Letting other people—even those close to you—read your novel for the first time can be stressful. You’ll wonder if they’re going to judge you, if they’ll recognize themselves in there, or if you really want your mother to know that you know about these things.
But after the first few times, you get used to it, and you’ll offer your manuscript to pretty much anyone who shows the slightest interest.
Then you come to the next level, maybe after a few rewrites based on the feedback from friends and family or even distant beta readers. After a while, you have to take that next step, to show it to someone in the publishing industry who will view it with a more critical eye.
An agent (and these days, it’s more likely to be an agent in the first place than a publisher) will pretty much give you a straight yes or no in the first instance. For most writers, even the ones who are now successful, the answer will often be no with little explanation beyond: it’s not for me.
An editor, on the other hand, will give you much more detailed feedback. It’s not unusual, for example, for me to write 20 to 30 pages of analysis for any one novel. And the nature of editing means that much of that feedback will come across as negative since you won’t improve so much of your novel by only hearing praise.
That can cause a whole other level of stress. You send off your manuscript, and it can easily take a month to work on a developmental edit of your novel. For the first time, your work is out of your hands, out of your control, for all that time, and you’ve got little to no idea as to what’s happening with it. Is this person putting red lines through whole chapters, laughing at what you thought were carefully crafted metaphors, or are they yawning at that action scene you worked so hard to write?
None of that will be true of a good editor. But what can you expect from an editor? Maybe knowing what we get up to with your manuscript will help relieve some of that stress. Here are then are a few things you can expect from an editor
No editor will demand that you delete or even rewrite whole tracts of text, or get rid of a character or insert a murder at the end of chapter three. Or any other chapter. They should never command or bully authors into making unwanted changes.
Editors should, of course, correct typos and grammatical errors, but when it comes to substantial matters, such as plot, structure, story flow and character development, they will advise—and give good reasons—but they should never insist.
Which brings me to…
Good editors will never (OK, rarely) point out a problem without offering a workable solution. You should never see a comment like, ‘The pace drops here,’ without at least one helpful suggestion for the author to consider in the rewrite. The editor could, for instance, mark a few lines of overly expository dialogue in the text and recommend cutting or revising them. Or suggest—never demand, remember—that the murder could come earlier in the story. At the end of chapter three, for example.
While offering solutions applies more to developmental editing, explanations are more usual in copy editing and proof-reading, especially when an editor has had to make a significant change. This can happen when the meaning of a sentence is unclear or could be misinterpreted.
For example, the author might write:
I saw a rat looking through the basement window.
From the surrounding text, it’s clear to the editor that the author really meant:
I saw a rat when I looked through the basement window.
It’s the kind of thing authors easily overlook and could even question why the editor made that change since it’s clear to the author that it was the narrator and not the rat looking through the window. The author will have read that sentence a hundred times already without noticing a problem.
In these cases, it’s good practice for the editor to add a comment with an explanation of why the change was made.
This leads nicely to…
Preach and practice
The comment attached to the above example could read something like:
I changed this because the reader might think the rat was looking through the window.
Changed as reeder might think rat was looking thru window
A good editor’s comments and feedback will have no spelling mistakes, grammar or punctuation errors. We can’t ask you to give your best work if we can’t be bothered to give ours. (Although, I must admit that I have occasionally failed on this point, but I do try my best.)
You really don’t need an editor to miss, or worse, add errors to your manuscript, but it happens. Surprisingly often.
The most common error an editor will leave behind is a double space between two words. When you get your edited manuscript back, use the ‘Find’ function to search for double spaces. A good editor will have done this before sending it back to you, so you shouldn’t find any. (Note: this only applies to documents where all the changes have been accepted.)
Another error to watch out for is inconsistency in spelling. There should be no organisations, for example, when you really want to have organizations.
This encompasses a few different aspects that you can expect from a good editor. Punctuality is one. An editor should always deliver the work on time.
Politeness is another. They could ask you to ‘please check this is what you mean’ rather than an abrupt, ‘Check this!’ (which could also be misinterpreted).
And there’s nothing wrong with an editor who’s pedantic. They should look for every tiny error and check every little detail and fact. Was there really a full moon on Halloween’s night of 1957? (No, there wasn’t.)
Finally, good editors are curious. They are always willing to learn and are keen to improve their skills. So tell me, what qualities do you think a good editor should have?
What was it like for you to let other people read your writing for the first time? Was it easier to send it to an agent or editor than to friends, or was that more nerve-racking? What qualities do you expect from an editor that I haven’t mentioned above?