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The 7 Deadly Sins of Editors (According to Novelists)

A healthy relationship between editor and novelist can send your story to heavenly heights, but a poor partnership deserves its own special circle of hell. Longtime writer-editor duo Steven James and Pam Johnson discuss where editors go astray.

The relationship between writer and editor can be incredibly positive and mutually beneficial as you both learn from each other. But if your expectations aren’t aligned, it can also be toxic and infuriating—for both parties. Wherein lies the balance?

We asked professional freelance editor Pam Johnson and award-winning novelist Steven James, frequent collaborators, to map out the seven deadly sins most commonly committed by their counterpart. Editors, take note: The language you use and the assumptions you make might be inadvertently offending an author in ways you never even imagined. And writers, you have your own sins to atone for.

May you all find hope, ye who enter here.

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1. Carelessness: Missing mistakes or (gasp!) inserting them.

WRITER’S TAKE: After one of my novels was printed, I was paging through it and noticed that the villain stepped out of a house onto the porch and then, three pages later, walked outside and closed the door behind him.


It was an obvious continuity error, yet none of the book’s editors caught it, even though that’s precisely the type of mistake editors are uniquely positioned to catch.

So, that’s one they missed.

On a more egregious note, editors should never insert mistakes into a manuscript. (Yes, this has happened to me—and unfortunately, it’s common enough that I feel the need to bring it up.) Carelessness like that will, understandably, drive an author crazy.

EDITOR’S TAKE: I’ve also been on the receiving end of an editor inserting a mistake into my writing. Not fun! Editors should take their time and be attentive to detail.


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2. Undervaluation: Disrespecting the author’s time.

WRITER’S TAKE: When editors refer to what they do as “tweaking” or “cleaning up” a manuscript, the implication is insulting to many authors. After all, imagine how a painter would feel if he spent years on a painting and then handed it off to the art gallery owner, and she picked up a paintbrush and said, “Let me just touch this up a bit for you.”

Or if a composer spent months on his symphony and you told him, “I just need to tweak this so it fits our musical style manual.” Or if a carpenter worked for months on getting his custom-made table just right and someone takes a saw to it: “It’s a little long. We need to cut out 20 percent of it.” You get the point.

The painter, the composer and the carpenter would be apoplectic. And yet when it comes to writing, editors often treat the work of authors in this manner.

A more helpful approach would be to start off by asking, “How can I help you bring this manuscript to the place where you want it to be?”

EDITOR’S TAKE: Yes! Everyone should set boundaries from the get-go. If the author wants you to be more hands-on, then okay—go to town. But find that out before you start “tweaking.” Respect the author’s vision.

3. Smarty-Pantsiness: Telling the author what she must do.

WRITER’S TAKE: Maybe this is just a way of framing things, but editors shouldn’t come across as bossy. Give feedback rather than orders. Telling an author that he “should” or “needs to” or “has to” rework something will often cause him to get defensive.

One of my editors once told me, “I’m the midwife. I’m just here to help you give birth to your story.” Hearing those words set my heart at ease—I knew that she wasn’t there to prove a point, but was dedicated to helping me bring forth the story as I felt it needed to be told.

EDITOR’S TAKE: Nice analogy. We editors need to remember to be the “midwives” in our approach to helping the author, keeping in mind that it’s their baby, not ours.

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4. Intrusion: Changing the author’s voice.

WRITER’S TAKE: As an editor, your job might include helping the author find or maintain his voice, but it’s never your job to let your own voice sneak in—and this includes altering things so it sounds more like it would have if you wrote it. The author is the one who’s ultimately responsible for what’s written. You’re the consultant who is there to help him improve his work.

Be discerning.

If an author’s work is a mess from the start, it’s probably fair to conclude your role will be more hands-on. But if the work has already been carefully proofread, assume the author has meticulously chosen every word (and punctuation mark) with care. Respect the time he’s put into it and don’t be heavy-handed in your approach.

EDITOR’S TAKE: Guilty! One of my early authors told me I tinkered too much with her voice. That was a teaching moment for me. Fellow editors, be careful. You can provide constructive feedback without being intrusive.

5. Blind-eye errors: Failing to let context determine content.

WRITER’S TAKE: Stylistic conventions change all the time. The readers’ relationship to the story is paramount, not whether or not something jibes with this year’s edition of a certain style manual. Instead ask, “Would this proposed change serve the reader?”

Valuing context, pace and voice is always more important than grammatical nitpicking.

Communicate and clarify what the role of the editing will be. Is it primarily developmental (on the macro-scale of analyzing the story as a whole), is it proofreading (on the micro-scale, looking for grammatical errors), or somewhere in-between?

Be clear. Good fences make good neighbors. If the author hired you as a freelance editor, ask specifically what type of input he would like. If you work for a publisher, specify what’s worked well for you in the past and ask the author if she thinks that process will help serve her in this instance.

Starting from a position of mutual respect and understanding can go a long way.

EDITOR’S TAKE: Freelance editors may have more leeway on this than editors at publishing houses. But no matter which you are, take time to understand the context of the passage you’re editing and the author’s voice before suggesting stylistic changes.

6. Meddlesomeness: Failing to give the author final say.

WRITER’S TAKE: Perhaps the most infuriating experience I’ve ever had with an editor occurred when she made an unnecessary change to my story, I changed it back, then
she reverted it back to her way before sending it to design.

Obviously, I asked my publisher not to assign me that editor again.

Remember, editing is not a “give-and-take.” It’s not a negotiation. You’re not here to force the author to “pick his fights.” Things are not “open to debate” or “discussion.” It isn’t your job to debate anything, but rather to serve the author. This is the author’s book, not yours.

EDITOR’S TAKE: I echo: It’s not our book! We should suggest edits, not demand them.

7. Dabblement: Making superfluous changes.

WRITER’S TAKE: Do not tinker with the author’s work.

If something is a matter of taste, always defer to the author’s preference. If you read a manuscript that needs no changes or corrections, don’t make them.

Remember, even though you might get paid by the hour, writers do not. Never waste his or her time by making unnecessary changes, thinking, He can just change them back if he doesn’t like them.

And please don’t use the manuscript to air your grammatical pet peeves. You like semicolons? Great. But don’t go crazy inserting them. The author shouldn’t be able to tell what your typical hang-ups are when he’s done reading your comments.

Never leave your fingerprints behind.

Instead, point out places where you were confused, scenes you couldn’t picture, inconsistencies, narrative promises that were made but not kept, or outright mistakes.

EDITOR’S TAKE: Again, communication is a must. A not-yet-published author may want (or need) more help than a seasoned writer. But clarify that early in the process. When I start working with an author, I usually edit several pages and get feedback from him before continuing. It’s the best way to find out if our objectives are in sync.

A contentious editor-author relationship doesn’t help anyone—and it won’t ultimately serve readers. Listen to each other, respect the input of your counterpart, and be forgiving if she commits one of these “sins.” A little grace can go a long way.

On the other hand, check out 7 Deadly Sins of Novelists (According to Editors).

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