Working with a Publishing House Editor

Prior to working with Susan Swinwood, senior editor of Mira Books, my only experience with editors dated back to my college days. A short story called “ The Sand Castle” was picked up for our college literary magazine. The editor said he loved my story, but added that it could use “a spot of editing.” I didn’t really know what editing entailed, but was amazed at how changes he made to my story altered the flavor completely, not wholly to my liking. For example, he replaced a simple sentence like “He slipped out of the apartment” with “The urge in him wound itself around the door knob.” Many such robust edits later, the story still had my byline, but frankly I felt like it had been written by someone else. This unfortunate experience gave me a jaundiced view of an editor’s job, which I believed was to bully writers and mess up good writing (or at least my definition of “good.”)

GIVEAWAY: Shona is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: bendwriter won.)


teatime-for-the-firefly-book-cover       shona-patel-author-writer

Column by Shona Patel, daughter of an Assam tea planter, drew upon
her personal observations and experiences to create the vivid characters
and setting for Teatime for the Firefly. An honors graduate in English
literature from Calcutta University, Ms. Patel has won several awards
for creative writing and is a trained graphic and architectural designer.
TEATIME FOR THE FIREFLY (September 2013, Harlequin MIRA)
is her debut novel. Find her on Twitter. Shona is represented
by April Eberhardt of April Eberhardt Literary.


(How to collaborate with a freelance editor.)

Several decades later, having just completed the process of working with Susan Swinwood on my first novel, I realize nothing is further from the truth. At its best, the writer-editor relationship is a dynamic collaboration. Compatibility is key, and if you are lucky to work with a good editor, as I was, the process is invigorating. While Susan acted as a sounding board, she did not offer specific solutions. Following a thorough critical assessment of my manuscript, she handed it back to me with the mandate to address the following issues:

  1. I needed to find a creative way to connect the first and second halves of the novel. My editor pointed out that what was missing in the second half were the feelings and emotional responses of my main character. The creative solution I came up with was the addition of more letters, which I had used liberally in the first half, which also lent stylistic consistency to the novel.
  2. She urged me to examine the pacing in specific chapters that was affecting the flow. Some chapters were too long and needed to be cut down, whereas the shorter chapters had to be combined.
  3. She exhorted me to explore ways to reinforce and integrate the themes of fate and superstition more strongly into my plot.
  4. Likewise, she suggested that I extend the roles/stories of some of the more interesting characters in my story.
  5. Susan challenged me to critically assess each chapter ending to ensure it closed on a lyrical, poignant or otherwise compelling note, to entice the reader to keep going.
  6. She highlighted inconsistencies in the timeline which I needed to rectify.
  7. Finally, she challenged me to create a stronger ending for the novel.

(11 ways to assist a friend in promoting their new book.)

Initially these changes seemed like a tall order. However, once I actually got down to the task, I found that some smart tweaking, reshuffling and adding in a couple of new chapters was all it really took. I learned to take it one step at a time and not to lose my head worrying about the deadline.

Susan posed several other suggestions, too, which we discussed and ultimately decided not to pursue. That’s the beauty of a strong editing team: while the editor can and will suggest changes, it is up the writer to “try them on for size” and assess ultimate fit. Above all I found it important to remain objective. Being too attached to one’s work is a recipe for heartbreak and “stuckness.” I ended up hacking off huge sections of my manuscript that had taken me months of research and writing. I learned to be heartless when it comes to revisions—ultimately it’s about the reader, not about the author. Having gone through several rounds of edits with my writers’ group, my beta readers and my agent, I found myself ready to gear up for working with a publishing editor, which was focused and intense. What I learned in the process are things I keep in mind as I write my second novel. Hopefully I can now see the fault lines before the crack.

Nothing is quite so exciting as seeing a novel come to life, enlarged and enriched beyond anything you as the author may have initially seen. In many ways a good editor will show you the real story lurking within the structure of what you created.

GIVEAWAY: Shona is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: bendwriter won.)


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learn about writing fiction to pulls readers in.


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44 thoughts on “Working with a Publishing House Editor

  1. atwhatcost

    An oasis with reality. Thank you so much. Up until this point, any article I’ve read from publishing editors amounted to “I am God. Thou shalt bow to my every word. Thou art a complete moron. Accept this, and we’ll get along.” It led me to feel like I was doomed to get what you received on your first editor-writer relationship. (Where did I go in this story? Is it even the same plot, once more, is it my writing at all?)

    I’ve bulked at the godlike editors in mere responses to their gospels/articles and had my butt handed to me to dare such arrogance to them. I’m fully aware, I will be placed with one when my first novel is taken to task by a publisher. This is the first time I’ve read an article that gives me hope that my story goes to print, instead of the editor’s story. I know I’m still struggling to get my novel up to “very good,” but it’s nice to see something of what I’ve written matters. I know I’ll be in total shock when I get the request, but “doable” is all I’ve really hoped for.

    Thanks for letting me know there is a somewhere-in-between. Whew! Hope! A wonderful thing. 😉

    1. teabuddy

      I think one of the hardest things for me was to know when my novel was “good enough” for a publishing professional take a look. It is real easy to get caught in the nitpicking trap. Good luck with the writing. Don’t Quit. xx Shona Patel

  2. ARCTG

    I’ve had “editors” in a critique group make changes that were removing my voice and style and found it so irritating I had to finally ask them to stop critiquing my manuscript. Now I have someone editing who is keeping my voice in, but making recommendations as suggested in this piece and its still tough, but workable. Still I know the publishers editor is ahead, and I’m nervous about that relationship, because I’m a first timer. I feel 1st timers have no say-so over what the editors will do.

