The Author and Editor Relationship: Professional Sparring Partners

I have the utmost respect for editors. It is their job to see that your book is readable and flows from start to finish. There will always be times, however, when disagreements about characters, lines, and scenes are going to happen. And those disagreements are a good thing.
11/23/2015 10:44 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2016

A friend of mine who is about to join the ranks of published authors emailed me in a panic. His new manuscript was in editing with a small but well-respected press and the edits he was receiving from their top-notch editor were not at all to his liking. "This guy is making changes that completely sabotage my original manuscript! Everything is getting altered. Any suggestions?"

I called him and basically talked him down from the ledge of editing disaster. I told him to seriously consider all edits, not as a form of sabotage, but as possibilities and see if maybe a compromise in the manuscript could be made.

"You're not suggesting that I allow my book to be so edited by this person so that it doesn't even resemble my original work, are you?"

Not at all. I then told him that if he truly wasn't comfortable with the amount of edits or inserts, he should stand his ground and not accept the edits. "It's your book, after all."

Editors and authors have a long relationship in the world of writing. Most experienced editors make small positive changes that enhance the story. You can accept the edits or not but sometimes you can see that the edits don't change the original story at all; they simply help it flow a little more easily. No really good editor will want to drastically change a manuscript that has been accepted by a publisher.

Going over the edits from the first book in my Cate Harlow Private Investigation series I was surprised at a line my editor had inserted for my main male character, Detective Will Benigni, to say. The line came after a somewhat heated exchange between that character and another male character, Giles Barrett. The original scene that I had written had Will make an "obscene gesture" towards Giles after the argument and then walk away. I knew that any readers of the book would know what that meant.

But my editor wanted it to go further and inserted certain words that can accompany that gesture. I balked. I had created the character and that wasn't what I felt would happen in that scene. My character wouldn't say it; he would just walk away. I knew that the gesture was enough. We went back and forth over that one edit for quite a few emails and SKYPE sessions while my editor, a man I knew and respected, tried to convince me to keep the line in. I firmly refused and the line was deleted.

Now I didn't feel smug as in an "I-won-you-lost" scenario; of course not. But I did feel a certain satisfaction that I had been true to my character by holding my ground. My editor went on to make a few very good minor changes which I accepted and our working relationship continued to be a good one. We even jokingly called each other "my favorite sparring partner."

Every editor with whom I have had the pleasure of working has been more than professional and fair. I have the utmost respect for editors. It is their job to see that your book is readable and flows from start to finish. There will always be times, however, when disagreements about characters, lines, and scenes are going to happen. And those disagreements are a good thing. As the author you need to be practical about any possible edits and try to see if certain changes make for a better read. You also need to understand that, as the author, you always have the last word. I have never met an editor who would blatantly disregard an author not accepting their edits, or who would make major changes to a manuscript without author permission.

Publishing houses and presses tend to hire good, solid editors. Trust is at the core of the editor-author relationship. They work with you not against you. If you feel uncomfortable with a particular editor speak up and see how you can both work together. The editor only knows what you say, not how you feel inside.

During the editorial process the editor will offer honest feedback and constructive advice. It is the editor's responsibility to work with the author in a professional manner. She or he respects the author's point of view, the genre, and the style. As far as edits go, don't see the editor as supercritical of your work. Rather see this professional as someone who is working with you to make your book as excellent as it can be in terms of both content and quality.

As for my friend, the new author, after we spoke several times he understood that the editor was not "his enemy" or trying to sabotage his manuscript. Several subtle changes and one major one were accepted and he admitted that the changes really did make a positive difference.

In a good sense you and your editor are co-workers, working to make your book into a top-seller.
Happy writing!