What do authors think about editors? What do authors think makes the difference between a good editor and a great editor?
Previously, BoldFace asked children’s author and illustrator Jeremy Tankard about his experience working with editors. This time we posed the same questions to London, United Kingdom–based, internationally bestselling author Mary Lawson, who penned Road Ends, The Other Side of the Bridge, and Crow Lake.
Q&A conducted by Jennifer D. Foster
Overall, what’s your experience like as an author who’s been edited?
I’m in the slightly unusual position of having three editors: one in Canada, one in the United States, and one in the United Kingdom, all of whom have to agree on the final version of each book. It’s a complicated set-up, and if any of them were unwilling to consider the views of the others, the whole business would be impossible. Fortunately, all three are outstandingly good editors and genuinely want what is best for the books and, therefore, they’ve been open to suggestions from the others.
For me, the chief disadvantage of the arrangement is that I have three different sets of notes and comments to work through, which is exceedingly time-consuming! But the advantage is that if all three of the editors agree on a particular point, I know for certain that they are right. If they don’t agree, I feel able to stick to my guns and go with what feels right. I have huge respect for all three, and they have been wonderful to work with.
What is it like as an author to work months, or even years, on a book and then have an editor read it critically and suggest (sometimes major) changes?
Inevitably, it is an anxious time. It takes me roughly six years to write a book—a significant chunk of my life—so there’s a lot riding on it. But I find it very difficult to judge my own work, and, therefore, I do welcome comments. So far I haven’t been asked to make any major changes.
What do you think is the formula for a positive author/editor relationship?
An open mind, respect for each other’s opinions, and a common goal—ensuring that the book is as good as it can possibly be.
What’s your advice for a writer working with an editor for the first time?
Don’t set off determined to defend every word you’ve written; the odds are that your book will not be perfect in every detail, no matter how hard you’ve worked on it. Go into the editing process with an open mind, listen carefully, and reject nothing straight off. If you don’t agree with a suggestion, take a few days to think about it before responding; that way you will approach the problem with your brains, rather than your guts, and you’ll be able to consider the possibility that your editor may be right. If, after careful thought, you still don’t agree, say so and say why. Editors can be wrong, too, and a good one will admit that.
What are the characteristics of a good editor? And a great one?
A good editor can take an overview—something that is very difficult for an author. Coming fresh to the story, a good editor will be able to spot the weaknesses and make constructive suggestions for correcting them. He or she may have come across similar problems before, whereas the writer may be coming up against them for the first time.
A great editor will get what you are trying to say and will know whether or not you’ve actually said it. He or she may well see the potential of the book more clearly than you do. It is a wonderful skill, but it’s more than skill: it involves a combination of insight, intuition, and empathy. Beyond question, my books are better than they would have been without my editors’ help. I owe them a great debt.
Jennifer D. Foster is a Toronto-based freelance editor and writer, specializing in fiction/non-fiction, custom publishing, magazines, and marketing and communications.
This article was copy edited by Michelle Schriver.