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Why I Would Decline an Edit

December 7, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified December 7, 2011

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.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Beginning Writers, For Editors

17 Responses to “Why I Would Decline an Edit”

  1. ~Sia McKye~ says:

    Some great points on how to tell if your manuscript is ready for an editor, Beth.

    As a writer, it’s all to easy to get excited about what you’ve written and think it’s read to sell. We’re close to the MS and our mind knows the whole story and the nuances–we fill them in automatically– but a reader doesn’t and can’t fill in the blanks without frustration. I think this is where your beta readers come in.

    Rewrites aren’t always fun, but they are necessary. The first draft is the fun part as the story comes together for us. Our mind is working and supplying us with thought, layers, reasons and they don’t necessarily get set in words. Rewrites dip into the work column. They are work and less fun because now those layers, plot issues, POV, pacing, and dialogue come under our scrutiny. A lot of smack your forehead and ‘what the hell I thinking’ comes into play.

    Sometimes writers want the fun of writing but not the work of it. :-)

    Sia McKye’s Thoughts…OVER COFFEE

  2. Sia, the ability to see what readers see is so very important. That’s one reason to put a manuscript aside after the first draft. A writer can come back to it with fresh eyes, with a reader’s eyes, if he leaves it alone for a month or six weeks or so. At that time, many of the problem areas become evident. Also, I think that the experience of having written several manuscripts allows writers to look at a new work dispassionately. Being able to step outside the story and analyze it is vital for writers. But as you said, that doesn’t happen (and shouldn’t happen) when we’re crafting that first draft.

    I’m glad you dropped in. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  3. Jaye says:

    Thank you for this article. It always pains me to turn away a potential editing job, but if the work isn’t publishable there isn’t anything I can do. Except, rewrite, of course, and that’s not a job I want to tackle.

    Writers sometimes get very angry or hurt and angry, as if I’m rejecting them. What I’m actually doing is saving them a lot of money up front and a lot of embarrassment on the back end when they realize that hiring someone to fix commas and check spelling is not the way to produce polished prose and a story with commercial value.

    A lot of times I’ll offer to critique a short synopsis, gratis. Many freak out at that point because they have no idea how to write a synopsis. Or else my critique points out that they have a lot of work to do on basic story structure, so they head back for another rewrite.

  4. Jason Black says:

    Great article. But what I’d like for people to know is that just because they’re not ready for traditional line editing or copy editing does not mean there’s no help out there for them.

    Quite the contrary.

    It’s called “developmental editing.” If you’ve ever heard stories about contracted writers receiving lengthy editorial letters from their publishers, full of stuff to fix before they’ll accept the manuscript as per contract, that’s basically what developmental editing is.

    It’s also about 95% of what I do for clients. I read the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb. I take many, many notes. I write up my findings in all areas of writing and story craft. You get back what amounts to a ridiculously detailed, technical, hyper-analytical book report about your manuscript. You can then use that as a roadmap for producing a structurally solid second draft with much cleaner prose. Something Beth Hill and Jaye would be much less likely to turn down.

    That’s developmental editing. It shows you the issues with your manuscript, and with your writing, so you can improve both.

    In all the years I’ve been doing this, I have to say that I have literally never seen a manuscript that would NOT have benefitted from a developmental edit. Not one. It’s where I recommend every writer start when they’ve taken a manuscript as far as they can on their own and are ready to turn to a professional editor for help.

  5. Jaye says:

    I’ve worked with good development editors, Jason. They’re great for helping a writer shape ideas, manage plots and develop characters. What they can’t do is teach someone how to write.

    The people I turn away are coming to me too soon. They haven’t yet learned the craft. They might have buckets of talent, but haven’t mastered the skills necessary to use it. They’re at a stage where a writing coach or a critique group will help them. Not an editor charging them $25-40 an hour.

    The expectation is, I can take their rough copy, correct a few word choices, rearrange a paragraph or two, and turn it into a salable story. I don’t guarantee it will be salable EVEN if it is publishable. I do know unless it’s publishable, it is not salable.

  6. Pat Bertram says:

    I was in a discussion about this very matter earlier today. A writer asked, “Do you prepare your manuscript for your editor to make it more understandable or do you leave that all up to the editor?” She thought all she had to do was write the book and then when it was accepted for publishing, the editor would do the rest. My answer, of course, was, “Never leave it up to the editor. Edit it yourself. Make it as perfect as you can. Then send it to your editor.”

  7. Some great points and good discussion. Thanks for joining in Jaye, Jason, and Pat.

    Jaye, I’ve found most writers are pleased, even if I decline an edit, because I give them direction and pointers. I know writers often get no feedback on their submissions from agents and acquisition editors—owing to the sheer volume of submissions and not to agent or editor indifference—and feel the need to provide help when I can. My notes, based on the manuscript sample, no doubt cover some of the same areas and weaknesses Jason would include in his manuscript report.

    I’ve found the same thing you’ve found—writers coming for an edit too soon. Mastery of craft is vital. And I’m not talking about knowing where to put commas; publishers won’t be turning down a writer because of misplaced commas. It’s all about craft and storytelling and creating a world readers can get lost in.

