Don’t Forget to Thank Your Editor

Listening to an old recording of a Q&A session at a Writers Festival recently, I realized again that very few people really understand the role of an editor in the traditional preparation and publication of a book, and practically no one who’s not in the business is aware that there are a number of different kinds of editor involved in any one book. And so I decided to write a little bit about editors in general.

People often ask me, “How do you feel, after having spent ages writing a book, when an editor comes along and cuts it?”

That pretty much sums up what seems to be the average person’s view of an editor—a masked, menacing presence who stands behind an author’s shoulder holding an axe—and nothing could be farther from the truth. The lady who has edited fourteen of my fifteen novels lives in Toronto, and I’ve only met her face to face four or five times in more than twenty years. In some ways, though—in terms of what’s known as “the creative process” at least—she knows me better than my wife does. She knows what makes me tick, as a writer, and as my editor, she’s my best friend.

The trick is to understand that a book has to be written first, before there can be anything for an editor to edit. That part of the exercise—sitting down and writing the book—is the sole responsibility of the author. I write fiction, about historical times and people, which is relatively simple and obstacle-free as opposed to non-fictional works, which entail an entirely different realm of restraints and legalities, requiring different, additional skills from editorial and legal staff. Fiction or non-fiction, though, once the book exists, in its entirety, it then has to be peddled—through a Literary Agent—to a publisher, who undertakes to issue and distribute the work within the Territories of their jurisdiction, such as Canada, or the United States, or the United Kingdom.

At that point the acquiring publisher distributes copies of the manuscript to its editorial staff, according to its subject matter and to their stated preferences, and based upon their reactions, assigns one editor to work with the author thereafter in preparing the manuscript for publication. That person, the Story (or Substantive) Editor,  then becomes the author’s ideal reader, whose job is to make the overall story as exciting, appealing and complete as possible by suggesting improvements aimed at enhancing and refining her enjoyment of the story.

It is sometimes true that those suggestions entail cuts that can be substantial and might even seem traumatic, but on the other hand they’re equally likely to ask for more, for additional information and more detail or clarification, sometimes going so far as to suggest the amplification of a minor character whose role, they believe, could be expanded and exploited to the benefit of the overall story.

All of these suggestions, though, are precisely that: suggestions. The author has the final authority in deciding to accept them. In my own case, after a couple of decades of working with the lady in question, I estimate that I’ll accept 85% to 95% of her suggestions, digging my heels in only once in a blue moon when research I’ve done indicates that, in this particular instance or context, I know better than she does because I’ve done the digging.

When the Story Editor’s job is complete, the new novel, as an entity, is rounded, whole and smoothly finished. But then along comes the Line Editor, who has an entirely different job. I have been working with the same man on Line Editing for more than a decade, and I have no hesitation in admitting that I live in awe of him and his capabilities. His task is to go through the entire manuscript, line by line (hence his title) and word by word, looking for anomalies, inconsistencies and anachronisms, among other things, bringing them to my attention as he finds them.

He’ll come back to me with stuff like: “You used a word here, on page 523, that didn’t exist in the 5th Century—Its first recorded usage was in 1086, in the Domesday Book…”

Or he’ll say, “You’ve used semicolons for a single effect on pages 101, 357 and 444, but on pages 221 and 234 you’ve used another method to do the same thing. D’ you want to settle on one or other?”

I have no idea how his mind can be so compartmentalized and detail-focused and yet still grasp the overall arc of the novel on every level, but I am permanently grateful that he continues to astound me…

And then, of course, there’s Internet self-publishing. I’m not sure I want to go into that particular brave new world.