Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Why would an editor turn down an editing project? Isn’t it money, a job? A new client that the editor could work with for many years?
Yes to each of those.
Yet my sole purpose as an editor isn’t to fill up my calendar and ensure an income stream. I edit because I want to help a writer improve a story and improve as a writer. There’s a teacher inside me who wants to not only make a manuscript the best it can be, but to make writers the best they can be.
Does this mean I have all the answers? No, no, and no again.
But I do bring an outside eye to a manuscript. And I can tell when something doesn’t work and why. And I do know how to make suggestions.
So why decline an edit?
The major reason I turn down an editing project is because the manuscript is not ready. Not ready to be published and not ready for an editor’s tools.
I’ve said many times that a first draft is not a finished product; first drafts can be so far from the final draft that they look to be different stories. Yet that’s often what I’m asked to look at, the very beginnings of what might be a wonderful story.
I receive many first drafts from excited writers, writers eager to submit their stories to publishers or agents after I clean up the punctuation or suggest grammar changes. I love that eagerness and hope I can channel it toward rewrites and self-edits. But I do that through suggestions rather than a hands-on edit at that stage.
I’m not a ghost writer or co-writer, yet that’s what I’d be if I edited the first draft of a novel.
A first draft, unless the writer is exceptionally gifted or experienced, is simply not ready for an edit. That first draft is a work in progress—and it’s a WIP at its very worst. What writer would want an editor to work on her project at its worst stage?
A first draft is incomplete. It has few of the touches that would make it an exceptional read. It’s often missing character motivation, rising conflict, and dialogue that’s rich in subtext and nuance. The beginning may not match the end. Story threads that were begun early in the manuscript might have gone nowhere, leaving messy bits of different plots hanging here and there among the true story.
Characters are likely to be undeveloped, hazy, unsure of their purpose in the story. Underused. One-dimensional.
The plot will be too thin or too full, the pacing will be off, the sentence rhythms will be off.
Foreshadowing will be absent. Chapter-ending hooks will go nowhere or be weak and uninspiring. Repetition—in word or thought or action—will be obvious rather than useful.
So . . . Isn’t that what an editor is for? To fix these issues? To at least bring a writer’s attention to them so he can make changes?
Yes, an editor will address all these issues and many more. But a manuscript that lacks the basic elements of good story is incomplete. And asking an editor to come in too soon is like asking another painter to finish a half-painted canvas: Here’s my latest project, John. Fill in the blank parts for me, will you? I’m sure you can tell from the rest of the image what I want to include in all the empty spaces. And if you find something that doesn’t work with the rest, just change that too.
A painting completed by another artist will not be the same painting the first artist envisioned. And a novel completed by an editor will not be the same story the writer envisioned.
A writer friend mentioned that it must be especially difficult to be turned down by a freelance editor. Not only is the manuscript not ready for a publisher, but it’s not even ready for an editor who would be paid to work on it. What does that say about the writing? the writer? the writer’s dreams?
For me, turning down an edit has nothing to do with the writer or his goals and dreams. It has everything to do with the words and the manuscript.
I’m not a dream crusher but a dream enhancer. What I give to writers whose manuscripts I decline to edit is the same thing I bring to my clients as I work through their manuscripts—my best advice and suggestions for improving the story.
For manuscripts I decline to edit, I point out areas that still need work. I suggest fixes and a few resources for helping with those fixes. I offer options and a direction to consider as the writer works on rewrites.
I suggest that a first draft needs another pass or two by the writer.
A first draft—or any version of a manuscript that hasn’t jelled—needs more than polishing and focus. It needs work at the very foundations. That may mean point of view hasn’t been decided. It may mean that instead of scenes, the writer has included character sketches and notes. There may be no clear protagonist.
Dialogue may run on and on or be nearly non-existent.
Unless an editor is working with the writer from the early stages of a story, unless she’s working as a developmental editor, these basic elements should be decided upon before an editor comes to a story. It’s true that an editor may suggest changes in POV or viewpoint character, may even suggest that a different character is the true protagonist. Yet, were an editor to rewrite passages to reflect the change in POV, were she to create scenes out of chapters of only description, the work would take on the editor’s style and not the writer’s.
Yes, there is developmental editing and there are co-writers, but unless that’s specifically what you’re looking for, you’d do better to have a handle on the fundamentals of storytelling and novels before you approach an editor for your work.
Do you want guidance and help or full rewriting? Do you want an outsider’s eye and suggestions or do you want that outsider’s words in place of your own?
I’m not saying that editors can’t make suggestions for entire scenes or for long passages. I am saying there’s a difference between editing and co-writing or re-writing. If you’re a writer, know which you expect from your editor and let her know your expectations. If you’re an editor, know what the writer expects from you and let him know what your edits cover.
