The 7 Deadly Sins of Novelists (According to Editors)

A healthy relationship between novelist and editor 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 novelists go astray.
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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 7 deadly sins most commonly committed by their counterpart. Writers, listen up: These insights are going to help you understand the wheels turning in your editor’s mind when she made the changes or suggestions that she did. And editors, take note: you have your own sins to atone for.

May you all find hope, ye who enter here.

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1. Lack of Communication: Failing to specify expectations.

EDITOR’S TAKE: Writers—please set editing goals, communicate expectations and ask for any clarifications before the editor jumps in. We look at your manuscript with a different set of eyes depending on what you want, so it’s important to let your editor know exactly what you want.

Also, tell your editor directly if you don’t want her to follow grammar rules. We know there are times when an author likes to break conventions. Remember, editors have been trained to point out grammatical errors. So let her know if you’ve made a stylistic choice to ignore the rules.

WRITER’S TAKE: Absolutely. Communication up-front prevents a lot of problems down the line.

2. Sloppiness: Not submitting your best work.

EDITOR’S TAKE: You may think, “Well, she’s an editor, so she can fix all my typos and errors. I don’t need to correct them before I submit.” Not true! Poor punctuation, grammar, spelling and so on is so distracting to an editor that she will struggle to concentrate on the story she’s been hired to edit. Unless you only want proofreading, please submit as clean a copy as possible.

WRITER’S TAKE: Authors—never settle for sending in less than your best!

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3. Stubbornness: Refusing to change your course of action.

EDITOR’S TAKE: You have probably hired an editor to point out what she considers to be errors in your manuscript. No, she shouldn’t change your “voice,” but if something doesn’t make sense or the punctuation is confusing, you need to at least consider her suggestions. Don’t be married to what may be a fatal mistake in your story.

WRITER’S TAKE: I usually think of it this way: Don’t fall in love with the first draft.

4. Impatience: Not realizing that writing a book is a long process.

EDITOR’S TAKE: Impatience when writing a book will not serve you well. Writers (especially new authors) must recognize that writing a publishable book takes a lot of work and time. I don’t mean to be condescending, but it’s amazing how many writers think all their manuscript needs is a one-time edit. Quality takes multiple rewrites. And, usually, multiple passes by an editor. Patience distinguishes those who will write a good book from those who won’t.

WRITER’S TAKE: Write 300 words a day, 300 days a year, and you’ll have a 90,000-word book worth reading. Remember: Anything worth publishing takes time.

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5. Passing the Buck: Expecting your editor to write the book.

EDITOR’S TAKE: Let’s say I just spent days line-editing your manuscript. I return it with detailed comments about certain issues you need to correct. Then you spend a single day rewriting and think you’ve fixed it all. Not!

Yes, I’ve made edits that you can go through and “Accept” or “Reject,” but when I point out issues like point of view, or cause and effect, or speaker attributions, or sentence structure, you (not me) need to go through your whole manuscript and rework it. They’re not one-time problems, but likely occur throughout the entire book. Spend a few weeks on it. Every individual revision needs to be made in context to that passage and to the larger story. Trust me—it will take more than a few hours to make those changes work. I can’t do this for you.

WRITER’S TAKE: Revise, revise, revise! I’ve edited some of my scenes more than 50 times. Don’t be surprised if you need to do the same.

6. Testiness: Getting upset with your editor when she’s only trying to help.

EDITOR’S TAKE: Please, don’t cuss out your editor. Her goal really is to make your book better. If you disagree with anything she changes then voice your disagreement—but don’t do it in anger. Know that we’re not trying to make your life more difficult. We’re just trying to help get your book published.

WRITER’S TAKE: Always take a day or two to process an editor’s ideas before countering them. Time will give
you perspective.

7. Throwing in the Towel: When the going gets tough, the author quits.

EDITOR’S TAKE:Aack! Don’t quit! Don’t abandon your baby! As I mentioned previously, writing a book is a long, difficult process—and editing can be equally strenuous. You need to be patient and work hard. Even if your current book doesn’t make it into Barnes & Noble, you will learn so much from writing it. Maybe the experience will lead to a future bestselling novel. And the sense of accomplishment when you’ve completed your work truly is priceless.

WRITER’S TAKE:Persevere. Finishing a novel is never easy, but in the end you’ll be thankful you stuck with it.

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 Editors (According to Novelists).

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