When Your Editor Sucks

Today I wrote a tough email to an author who sent me a review copy of her book. I probably won’t post the review (although if she decides any publicity is better than none, I’ll write it up) because to me the book felt like an unfinished work in need of a good editor.

But here’s the thing—she credited an editor.

Several other self-published books I’ve read have had similar issues, but one in particular stands out. Despite the work of two paid editors, the plot was sprawling and needed a hundred or so pages cut from it. Although I think this book has the potential to be really interesting and solid, the author just doesn’t have the time and money to invest in reediting a book she’d already put out there. (I suggested she work with John Adamus for the sequel; I hope this interesting series will find its wings.)

As a reviewer, I’m on the outskirts of the self-publishing world—I see the products that authors submit to me to review, but I don’t know what all goes into getting a book to print. Sometimes it looks like people just stick a spell-checked second draft on Amazon for $.99 and call it good enough. Sometimes books are obviously crafted, often with more love and effort than goes into many traditionally published books.

In my naïveté and biased point of view as an editor, I assumed that the difference was whether or not the author worked with an editor—besides having the book proofread by a well-intentioned friend who majored in English 20 years ago.

But several of these books that really need to go back into the oven a time or two do have editors who are credited and thanked. This raises a couple questions for me.

  1. Is it an issue of label? If you don’t know what an editor really does, maybe you’ve called the proofreader your editor. Should my criteria for whether I’ll read your book be how you answer the question “Please define the role of an editor”?
  2. Are editors shafting self-published writers? This worries me because it preys on authors trying to do it right, and it feeds into the idea that you don’t really need to work with an editor because it’s just a waste of time and money. It seems pretty obvious that working with these particular editors was a waste of time and money.

The label issue is fairly easily solved. There are lots of good discussions online about the role of an editor, working with an editor, etc. I won’t repeat them here (but please feel free to include links to your favorites in the comments). To sum up, though, there are several levels of editing that should happen before your book goes to print. The first should challenge aspects of your story on a very fundamental level, probably on a level that makes you want to throw your laptop and/or your editor out the window. This is the level that usually seems to be lacking from the poorly edited self-published books I’ve read. Only after this can you get into the copyediting and finally the proofreading levels.

I don’t know for sure that the issue of editors shafting writers exists, but it seems likely. I suppose one answer is to find editors who come highly recommended. Here’s where the community that’s built up around self-published and small press authors can come in handy. Find books that seem to have been really well edited and see if the author would recommend that editor. Maybe you should only work with editors whose work you’ve seen and who other authors have had great experiences with.

On the other hand, I got into RPG editing because someone took a chance on an untried editor and I rose to the challenge. I’ll need someone to take a chance on me again if I start to get into fiction editing. I’d hate for it to be harder for good editors to break into the business.

Authors, I’d love to hear from you. What experiences have you had working with editors? How do you choose an editor? How do you make sure you’re working with a worthwhile editor? What are the danger signs that you’re getting shafted and what can you do about it?

It makes me sad to read books that have potential but have fallen short. It makes me furious on behalf of the author and my profession when it seems like the person hired to prevent that didn’t bother to fulfill expectations.

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9 Responses to When Your Editor Sucks

  1. When you’re a self-published author, trying to figure out how to do things right, and you’re just getting started, finding an editor is one of the hardest things. A good editor can make or break a book. How do you know if you’ve picked a good one? As I work towards my third book, I still struggle with this.

    It’s worth noting that before I send any of my manuscripts to a paid editor, my wife proofreads and edits the book with an extremely critical eye. She’s not afraid to point out places where things don’t make sense to her or where characters act out-of-character. She’s not a trained editor though, before she retired, she worked as a Project Manager in IT. She is very detail-oriented.

    For my first novel, Wings of Twilight, I looked for recommendations on Kindle Boards, since I knew that to be a place a lot of self-published authors used as a resource. The editor I found there offered what I thought was a reasonable price and said my manuscript was one of the cleanest she’d ever seen. She admitted that she did not normally read fantasy, however, I began to wonder if she might have missed story elements than someone more versed in the genre might’ve commented on.

    For my second novel, Iron Fist of the Oroqs, I turned to a freelance editor who had previous served as a beta reader for that same manuscript because her feedback was the most in-depth and she pointed out problems in the manuscript that my wife didn’t even catch (or at least, couldn’t think of a way to articulate).

    In neither case, was there a lot of back and forth discussion about the books. So, I really don’t know how much or how little work they had to do. I know how much work my wife and I put into the manuscripts before I send them off to an editor, though. There’s a lot of revising and discussion about story elements and character details that goes on.

    I still don’t know if I’m finding good editors. I only have 10 reviews of the first book and 3 reviews of the second to go by, and not only is that not enough for me to get a good feel of how successful I was (even if they were all positive), but the typical reader probably only reviews based on whether or not they were entertained by the story.

    I must keep moving forward, though. If I waffle because I’m uncertain about things like this, I’ll never make any progress.

    • ayvalentine says:

      If your story has entertained readers without confusing or frustrating them, you’ve done fine. As much as editors tend to be detail oriented people trained to nitpick, most readers are painfully aware of when a book is poorly edited, even if they can’t really articulate what the problem is aside from “I didn’t like it.”

