How to Get the Most out of Working with an Editor

So, you’ve decided to knuckle to the pressure and hire an editor. Or you’re freelancing for a company that hires an editor. What can you do to get the most from that editor?

I could make all kinds of generalizations and try to speak for all editors, but let’s just assume that I’m not terribly unique and that my own experiences won’t be all that unusual.

The first issue is a definitional argument around the word “editor.” Without an adjective (copy editor, content editor, developmental editor, managing editor, etc.), it’s a general enough term that it’s almost useless. So many things get dumped into that category that it’s important to verify what the actual expectations are. All too often, when people say “editor” they actually mean “proofreader” which doesn’t even have the word “editor” in it!

When I was first getting into RPG editing, it became obvious that the people hiring me as an editor actually thought they were hiring a copy editor. However, my guiding principle is “I don’t want a book with my name listed as ‘editor’ to suck.” And sometimes the issues go well beyond what can be fixed with a bit of phrasing and correct punctuation. I wasn’t content to be a copy editor because sometimes it felt a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic (OK, that’s hyperbole…umm, like replacing the hubcaps while ignoring the faulty brakes? You get the idea).

But here’s the deal—each time I read through something, certain things really jump out at me. Typos, faulty formatting, and big huge structural issues will all keep me from focusing on the job you really want me to do. My job should be to make sure your text is as clear and well stated as possible. You get your ideas down, I make sure they sound great. To do that, you need to hand me something better than your first draft.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t expect you to hand me something perfect. It is definitely my job to find the typos and consistency issues you missed and to point out where more elaboration or examples would help and so on. But by the time I get the text, chances are really good we’re already running up against some major deadline. If in my first read through I focus on the problem that this book isn’t quite doing what you think it ought to or that chapters seem to be out of order, and in my second read through I’m fixing a bunch of typos and formatting problems, I will likely run out of time before I even get to that final read through where I really get the chance to improve the text and work on clarity. And it’s this final read through that moves a book from good to great.

And honestly, I know I’m not going to catch every typo no matter how many times I read through something, which kinda kills me. But there will be a whole lot fewer of them if you’ve been on the lookout for them, too.

Hiring an editor isn’t an excuse to be lazy. It doesn’t mean that you get to skip all the self-editing I assume you would do if you weren’t working with an editor. And for goodness’ sake, it certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t need to check how to spell the names of people and places because you figure the editor will catch it later! It takes a lot of time to look up proper spellings for names or to double check facts, and that’s not what an editor is hired to do (unless you explicitly make that agreement up front). I tend to assume that’s the job of the writers and that I can trust the writers to do their research.

Instead, working with an editor means taking your self-edited work and letting another set of eyes take a critical look at it, smoothing out your phrasing and streamlining your ideas. It means a fresh look from someone who doesn’t necessarily share your assumptions and therefore will hopefully spot that great big hole in your explanation that some of your readers might fall through. It means being challenged to more clearly express what you’re trying to say. And yes, it means someone who’ll look for the fragments and tortured sentences that made sense to you the fifteen times you read over them because you know what it’s supposed to say so that’s what your brain read.

Don’t look at an editor as someone who will clean up the messes you didn’t get around to fixing; look at your editor as the studio producer to your performer, helping you stitch your multiple takes into a killer song. The end product will be something better than it would have been if you’d worked alone.

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