What do writers need from editors?

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Neil Gaiman’s tweet on 30 December 2015—perfectly encapsulating all the horrors I’ve experienced in my professional career. *cue hysterical crying*

So I recently had a conversation with another writer friend of mine, and we went into a rant-like discussion about what writers really need from editors. Because trust me, though the two have to work very closely with each other, there’s a lot—a lot—of tension, especially when it comes to creative differences.

So I’ve come up with a short list that editors can keep in mind when working with writers:

1. Do not be their overly demanding boss.

Okay, so I think this is fairly self-explanatory.

Don’t order them about, no matter how tempting it is to put on your stern voice and start issuing tasks or arbitrarily demanding certain changes.

Everyone has their own style and preference, and own perspective on things. It’s great to share your own thoughts and feedback, but it’s not okay to override the writer’s style.

Instead, be their creative collaborator. Establish a common understanding (goal: to produce an awesome piece of work!) in order to have a fruitful creative discussion—what are the objectives of the product, who are the target audience, what are the limitations?

Work with them.

2. Do not think you know better than they do.

If in doubt, always query!

The problem that writers (and other editors alike—you have no idea how many times, as both an editor and a writer, I’ve had editors make changes to the manuscript just because, without any real cause besides stylistic differences, resulting in substantial rewriting that changed the entire tone of the manuscript) often face is of editors changing their work without clarifying, or checking with the writer about what the writer really means.

Just because we’ve had a mental block and can’t see something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there in plain sight.

Moral of the story: don’t arbitrarily (this is my new favourite word in this post) change anything and everything. Check with the writer!

3. Do not be their ghostwriter.

Now, I’m speaking from my experiences as both an editor and a writer. What a writer needs is someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to help make their work do what it wants to do, someone to be a creative collaborator.

What a competent writer does not need is for someone to do the writing for them!

The writing should be done by the writer, and the editing, the editor.

The editor should in no situation take upon themselves the responsibility of writing. While some may argue that substantive/developmental editing would include lots of rewriting, my humble professional opinion is that this is Mistreatment of the Editor and Infantilisation of the Writer. Developing the content of the work should include a collaborative process, reviewing the manuscript and working with the writer to fix problem areas.

Rewriting the work should be left to the writer. The writer has been hired for this exact purpose—to write! Extensive rewriting takes the editor away from what their main task is—editing.

While substantial editing is unavoidable in some cases (in an ideal world, substantial editing would be dead!), rewriting a piece of work should always be a no-no.

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