If a writer is looking for help from the earliest stages, both parties should know that going in. But again, that’s typically a developmental edit, what is often seen in non-fiction. It’s not unheard of for fiction projects, just less common. The typical novelist typing away in solitude wants to do it all herself.
Note: There’s always the slight chance an editor might accept an unfinished manuscript and neglect to point out fundamental story problems to the writer. A poor editor might try to make a story look pretty without firming the foundations.
If you’re a writer, you definitely don’t want to solicit such an editor, one who’s not willing to tell you your story isn’t ready. And if you’re an editor new to the business, don’t be shy about telling a writer what a story needs.
Writers, you’ll also want to be aware of the different types and levels of editing. If you ask a proofreader to work on a manuscript, he’s not necessarily going to point out problems with the story’s foundations; that’s not a proofreader’s job. He might not even see them since he’s reading for a different purpose. And he might not know how to fix them even if he did see problems. Proofreaders are highly skilled and worth every penny you pay them, but they are not substantive editors who delve into all the fiction elements. So while a proofreader may check every line of your tables, he might not be able to tell you a thing about character development.
Major story issues that show me a manuscript isn’t ready to be edited—
1. Reports that take the place of scenes. This is the very worst of telling instead of showing. These manuscripts read less like a novel and more like a list of daily chores that have been accomplished. I did this, then I did this, and then I went here and did this. A novel without scenes (barring an experimental piece) is not a story.
2. No clear protagonist. A story without a clear protagonist is missing its heart. Writers must decide whose story they’re telling and they should decide this before they’re ready for an edit. A story can’t be finished, the elements can’t be joined properly, if the protagonist is unidentified. And if the story isn’t finished, why have it edited? (I understand that editors often work as mentors and consultants, helping fix problem areas and strengthening a writer’s skills. An editor can take on these tasks at any stage of a manuscript’s development. I’m differentiating the editing of a completed manuscript from these mentoring tasks.)
3. Confusion over point of view. Again, while an editor may suggest that a writer change his choice of POV or viewpoint character, there should’ve been some conscious decision by the writer to have chosen a point of view before working on the final drafts. A manuscript with muddled POV, especially one that shows the writer doesn’t understand the different options for POV, is not ready to be edited.
4. Lack of story. A novel manuscript without a discernible story is not ready for an edit. Novels have characters doing something somewhere. The story usually makes sense, entertains readers, and shows a cohesion of some sort from beginning to end. The options of elements to be included in novels is nearly limitless, but there must be some kind of narrative featuring some kind of characters. A manuscript without a story needs to find a story before the writer finds an editor.
5. A complete lack of writing skills or indifference to the need for those skills on the part of the writer. A writer who doesn’t know how to write and a writer who doesn’t care to learn how to write may not have the same attitude, but their output can be similar. A manuscript that’s the result of either ignorance (the lack of knowledge) or indifference is likely not ready for an edit.
Writers, you expect your editor to bring her best skills to your manuscript; you should do no less. Learn the basics. Learn the intermediate skills. Learn the advanced skills. Learn the writing rules and the ins and outs of fiction. Don’t assume you can write and that you know how to work with all the elements of storytelling—make sure that you do through practice and reading and study.
If I see a weakness in one of these areas, I suggest that the writer examine the problem area before seeking an edit. After all, what’s the point of editing a full manuscript if it will change drastically—where changes touch every page or scene—and require another edit? Make those major structural changes before hiring an editor.
I hope this reassures those writers who might be hesitant to approach a freelance editor. We’re looking for writers who want to produce a better story, who have an interest in crafting entertaining fiction that others will want to read.
We don’t relish turning a writer down. Instead we want to help you make your current manuscript and all those that follow the best you can make them. If that means saying that one isn’t ready, not even ready for an editor, then that’s what we’re going to say.
I’m certain that at this point a few writers and editors will be thinking some variation of the following: “My first draft was really clean; I actually got a contract from that first draft.” “But I want an editor to help me with these exact issues.” “I’m an editor and I relish, thrive, working on just the kind of manuscripts you’ve described here as not ready.”
There are always exceptions.
Of course there are. Exceptions for stories, for people, for circumstances. Exceptions for brilliance or for the challenge or for the opportunity of working on a particular manuscript or with a particular writer.
But exceptions aren’t common. For most of us, the reality is that our stories need work and our first drafts are not final drafts and a beginning writer’s first manuscript is going to have major structural and storytelling issues that need fixing.
My encouragement for you is to keep writing. Work to enhance your writing strengths and eliminate your weaknesses.
Learn what makes good fiction and strive to create it.
And when you and your manuscript are ready, find an editor whose goals and strengths and style fit with yours so the two of you can produce a story readers won’t be able to put down.
Write good fiction today.
Rewrite even better fiction.