Byte Experts: How to Work with an Editor by Bryony Sutherland

Posted by Justine Solomons on 29 January 2021, in Byte Experts, News

This month in our Byte Experts series, we hear from editor Bryony Sutherland on approaching, fostering, and maintaining the unique relationship between authors and editors.

Congratulations: you’ve finished your manuscript! Now it’s time for an editor to help take it to the next level, be that agency submission or self-publishing. At this point, there’s a definite emotional shift. Maybe no one’s ever read your writing before. Maybe you’re supremely confident, or exactly the opposite. Swallowing pride, ego, and your fears must now go hand in hand with trusting a stranger with your precious words. It’s a bit like jumping off a literary cliff.

If you find a good stylistic fit, your editor can become so much more than a distant professional to polish your words. Writing becomes less solitary and more of a team effort; your editor should care about your characters and plot as much as you do and want to see your skills develop. Heck, you might even become friends.

Here’s how to navigate the various stages of working with your editor, form a strong creative partnership, and avoid the pitfalls along the way.

Understand what an editor does

An editor is not a glorified beta reader: she should be able to connect with your work and make corrections and suggestions based on professional experience rather than casual interest. There are many types of editors, and the terminology can be confusing. Commissioning editors advise publishing houses on the purchase of new manuscripts. Developmental editors examine the bones of your book to make sure it’s structurally sound, engaging, and has pace, while checking for plot holes and continuity errors. Copy editors polish your words until they gleam, identify consistency issues, and eradicate repetition. Proofreaders also fix typos and errors in grammar and punctuation, but rarely improve the text on a creative or stylistic level.

Book in advance

If you were planning to renovate your house, you would expect to wait a while for the services of an expert building firm. Likewise, a booked-up editor is the sign of an established and successful editor, whose services are in demand. If you’re a first-time author, approach your editor when you’ve finished several drafts, and can no longer see how to improve the manuscript. Use any waiting time to seek beta feedback and make changes if appropriate.

Schedules can be flexible, and there are always exceptions to the rule, but I’m typically booked up four to six months in advance.

Consider your communication

Sometimes prospective clients expect to jump straight on a lengthy call to discuss the project. However, from the moment you first approach an editor, your written communication is being evaluated. And it’s not just for the reasons you think.

In my case, yes, it’s true I am looking at your writing style. But it’s less a judgement about missing apostrophes and more about whether you can express yourself clearly, in private, to me. I’m also noting your enthusiasm for the project. Most importantly, I’m evaluating your responses to my questions. I need reassurance that you understand me, follow instructions, and pay attention to the details. These are my basic criteria for a good working relationship. If you’re uncomfortable sending a sample of your writing, or you bristle at my commentary following a friendly evaluation, then we’re not a good fit.

Don’t haggle

Again, your editor provides a service just as a builder or an architect provides a service. Her rate is based on the number of hours she expects to work on your project. Authors requesting money off a quoted fee give the impression they don’t appreciate the editor’s time has value. It’s a strange mental equation considering she’s there to add value in the first place.

When it comes to invoices, pay promptly. Writing may be a hobby you adore while holding down a day job, but this is likely to be your editor’s livelihood. If she has set aside a month to concentrate on your 120,000-word epic, yours might be the only income she has during this period. If you don’t pay on time, chances are you’re affecting her ability to pay her bills, which may damage the trust established between you.

Learn the tech

Like it or loathe it, the universally accepted format for your manuscript from editors to agents and publishers is a Word document (.doc or .docx). Scrivener might look pretty and is amazing for organisation and creativity, but its editing tools are non-existent. Make sure you learn how to transfer your files into Word documents, and then check them over before submission. Meanwhile, Pages is fine for the basics and is generally compatible with Word, but hidden formatting bugs exist that can translate into spacing and punctuation issues, and time-consuming headaches for your editor.

Word’s track changes feature may look scary at first glance, but it’s key to how your editor will interact with your text. The Microsoft site offers a straightforward set of instructions, and tutorials are available on YouTube.

Prep your manuscript

The more errors you can clean up pre-edit, the more time that will free up for your editor to dive deeper. For example, three-quarters of the manuscripts I receive contain misnumbered chapters. Time spent renumbering and checking with the author if there is text missing is time away from an edit’s finer complexities. So Google articles on self-editing and formatting, spellcheck, and comb through your work for discrepancies and continuity errors. Send a single file, no matter how large. Use a sensible 12-point font, double-space your lines, remove all surplus spaces and hard returns, and banish tabs forever. Avoid colours, underlining, bold font, and WRITING IN CAPITALS.

Patience is a virtue

Once the edit has begun, sit on your hands and don’t touch your version of the manuscript. (It’s obsolete within seconds of a professional edit.) If you have a list of concerns or queries, do send them along at the beginning, but unless there is an emergency of unprecedented proportions, leave the editor to get on with the job. Radio silence is not a sign of rudeness; queries regarding how it’s going will only slow everything down.

Be prepared to take criticism

No one wants to hear what’s wrong with their masterpiece, but in an editing relationship, this is exactly what you’re paying for. It’s not personal; it’s professional. A good editor will praise the positive and help you address the negative, by offering suggestions and providing a sounding board if appropriate. After all, it’s in the editor’s best interest if your book does well. Your developmental editor will love you if you take her recommendations on board and action them. Trust me: there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing plot holes filled.

Long-term relationship

Most editors are looking to establish a long-term relationship just as much as you are. When you receive your edits and/or manuscript evaluation, don’t hesitate to give feedback and ask questions if anything’s unclear. The dialogue should remain open until you are happy and confident about your next steps. Keep in touch throughout your publishing journey; after spending several weeks immersed in a manuscript, your editor may feel invested in the project, and you might find she can help you far beyond the nuts and bolts of the edit. That said, if your general queries are lengthy and involved, and will take time away from other clients, offer to pay a consultancy fee. On a courtesy note, be mindful of working hours and the time difference between you if you live in different countries. Lastly, a thank you, an acknowledgement in the book, and a copy of the published masterpiece are always appreciated.

Final word

If your editor requests that you make revisions with track changes turned ON, ignore this at your utmost peril.

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Before becoming an editor, Bryony Sutherland authored ten books and got used to her words being fair game to the red pen. She specialises in developmental and copy editing, and can be found at http://bryonysutherland.com.

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