5 Tips on How to Work with an Editor

By Mark Nichol

You’ve retained an editor’s services and have received the edited version of your manuscript or article, or you are reviewing the work of a staff or freelance editor working for a publication you have submitted your content to. If you haven’t worked with an editor before, you may be disconcerted by the amount of editing that has been done. But whether you’re a novice or a veteran, these guidelines will help you have a productive relationship with the editor.

1. Respect Objectivity
An editor experiences your work dispassionately. Whether he or she simply engages with a decent manuscript or exults in the opportunity to help craft a classic, the editor is not emotionally involved. Take advantage of this fortunate fact by carefully considering any changes, comments, or suggestions the editor makes about your work

Is a character in a novel too good or too evil, or inconsistent in behavior or inadequately portrayed? Is your how-to book poorly organized or too sparse or too dense? Have you inserted yourself too obtrusively into an essay? An editor will let you know. Trust his or her outside perspective. An editor is the reader’s representative, and as he or she reacts to the content, so, likely, will your intended readership.

2. Cool Off
If something an editor does or says puts you off, do not respond immediately. Consider the substance, not the delivery, of the critique, then reply or accept the comment or the change with good grace or reject it with good grace based on its merits. Don’t be defensive. Good editors are generally diplomatic, but few people can avoid saying something the wrong way sometimes. (Editors should follow this advice from their end, too.)

3. Pick Your Battles
Editors reorganize syntax and replace words, among other tasks. Sometimes these are optional changes, made because the editor believes that another word or a recast sentence works better and sometimes because the original word is wrong or the original sentence is confusing or ungrammatical. In the former case, feel free to disagree, but understand that an editor may revise dozens or even hundreds of words or sentences, and you’re wise to let most of them pass without comment.

That said, if you strongly believe in challenging a change, politely ask the editor about his or her rationale for making it. If the editor informs you that the revision corrects an error, thank him or her — perhaps before asking for clarification so that you can avoid repeating such mistakes — and move on. If a particular edit is discretionary but strongly advised, use your good judgment about accepting or rejecting it. (But see the next item’s second paragraph, too.)

4. Be Prepared to Rewrite
When you work with a developmental editor, he or she will likely recommend that you do a lot of rewriting. (If you thought you had submitted the final draft, you were naive.) You will likely be advised to do significant reorganizing of sections and recasting of sentences. The editor will suggest that you add new content and delete existing material.

A copy editor will send you a list of queries, or embed comments in the manuscript, or both. A good copy editor will usually understand what you were trying to say and will improve unclear or verbose content, but occasionally he or she may be unsure of your intent, or may ask you to confirm that the revision better reflects it. You are always welcome to revise a revision, and good editors are happy to know that they prompted you to come up with something better than both the original and their alteration.

5. Accept Fallibility
Even the best editors sometimes misunderstand material or make a mistake. If you catch an editor’s error, go ahead and gloat a little, but then politely inform the editor, who should appreciate receiving clarification or learning something new. Forbearance is especially important if the content is especially esoteric or technical.

Of course, if errors are numerous or you are otherwise dissatisfied with the editing, or the relationship becomes strained for some reason, try to resolve the difficulty calmly. If your efforts are not productive, check in with a staff editor’s manager and ask for advice or action, or inform the freelance editor that you will pay him or her for the work already done but have decided to retain the services of another editor.

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3 Responses to “5 Tips on How to Work with an Editor”

  • Beverly Bailey

    Excellent article about editors. I have had material edited, and I am also an editor. When writer and editor work hand in glove, both are winners. Thank you.

    B. Bailey

  • Carol

    “Whether he or she simply engages with a decent manuscript or exults in the opportunity to help craft a classic, the editor is not emotionally involved.”

    I gotta think that anyone exulting in anything is emotionally involved. You might want to reword that.

  • Rachel Daven Skinner

    As an editor myself, I second all of this with a resounding “hear! hear!” Especially: “You are always welcome to revise a revision, and good editors are happy to know that they prompted you to come up with something better than both the original and their alteration.” I really love the collaborative element of editing. Thanks for this fab post!

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