    1. teabuddy

      Remember the publishing editor is your best ally because he/she already loves and has bought into your work. Also know if you have signed a publishing deal, your editor (who is probably your acquisitions editor) has fought for your novel, and it has probably gone through several levels of approval before you got signed up. That should make you feel pretty good, right? So don’t be nervous, just do the very best best you can. Good luck! xx Shona Patel

  3. vrundell

    Definitely sound advice on editing and being open to suggestions. It can easily become a quagmire, but the guidance helps to keep you from falling in. Honestly, I think there’s nothing better than having another person champion the novel. Writing is so isolating and that second connection can be a lifeline.
    Thanks for your insights!

  4. Jazzykim


    I would really cherish a writer-editor relationship of that caliber. As writers we follow our internal compass to reach a goal. Often times it’s our gut feelings steering us; it can only enhance a book to get good advice and put it to use. The ultimate cherry would be to have a quality book.


    1. teabuddy

      Hi Sheryl,
      Trust your gut, it’s hardly ever wrong, believe me. When I was working on my draft, I listened to all the suggestions from my writers group, but only took the ones that resonated with me. Even working with an professional editor you still ultimately have to do what feels right for you but you also have to understand why and explain yourself clearly. Hope you get your “cherry” soon! xx Shona Patel

  5. Nicnac63

    I’m one of those weirdos who actually enjoys editing. It ALWAYS makes the story stronger. Yes, cuts are painful, and changing story passages that sound. so. cute. (but add nothing to the story) are necessary, but the end result is sweet! 🙂

  6. Sunsette

    I have always found the idea of having an editor quite intimidating. I have heard other horror stories about editors who alter pieces of writing so much that they become practically unrecognizable to the original authors. It’s good to know it doesn’t have to be that way. This is an encouraging article & makes me feel much more secure about submitting my work. Thank you!

    1. teabuddy

      “Horror” editors are usually failed writers. A professional editor has a very different set of skills from a writer. I hope you find a good editor! xx Shona Patel

    1. teabuddy

      There are MANY of the first kind out there. I think a telltale sign is when they try to stylistically alter your work. In other words, rewrite it. I don’t think that’s the job of an editor xx Shona Patel

  7. Tracy

    Wonderful article about a writer-editor relationship. My three favorite pieces of advice that you gave:
    1. Take the revisions one step at a time.
    2. Don’t worry about the deadline.
    3. Remain objective and become heartless.
    One of my favorite quotes about editing is: “I love revisions. Where else in life can spilled milk be transformed into ice cream?” Katherine Patterson said that. It is such an amazing truth.
    I added your story onto my “to read” Goodreads list.
    Thanks again for sharing.
    – Tracy

  8. CMorgan

    Your last sentence, ” In many ways a good editor will show you the real story lurking within the structure of what you created.” is very provocative. As I write, I discover my characters doing or saying things I hadn’t originally considered. They take on a life of their own. I imagine you can relate to that. To have an editor, or anyone else for that matter, reveal a new element of the story sounds exciting. “I wrote this, I know what it’s about. Where did you get that? I like it!” Thanks for putting us in the right frame of mind for that critical part of this journey.

    All the best to you!

    1. teabuddy

      Send you good thoughts for your writing journey. Yes, stories do write themselves for me. It’s like cooking. I start with a recipe, then the dish bubbles into something wonderful and unexpected. 🙂 xx Shona Patel

  9. Tarren

    Thank you for the chance to win a copy of your work. I too am a writer, and although I never had any interest in real history (I knew enough and paid attention enough to pass with B’s and A’s in school, but it never came alive to me,) and suddenly, here I am, writing a piece of historical fiction! It is both very scary and enthralling all at once. So now I have been trying to read as much historical fiction as I can get my hands on. Even if I don’t win a copy, I have now placed your book on my “To Read” list, and look forward to reading it, hopefully in the near future.

    1. teabuddy

      Hi Tarren,
      One of the biggest challenges for me in writing historical fiction was deciding how much history to put in and how much to leave out and also to find creative ways to weave it into dialogue and plot. I hope you enjoy “Teatime” and good luck with your writing. xx Shona Patel

    1. teabuddy

      I think, each secondary character has to have a strategic role. I have many secondary characters in “Teatime for the Firefly” and I had to work hard to either use them to move the story forward or to enhance the overall theme of the novel.
      xx Shona Patel

  10. Jeri Baird

    Great post – thanks for sharing your path. I love your last paragraph!

    “Nothing is quite so exciting as seeing a novel come to life, enlarged and enriched beyond anything you as the author may have initially seen. In many ways a good editor will show you the real story lurking within the structure of what you created.”

    I hope to have that wonderful experience someday.

  11. bendwriter

    I agree that working with an editor can help propel the writer to produce a better ms. In my own experience, I was so busy refining other aspects of my novel, that it wasn’t until an editor pointed out my pacing problems I realized what they were. Thank you for sharing!

  12. Pam Van Dyk

    This article is a great reminder that our work, despite our feelings of protectiveness (in my case, read possessiveness!), belongs as much to the reader as it does to the writer. A good editor can help us with this transition.

  13. Annie56789

    I’m working with an editor now, and am so happy to have her objective feedback. My writer’s group has been wonderful, but this is a fresh viewpoint from someone who’s never met me. And, as I rewrite, I’m finding ways on my own to make the story stronger.


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