work.

Q: Why does a break from the wip usually help to bring out our editorial eyes?

DK: I have no idea. Perhaps it’s just a matter of forgetting the details enough that you can read the manuscript like a reader rather than like the writer.

Q: How much time away from the script is enough?

DK: That depends on the writer. Usually, the longer the better, but you can also lose the passion for a story if you leave it in a drawer for six months. I think most people go a week or two, maybe a month. That’s what works for me.

Q: With the industry geared toward quick-and-easy publishing, should every writer hire an editor before submitting his or her work?

DK: In fairness to the industry, some smaller publishing houses still care passionately about producing well-written books. There are editors (and some agents) who have real talent and are willing to work with writers. Thing is, they’re more likely to edit someone who’s already strong – turning a good manuscript into a bestseller rather than a problematic manuscript into a good one. First time writers, who need the editing most, are least likely to get it. So they need to hire it.

Q: Why are in-house editors editing less, and what can be reasonably expected from today’s editorial process?

DK: Let me tell you a story. In the fifteen years since Self-Editing for Fiction Writers was published, I’ve had four different editors at HarperCollins. The most recent one, who shepherded the book through its second edition, was recently fired and not replaced. Large publishing houses are corporations – HarperCollins is owned by Ruper Murdoch, after all — and often expect Exxon/Mobil level profits. It’s hard to invest a lot of time in thoughtful editing in those circumstances.

I’m not sure what you can reasonably expect from the process at a large house, but judging from some of the published books I’ve read, there isn’t even much copy-editing going on.

Q: What can authors expect from a professional freelance editor?

DK: Depends on the editor, of course. I view the process as tutorial as much as editorial. Starting with the diagnostic reading, I try not only to point out problems but help writers see for themselves why they’re problems.

When I line-edit (actually putting pencil to page) I’ll edit the first fifty and send it back. My client inputs the changes I made (throwing out the ones he or she doesn’t like), then edits pages 51-100, trying to do what I did. They’d send me a clean copy of 51-100, I edit it, send it back, then they edit 101-150. And so on through the manuscript, with the client working fifty pages ahead of me. When I was apprenticed as an editor, most of my training came by having another professional editor (my co-author, Renni Browne) follow behind me as I edited. Effectively, I apprentice my clients to be their own editors.

This approach changes the economics of the process. If someone’s paying to improve a single manuscript, then (given the vagaries of the publishing world and the size of most advances for first novels), they’re probably not going to earn their money back. But if editing is a one-on-one creative writing seminar with all the examples drawn from their manuscript, then it’s clearer that they’re getting their money’s worth.

Q: What are the top editing mistakes newbie writers make?

DK: One that’s been cropping up a lot lately is an unwillingness to let the main character suffer. I suspect that, when you first start creating other human beings on the page, you really come to love them — so much so that you can’t bear to watch their lives fall apart. It’s understandable, but it doesn’t make for very good fiction. You’ve got to make your characters sweat.

Q: What mistakes are commonly seen even among veteran authors?

DK: It’s hard to generalize since, the better you are, the more sophisticated (and individual) your mistakes. I recently dealt with a veteran whose source of tension shifted subtly halfway through the manuscript. It was almost as if he had switched genres. It was subtle, though – I didn’t pick it up until the second reading.

Q: You have only three weeks to edit a 100,000-word manuscript. How would you proceed?

DK: “Tonight, on X-treme Editing, the Iron Editor takes on the 400-page monster and wrestles it to the groooouuuund!!“

Sorry. Actually the process would be the same as usual. I’d just be treating this client as if he or she were the only one I had.

The first step is to read it. I can’t edit intelligently without knowing the whole story. I’d still write up the diagnostic reading report as well. Writing it all out helps me understand what a manuscript needs, and I’d need to make sure my editing isn’t taking the manuscript in a direction the client doesn’t want it to go. Usually I like to let a couple days go by before writing up a diagnostic reading report, to let the manuscript steep. Even given the deadline, I’d like to sleep on it.

