Editorial Myth-busting: Four Common Misconceptions About the Editing Process

This is a topic that’s been brewing in the back of my mind for a while, as evidenced by the precursor posts earlier this year (Publishing: The Industry of Disappointment and Editors . . . are People?). There are so many myths and misconceptions, so many horror stories out there regarding the author-editor relationship, that it’s no wonder debut authors approach the editing process with a strange blend of hope, fear, dread, and resignation. Editing gets lumped into the same category as going to the dentist or getting the oil changed in your car. It’s not fun, but you know you have to do it. And that’s unfortunate. Because, as Drew Hayes pointed out in his article, the author-editor relationship really should be a mutually beneficial collaboration.

But, as with most things in publishing, that fact often gets obscured by the divide in perception between what the process looks/feels like for the author and what it’s like for the editor. So let’s do some myth-busting, yes? Everyone loves myth-busting. Especially when there are GIFs involved.

Myth #1: An editor’s only job is to find errors in your work.

Perception: wrong

Reality: thoughtful

It’s easy to see how this myth began, since a large portion of editing does revolve around the finding and fixing of “errors.” But that’s far from the only thing an editor does. According to the many horror stories out there, editors are judgmental, cruel beings whose only mission in life is to lord over the ranks of poor, pitiful writer-souls the way Ursula does her garden of victims in The Little Mermaid. We badger, and bully, and shred a writer’s precious work until there’s virtually nothing left, laughing as we drag the carcass of words through the Meadow of Publication and deposit its ravaged husk into the arms of readers everywhere.

Now, I’m obviously being just a tad facetious with the hyperbole, but I’ve actually heard people say this myth out loud. A lot. And I suppose, to an extent, it’s true. We are paid to find and repair problems. But the reason has less to do with sadistic pleasure at proving others wrong and more to do with the fact that we’re an objective set of expert eyes. The reason authors need editors is because they’re too close to their own work. They know what they meant to say, how the story is supposed to go, what the scenes are meant to capture. An editor is a new perspective outside of the writer’s head. They’re your first chance to see the way readers are going to react, and they’re your last chance to fix things that would otherwise earn you the dreaded one-star Amazon review.

So while the myth would have us gleefully giggling as we circle every misplaced comma and typo, the reality is that we’re more like a safety net. It’s our job to help protect authors from reader backlash. Finding errors is only one aspect of doing just that.

Myth #2: Editors are the gatekeepers standing between you and publication.

Perception: Ghostbuter Dog

Reality:Teamwork

Ah, yes. This is one of the many myths that led to my earlier articles about the humans behind publishing’s massive facade of mystery. Querying authors tend to assume that agents and acquisitions editors are solely there to be in the way. That, much like that dog-thing from Ghostbusters pictured above, we’re mindless drones serving our masters by keeping perfectly qualified, brilliant literature from making it through the gates.

Now, this myth might hold a tiny shred of truth in it (acquisitions editors and agents do filter submissions for marketability), but it’s often perpetuated by authors who’ve acquired a plethora of rejection letters, and who refuse to face the fact that their book-baby might not actually be ready for publication after all.

The reality behind acquisitions is that agents and editors are looking for business partners. Publishing is a team endeavor, and it requires a lot more than simply being able to spin a good tale. So yes, we are gatekeepers in the sense that we have to be highly selective about who we end up recruiting onto our team (remember, publishing is a business, and what do businesses want? Money!), but we’re not gatekeepers in the sense that our only reason to exist is to guard the hallowed halls of publishing from an influx of mortals. Usually, if your book isn’t receiving offers, it means it either isn’t ready yet, you’re querying the wrong agents/editors, or it just might be better suited for a different publication avenue. (I’ll talk about those more in a different, future article.)

Myth #3: Editors make tons of money, so why the hell are they so expensive?

Perception:rich

Reality:broke

This one mostly refers to the world of freelance editing, since traditional publication paths don’t require the author to pay for editing out of their own pocket. (Giant red flag if you’re ever offered a “traditional” publishing contract which does ask this of you, by the way.) It’s also a topic I’ve covered before, and which the lovely Cait Spivey provided a guest post on.

The long and short of it is that editors really don’t make that much money. What seems like a hefty chunk of change to the author having to pay it, really equates to the oft-touted ramen diet favored by other starving artist types. In editing, dollars earned divided by time spent often equals less than some people flip burgers for. Which is why most editors edit because they love it, not because it rakes in bucket-loads of green.

Which brings us to our last myth — a misconception very closely tied to the reason editors walk hand-in-hand with authors in the “I’m Broke as F*&%” parade.

Myth #4: I can read my novel in less than a week, cover to cover; why does it take an editor weeks or months to edit it?

Perception:Spacecat

Reality:

Interesting

This is my least favorite myth to run up against as an editor, either freelance or otherwise, because it instantly shows me how little the person saying it knows about the actual editing process. Editors are, in fact, some of the fastest readers I know, because we’re buried under a mountain of manuscripts that would rival Mount Everest if they weren’t largely digital. But editing does not live in the same sphere as reading. It doesn’t. I don’t care who you are, if you believe that, you’re wrong. Very, very wrong. Editing is much like writing, if it must be compared to anything. And let me ask you, oh ye authors of the interwebs, how long did it take you to actually write your manuscript? I don’t mean the act of putting words on paper or screen, but the time it took from concept inception to the “polished” draft you’re handing your editor. If you say less than 3-4 months, minimum, you’re about as believable as that cat hurtling through space at warp speed.

The fact of the matter is that editing takes time. A lot of it. It’s not just a matter of reading an author’s words. You have to digest them. There’s a lot of analyzing, of listening and interpreting intent from reality, of diagnosing and curing storytelling diseases of all varieties, as well as the expected suggestions for proper grammar. Good editors will expend an impressive amount of mental energy crafting suggestions that can be as small as a single word, because that single word has to a) conform to the accepted rules of English, b) fit with the author and character’s established voice/style, and c) somehow solve/improve upon whatever was wonky in the first place. That’s a lot of pressure on a single word, huh? And editors do that for an entire manuscript! So you can see why it would take a significant amount of mental gymnastics to complete even a single editorial review, let alone the three rounds (developmental, line/copy, proofreading) that most manuscripts go through prior to publication.

So yes, it is possible to read something cover-to-cover in a few days to a week. But it is not possible to edit the thing in that time frame. It’s just not. Asking your editor to do so is inhumane, because it will inevitably require them to give up massive amounts of sleep, drink enough caffeine to make them twitchy as a squirrel in autumn, and otherwise shackle themselves to their desk until they collapse from sheer exhaustion. Trust me, I’ve had far too much experience with that particular scenario. It’s far better to realize that editing is a time-consuming process for everyone involved and plan accordingly.

Which brings us to the end of today’s post. These are four of the more common myths I’ve heard, but tell me, what are some other editing myths out there? If there are a lot more, perhaps this myth-busting business will become a regular feature. 😉

 

2 thoughts on “Editorial Myth-busting: Four Common Misconceptions About the Editing Process

  1. As usual, this is spot on. The cost of an editor is worth it, when an author hopes to be published. I would imagine that editors who are also authors have their own go-to people to edit their own work. It takes a specialist to look objectively at a manuscript and make changes that even the editor-author cannot see.

    Great post!

    • Thank you!

      And yes, even editors need editors. Because once they’re operating in an author capacity, they’re prone to the same issues with objectivity that non-editor authors face. I know if (or when) I ever finish something again, I’ve got at least two fellow editors I’d trust to give me honest feedback. I definitely wouldn’t try to tackle it all myself.

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