Good Prose 4: Being Edited

Once I was harassing (in a good-natured way, of course) an editor I knew well from another publisher about a book she had put out. It was a biography that was overwritten and frequently lapsed into a sentimentalized caricature of the main subject. How could she have let that go through? “Oh,” she said, smiling. “You should have seen it before we edited it!” I knew exactly what she was talking about.

I had fallen into the trap so many reviewers do when they bemoan how poorly edited a book is. As editor Richard Todd says in Good Prose, “I always wince when a reviewer says, ‘This book needed an editor.’ Often it had an editor, but the writer prevailed.”

Certainly copyeditors and proofreaders have a responsibility to clean up spelling and grammatical errors. And the job of an editor goes farther: keep the author focused on the audience and the topic, help shape a structure that is compelling, encourage an author to show not tell, cut out anything that distracts, rework awkward or confusing sentences, show what needs to be added and more. Sometimes an editor isn’t up to the job. Sometimes, however, the author doesn’t agree with the editor.

Authors may not appreciate that an editor has successfully developed dozens, even hundreds of books, and has something worthwhile to offer an author who may have written two or three. An author, however, needs more than respect for the expertise of an editor. As Todd writes:

The author must set


aside that natural self-protectiveness that any work in its early stages inspires. A ‘thick skin’ doesn’t begin to describe the necessary virtue. [Accepting editing] is essentially an act of generosity. The editor needs only some tact and the willingness to read things repeatedly. (p. 165)

In addition, authors at times don’t appreciate how close they are to their own work and don’t have the distance, the perspective needed to see it objectively. That’s why, after an author turns in a draft, I will say, “Don’t look at the manuscript for the next two months. Don’t revise. Don’t work on it at all. Take a break and take some well-deserved satisfaction in finishing. We’ll read it here and get back to you on the next steps.”

It takes distance and perspective to follow the advice of Stephen King to writers: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Finally, Todd raises a further difficulty facing authors and editors. “Sometimes a book arrives at an editor’s desk too late for the editor to make a substantial difference. The writer is exhausted and committed to his errors, the publishing schedule is set, it is simply too late all around. To repeat: a writer should try to involve the editor early in the process” (p. 166).

Different publishing houses work differently. I believe most would want an author to interact with an editor at key junctures so a course correction is possible long before a complete 300-page manuscript arrives that has, unfortunately, taken a wrong turn into a sentimental journey.

For the first installment in this series, see: Good Prose 1: Talking to Strangers


Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

2 thoughts on “Good Prose 4: Being Edited”

  1. Andy, My personal response to edits is to pout for a day or two, consume whatever comfort food appeals to me, then realize that writers write, editors edit, and both know their own jobs better then that of the other.

    I do get frustrated if I turn in a manuscript on deadline, then it languishes with an editor (especially an independent one hired by the publisher) for so long that I have to hurry through the suggested revisions. Then again, I suspect editors get frustrated with authors who think deadlines are approximations, not firm dates.

    Thanks for giving us a view from the other side.

  2. Richard, that’s a legitimate beef about turning in a manuscript on time, having it sit unattended and then hurrying up revisions on the other end. As much as we try, I’m sure we’ve (unintentionally) been guilty of that on occasion. Regardless of which side of the manuscript we sit on, it’s helpful not to ascribe ill will to the other party. We’re not trying to make life difficult for each other. But sometimes, life happens.


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