After that, I’d just start editing at the beginning, go through to the end, then stop. I’d probably send the edited pages to the client in batches of seventy-five or so as I finished them, if only to make sure I was on the right track.

Of course, in real life, I couldn’t do this. I’m currently booked into next year, and any decent professional editor would be booked months in advance. You’ve just got to plan ahead.

Q: Can you over-edit? What might be telltale signs of this happening?

DK: I think it can be done, especially if you’re sending a manuscript off for the first time. The temptation to fuss is almost overwhelming. But when you start changing things, then changing them back on your next pass, you’ve probably hit the point of diminishing returns.

Q: What is R.U.E., and what do we need to know about it?

DK: Resist the Urge to Explain. It’s a simple mnemonic that captures the most common editing mistake – explaining elements of your story that you should show to your readers. When you’re first starting out, it’s hard to trust your writing to convey what you need to convey. There’s a tremendous temptation to tell your readers what you want them to know. If you bear R.U.E. in mind, the temptation’s a little easier to resist.

Q: Is showing always better than telling? When isn’t it?

DK: Showing is almost always better than telling, if only because it engages your readers’ imaginations and so gets them involved in the story.

Having said that, it is possible to take showing too far. I’ve had a few clients who have absolutely refused to use narrative summary, writing nothing that was not a scene. The result was a little breathless, with essentially nonstop action in relatively short bursts. An occasional paragraph of narrative summary describing events that happened between scenes gave the stories a depth and expansiveness that they needed. And if you should doubt the power of narrative summary in storytelling, remember that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone began with nearly a full chapter of narrative summary. And J. K. Rowling is now richer than the queen.

Q: Can you talk about how telling and showing emotion are different, how to catch lost opportunities in your manuscript, and why it’s important for reader investment to think about it?

DK: Showing’s always more critical when you’re expressing a key emotion. When you tell your readers what your characters are feeling, all your readers have is information. When you show your characters feeling what they feel, your readers will feel it along with them. That emotional connection is what storytelling is for.

Come back next week for part 2 of WU’s interview with professional editor Dave King, when we’ll discuss managing backstory, choosing a POV, adverbs, and the secret to good dialogue!


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. Joe Ponepinto says

    Thanks for the interview with Dave King. I was particularly fascinated by his explanations about large publishing houses and their profit-only motivations. I’m in two writers’ groups and we often discuss the workings of the industry so that our members have an understanding of what they face in trying to be published.

    I believe we are starting to see a backlash against the corporate dominated publishing industry, as smaller publishing houses and POD move in to bring back excellent writing and engaging stories, to replace the mass market drivel that currently passes for literature. The key will be changing the reading public’s perception that the NYC houses are committed to content, when in fact they are committed to profit.

  2. says

    Great interview! I’m not sure if the floor will be open to questions, but just in case, here you go:
    How does genre play into choosing an editor? Do editors specialize in genre? If they work mostly with one genre – say fantasy or erotic romance – can this affect the quality or style of their editing?

  3. says

    Great interview! I’ll be putting a brief post on my writing blog to encourage people to come check it out. I look forward to reading the second part, too.

  4. says

    I’m glad everyone is enjoying the interview.

    Thanks for the link from your site, Carolyn, and welcome to both you and Joe!

    I’ll pass your questions on to Dave, Nienke, and let you know.

  5. says

    Great interview, Therese! I’ve been recommending Self-Editing for Fiction Writers to other writers for years.

  6. says

    Well, shucks, thank you.

    I’m comfortable with questions, Nienke. There are editors who specialize in genres, and if you’re writing a solidly genre novel it might pay to find someone who’s familiar with the conventions. But if you’re writing something a little off-genre or ignoring genre altogether, then a genre-specific editor could do damage. All stories are individuals, and trying to force one into a mold will inevitably leave it weaker.

    Besides, story is story, character is character. A good editor should be able to help you get the best out of yours, regardless of genre or age group.

  7. Joe Parzych says

    Congratulations on your new book.A lot of what you said in the interview gives food for thought.