    If a story is missing the basics, it’s not yet a story.

  8. Jason, what you call developmental editing is what I’d call substantive editing blended with mentoring. And much of that is what I do with a manuscript.

    But I still find many manuscripts not ready for an edit, even at this level. The writer might be ready for tips and suggestions and help with the elements of writing, yes. But the manuscript may not be ready for an edit. If characters are missing motivations and there are no scenes and the plot goes nowhere, an edit will be pointless. Why edit the final 100 pages of a manuscript if that section will be tossed out because the writer discovers the story will go in a new direction when she adds the missing antagonist? What is there to edit if the writer hasn’t included scenes? What if there is no direct dialogue, only the reports of conversations? The basics need to be in place before an editor comes to a story.

    Of course, an editor who is working with a writer in a mentoring relationship, who is working through the manuscript from its early stages and helping with story concept and outline and plotting (what I consider a true developmental edit), an editor who is teaching the craft of writing to the writer, this editor is performing a service of a different kind.

    This type of editing will involve working on different drafts of the same manuscript, may require multiple back-and-forth exchanges between writer and editor. This is a different approach, one that takes longer and typically costs more than other types of editing. When I mentioned developmental editing in this article, I was referring to this type of service. What I offer my clients is a substantive edit, along the same lines as what you provide.

    Even though editors may approach projects differently, it’s clear that we care for producing quality manuscripts and entertaining stories, that we’re interested, no matter our approach, in helping writers write good stories.

  9. R L Pace says:

    Your point regarding setting aside a manuscript to let it ‘age’ is spot-on. So often I have returned to something written weeks, months or even years earlier, and the flaws leap off the page. Clumsy sentence structure, stilted dialogue, grammar errors (not intended ones, in any event) and dangling plot points all seem so obvious when tempered with time. Thanks for your insight, your blog will be regular reading for me henceforth.

  10. R L, time certainly brings clarity, doesn’t it? I find that errors almost flash at me when I come back to a project after time away. Must be something about the setup in our brains.

    I’m glad you’ll be back. I hope to post many more articles you can both enjoy and use.

  11. Nuri King says:

    This is not a comment, but a question.

    Is it necessary for an author to have a finished draft of his/her manuscript before hiring an editor?

    I have begun writing the first draft of my manuscript, however, I’m not completely done. I realize, though, the need for a developmental editor to help me with structuring my manuscript. Should I begin my search for an editor or should I wait until I finish the first draft?

    • Phil Hutson says:

      Personal experience only. If your project is broken down into chunks. Time periods, part 1, part 2, then you can get an editor to work with you on grammar, structure, etc. It is more difficult to find a content editor, or even someone to discuss content with you until you have a finished product. Writer’s groups are good, content specific coaches, even at the community college level can help with projects in process. I found editorial assistance in stages. People who will help you at draft and coach you through that, people who might tell you what to dump and what is working, or even ask you “where the hell is this going?” Buy some self editing books just to get you past upside down paragraphs, call and response dialogue, all of the “un-slick” habits we have. Different types of editors will help you at different stages. Polish it until it shines and then find a product pro like Beth seems to be. The old adage of “Don’t try to teach a pig to sing, it’s a waste of time and annoys the pig,” holds true here. Different editors get our pigs to carry a tune. Once they’re already singing it annoys the opera coach far less. My experience and oh-two, anyway.

      • Phil Huston says:

        Further to that, what I meant to say was seek out “editors” who will work on less than product if what you need help with is less than product. I’d hate to think of all the editors out there trying to be kind after NaNoWriMo. Ouch.

      • Great advice, Phil. The greater writing community is willing to share knowledge—writers should take advantage of every resource.

    • Nuri, if you truly want someone to help you structure your novel, you might want to do that now, before you progress farther. Yet Phil had some great advice for you, that you do a bit of study on your own, maybe get some advice from folks in writer’s groups. Talking out the story with a critique partner or a writing group may be all you need. And those options would be free.

      If money is no problem, going through a developmental edit would probably be highly helpful. But you’d probably get more advice, more tools, out of it than you’d get more writing done on your story. If that’s okay with you, then you could try it.

      On the other hand, I usually counsel writers to wait to approach an editor until they’ve put together several drafts. And yet what I’m usually referring to is a substantive or content editor. If you really need help before that point, before you’ve got the story at least framed out, you could call on a developmental editor. But you could just as easily get into a class where an instructor helps you develop your story as well as your skills. Such an option is probably the best option for most writers, especially those just starting out.

      Let me know if you have other questions.

      • Nuri King says:

        Thank you Beth and Phil.

        Both your advice are very helpful. I think I will attempt to finish my manuscript then seek out an editor. It would certainly save me time and money, than to go back and forth with a developmental editor. After reading your comments, I realized that I really don’t need a developmental editor. What I lack is discipline, as a writer. I’m not writing as often as I should, and I was trying to find a way to avoid having to commit so much of my time to writing my manuscript–not that a developmental editor will write my manuscript for me, that, I would need a ghost writer for. But, I guess that wouldn’t make me a “true” writer if someone else does it for me. I’m just going to chalk it up and put in the work necessary to create a masterpiece that I can be proud of.

        Thanks again for your advice!