Embrace Your Editor (but Not in a Weird Way)

by Erin Brown

You’ve slaved for months, years, decades even, to finish your manuscript. You’ve tackled all-nighters, tear-your-hair-out rewrites, grueling, self-imposed deadlines; you’ve grappled with creative juices that either flowed until you were drunk with brilliant narrative or dried up to leave you parched, devoid of inspiration, sobbing onto your keyboard. You get my drift. You’ve poured your heart and soul into this baby of yours and then, finally, you get it into the hands of an editor—whether it be a freelancer (like moi—the best kind, of course) or an editor at a publishing house (wow, also fabulous and just like me—at least in my past Manhattan life). You couldn’t be happier! Finally, someone to tell you how wonderful your writing is! To affirm what you’ve known all along; that your novel/memoir/epic saga/brilliant tome will change the literary world as we know it.

But then you get back the editor’s notes (insert ominous music here). “Hey! This wasn’t what you signed up for—there’s red all over this damn thing! She’s rewritten half of chapter one! She wants me to completely get rid of the elfin king/swashbuckling sidekick/sickly grandmother/omniscient narrator/the last half of the book!” This is a travesty, right? Wrong. This is an editor’s job. To make a manuscript the best it can be, based on years of experience, knowledge of the industry (hopefully, if you get a good one), and their honed skills of enhancing storytelling and writing.

More often than not, how a writer works with their editor makes all the difference between a good final product and a bad one. In all honesty, this relationship is what separates a smart writer from a—ahem—not-so-smart one. You must have faith in your editor, in their knowledge, in their experience. If not, what’s the point of having an editor? And yes, you do need one. Everyone needs one! The most brilliant writers need one, and the smartest writers embrace what their editors do for their books—make the writing that much stronger. Whether the manuscript comes back to you covered in red (and early in a career, most do, so don’t fret!) or if there are only a few simple, but significant, suggestions here and there—these edits are given in order to make your book better.

Here are the steps to getting the most out of your editor:

1.     Throw your ego out the window. Once you’ve written ten bestsellers, then you can poo-poo your editor’s suggestions (however, if you’ll read some of these bestsellers later in the career of an “Author with a Big Ego,” you’ll find yourself asking, “Sheesh, didn’t this guy have an editor?” Yes! But he didn’t listen to his editor because Mr. Fancy Pants Who Got Too Big for His Britches thought he knew everything. He didn’t. *Note: please feel free to appreciate my double pantaloons cliché.) An editor exists to strengthen “your baby,” not tell you that you’re fantastic. You have a wife or husband—and eventually a publicist—to do that.

2.     Once you’ve picked yourself off the floor after reading the plethora of edits and suggestions, dust yourself off, embrace the revision process, and get to work. Once you begin revising and/or incorporating your edits, you will find that ninety percent of the time, indeed, the changes are strengthening your work. You’ll experience “Damn, why didn’t I think of that” moments. The reason you didn’t? Because a fresh set of eyes is essential. You’re too close to the work to see the flaws and what is needed to take it to the next level.

3.     Learn from the editor’s changes and suggestions. Feel free to ask “why” and “how” so that you’ll be able to give your future manuscripts a stronger self-edit. You will learn from the edits, and in the next go-round, there won’t be as many. Keep in mind, however, that even the most prolific writer needs revision work . . . and the smart ones know and welcome it.

4.     It’s okay to question your editor’s suggestions if you feel very strongly about something. You can stick to your guns in certain instances, but pick your battles. Working with a freelancer, it’s your prerogative to ignore every piece of advice they give you (although a waste of money), but in the case of an editor at a publishing house—the one that bought your book—it’s not advisable to lock horns in combat over every change. Why? For one, your relationship with your champion at the publishing house will sour. Two, if your editor is reputable (choose wisely, my friend), they probably know what they’re talking about and your manuscript will only get better. And three, no one likes a pain-in-the-ass writer who thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. The most amazing and successful authors I’ve ever worked with are those who accept revisions and edits (not blindly, but because they recognize the worth of the revisions) and then embrace the revision process. 

If you follow these steps, I can almost guarantee that your manuscript will be exponentially stronger after a round (or two or three) of revisions. That’s why smart and successful writers embrace their editor and recognize them as both their cheerleader and partner in the process of making a book the absolute best it can be. A smart author has to check their ego at the door, put faith in their editor, but still be strong enough to know when to pick their battles. That’s why I’m not suggesting you become a doormat, heedlessly following the red ink when you really disagree with something; but be smart enough to allow an editor to help you be the best writer you can be. Chances are, you’ll take “your baby” from good to great.  

I’ve worked on numerous bestsellers throughout my years as an editor at publishing houses, and not one of those authors has raised a stink about edits or let their ego get in the way of improving their writing. The few writers that dug in their heels and ultimately rejected most editorial suggestions usually never made it out of the starting gate. Their book simply didn’t end up being as good or successful as it could’ve been (and their editor and publishing team didn’t get behind it the way they could have). And interestingly enough, it was almost always first-time authors who made this mistake. Don’t be one of those writers. “Your baby” deserves a better parent than that.


Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com

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