      I know the amount of work you put into your books – I’ve seen it in action! (I was a beta-reader for a still-in-progress middle grade sci-fi adventure Hans is working on.) It seems to me you’re handling the writing part pretty well!

  2. Joshua Unruh says:

    Four or five years ago I had the luck to fall in with a couple of writers who were committed not only to becoming successful indie publishers and patrons of the arts, but to teaching new writers how to be better writers. Now I’m one of their published authors (twice over) and their marketing czar and I couldn’t be happier about it.

    What little of that luck I made myself was by finishing something (my boss/coach/publisher told me later that the only reason his ears perked up when he met me was because I’d won nanowrimo that year), but it would never have been any good without Aaron Pogue (www.unstressedsyllables and http://www.aaronpogue.com) deciding I was worth mentoring.

    I say mentoring because what he did was the job of an editor if that editor really and truly cares about your work and its improvement. I had good instincts and bad form, but he cared enough to cultivate the one and help me outgrow the other.

    Editors, good ones, cannot be overestimated. If there is a place that self or indie publishing will fall on its face, it will be in the inability to find tough, quality, caring, professional editors who will nurture their work from adequate to good or even great.

    I don’t have a lot of reviews, but I do have editors/mentors who are good writers themselves who tell me that I’m improving and that the things we’ve published are good. Sales and reviews don’t mean as much as that.

    In other words…good call Amanda. 😀

    • ayvalentine says:

      I’m really glad you’ve found an editor you’re happy working with! And yes, often a really good writer/editor relationship will be a lot like mentoring. I come to editing after years and years of teaching, so that’s the approach I tend to have, when the situation allows it. At any rate, in my mind it’s the ideal. 🙂

  3. As an editor myself I also believe it’s crucial to find one with whom you “click.” It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are or how good an editor you hire, if you don’t mesh as a team, the end result will not be the best it can be.

    I ask every potential client for a five- to ten-page sample of the intended project before I will give an estimate for my services. Because every author’s skill level is different, raising the bar and getting a manuscript publication-ready will be different in each case. My fee varies based not only on word count but on the amount of work I expect will need to go into a project.

    Likewise any writer should ask an editor for a five- to ten-page sample of their editing skills, at least for that first project. Ask them to edit the first ten pages of the manuscript they will be working with you. If you are at all unsure of your ability to work together as a team, you should move on to another editor.

    • ayvalentine says:

      I agree that chemistry is incredibly important in the writer/editor relationship.

      Asking for samples before agreeing to work together is a really good idea. I’ve heard that some editors charge a small fee for that tryout, since it does take time that could be spent on other paying projects. And ideally those 5-10 pages are just the start of the full project.

  4. Lisa Padol says:

    I remember listening to a senior editor at Tor Books talking about editing. He said that often, a book that a reader things wasn’t edited at all was actually very heavily edited and only so much could be done. This was separate from the “too big to be edited” syndrome.

    This is one of the things that makes me hesitant to assume the fault lies with the editor. I simply lack sufficient data here. If it does, I suspect the editor is ignorant, not malicious. I wonder if Writer Beware has any kind of feedback on editors. It is possible to decide one is an editor, an agent, or a publisher and really sincerely mean no harm, but to be too ignorant of what one’s responsibility entails.

    For myself, I’ve got these rough benchmarks:

    Proofreading is what I used to do for ACM. I compared Version A to Version B. The papers were written more in Math than in English, so anything resembling a grammar error I might query, but I would not presume was an actual error.

    Line editing is when I read something from Miskatonic River Press and mark typos, grammar problems, apparent missing text (e.g., “Where’s handout #2?”), and so on. This also includes checking the style manual and double checking stat blocks for NPCs. (I’ve almost got the damage bonus table for Call of Cthulhu memorized, but I prefer to have the book to hand anyway.)

    Editing is when I read something from Miskatonic River Press, and write a long comment explaining that if Element B is in the scenario, it should be introduced earlier; the scenario is likely to break at Point X for the following reasons, and here are a few ways to address that; and we really need a timeline of events, with a partial timeline of what I was able to piece together.

    • ayvalentine says:

      On some level, asking an author to pay you for a service you’re unqualified to provide is indistinguishable from malice, to mangle a phrase. Even if you’re well intentioned, assuming that editing is an easy job you can do for whatever reason and then getting paid a non-insignificant sum to do it even though you’re unqualified is dishonest and it’s unfair to the writer.

      I certainly agree that not every poorly written book is the fault of an editor. I’m painfully aware of sometimes only being able to get so far with what I’ve been given to work with. Some of the self-published books that haven’t been good were simply not good – no amount of editing was going to make them good. But some truly had potential, and they’d supposedly been edited, and yet basic things that any editor should do just weren’t done. They obviously hadn’t had any substantive developmental editing that they desperately needed, and they weren’t even well line edited or proofread. Part of what I’m hoping to explore is why that happens. Unclear expectations? Lack of communication between editor and author? An author who has decided to ignore the guidance of an editor? Someone seeing that they can make money by taking advantage of authors who are struggling to do it right? I’m sure all of these things happen, depending on the situation.

      I looked up Writer Beware and found a really interesting link that’s at least worth skimming (there’s a lot here, but the links at the top will take you to any sections you’re interested in). http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/editors/

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