Terrible Editors and Why You Shouldn’t

I read this blog post and it made me go full Steaming Professional Fury.

The editor who was assigned to work on my manuscript was one of the unkindest people I have ever come across. For some reason, my story brought out the absolute worst in this lady. I don’t know what struck her core but something sure did. She did not like one thing about what she was reading. She hated the heroine, the hero, the premise of the book, and even the villain was too villainous for her. Yep. She said that. […] Nasty comments abounded which made me hate my own work that I’d been so happy to submit and have accepted by the publisher. […] A couple of examples: “You must not have worked very hard on this book as I’ve read one of your other books and it was better.”; “You must not like your characters.”; “I want to cold-cock your heroine.” (AND this was not meant in a sexual way); “I want to tell her to go screw herself.” and, after highlighting most of a chapter: “Rewrite this as it’s nonsensical.” No guidance, nothing – just rewrite it. And one comment was just, “You’re kidding.”

I tweeted (extensively; I was cross) about this and had a horrifyingly large response from people saying they’d had similar experiences. Consequently, I rageblog.

As I have discussed before, there are small presses who apparently feel that editing is not a skilled job. They pay $50 a MS for an edit, or give editors a small royalty on the book rather than an upfront fee, and since obviously professionals can’t work for that, they use amateurs who will do it ‘for love’. As far as I can tell, this means keen readers and reviewers.

Now, as I have often said, I support the right of reviewers to write whatever they like about a book, however vicious and snarky. You know who doesn’t have that right, not even a little bit? Editors.

The editor’s job is to make the MS better in partnership with the author. The editor is the author’s ally. She may hate the author’s guts (welcome to the club); she may hate the book (in which she needs either to suck it up or to ask to be reassigned). She may not, ever, take out her feelings on the author in spite, hyperbole, snark, bitching and malice.

You may be great at identifying what’s wrong with a book. You may have the rarer skill of seeing how to make it right. But if you can’t convey those things to the author in a professional manner that keeps the author onside and engaged, you aren’t fit to be an editor. And if a publisher employs an editor who lacks that skill, I’m not sure where they get off claiming to be a publisher.

The problem is not just unprofessional editors and publishers, it’s inexperienced authors accidentally enabling them. If you’ve never had good editing, you may not know what it looks like, and you may not know how to draw the line between a tough, close edit and a horrible abusive experience. (Because, let’s face it, the first can feel like the second in the heat of the moment.)

Nobody likes taking criticism. Authors have been known to complain vociferously about the most carefully phrased editorial letters because they suggest any changes at all. So I am not saying that adverse criticism = horrible incompetent editor. Quite the reverse, in fact. An editor who scatters compliments like sunshine and daisies over a flawed MS may be a temporary joy, but she’s not doing her job either. What you need, what the publisher’s cut of the receipts buys you, is an editor who can identify problems, explain what you need to do, and convey that in a helpful, respectful manner.

Example time! Let us say you have a minor character, Trevor, of whom you are fond, and with whom you have been self-indulgent.

Terrible Editor: Trevor is a total waste of space. Are we supposed to like him, because he was a walking cliché and I felt like screaming whenever he turned up. There was no point in him being in the book anyway because he didn’t DO anything, he was just boring.

Bad Editor: I love Trevor! He’s so funny! I smiled whenever I saw him!

Useful Editor: You need to consider Trevor’s role. He takes a lot of page time but he doesn’t actually play a part in the plot. I’m afraid I think his role needs to be very substantially cut back to improve the pacing, eliminating the conversations in chapters 7, 9 and 10 altogether. I realise that’s going to hurt but if you read with an eye to structure, I think you’ll see he’s bringing the action to a halt without adding anything new to the otherwise tightly-constructed plot. Might you be able to use these conversations (which are very lively and enjoyable in themselves) as bonus features for the blog tour?


So. Eight points for authors…

  1. Make sure your contract includes the following: A clause specifying that editing takes place in consultation with the author, and the author has the right of approval. A clause saying you will receive professional editing. A breach of contract clause.
  2. Abusive ‘editing’ is not professional. A professional editor will never insult your work or demand rewrites without guidance. A professional will be thinking about your feelings, not about venting her own. A professional works with you to help make the MS better.
  3. If you get an edit that is full of snark and spite, first have an experienced published author look at it to make sure you’re not overreacting. If she agrees that this is a hatchet job, go to the managing editor and say that you’re not happy and you don’t think the edit is appropriate or professional. Ask that you should be assigned a different editor who doesn’t hate the book.
  4. If the publisher’s response includes words like ‘extremely sorry’ and ‘reassign immediately’, great. If the publisher doesn’t seem bothered that they’ve employed a non-professionally-competent person, or fails to listen to you, consider very hard if these are people you want to work with again. (Hint: They aren’t.) The publisher accepted your MS; they should have faith in it.
  5. Don’t be scared to cite the contract clauses mentioned in point 1. That’s why you have clauses in your contract: to use them as needed. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you’ll be blacklisted by all publishers in your genre for being ‘difficult’, that’s hilariously untrue. To quote author/editor/publisher Aleks Voinov, “Enforcing an industry-wide blacklist would be akin to creating a global cat union.”
  6. If you haven’t got the contract clauses mentioned in point 1, stop signing crappy contracts. Have someone else look over the next one first.
  7. Remember that you are better off self-publishing than having an incompetent editor make a dog’s breakfast of a book that comes out under your name.
  8. See 7.

One for whoever it is doing this so-called ‘editing’:

  1. Being able to read and spell does not make you an editor. If you have been let loose on an author’s MS without track record, training or supervision, and you think you can just wander through it saying whatever you like, you need a humility check right now.

As for the publishers that don’t pay for actual editing but still take a nice big cut of your book’s receipts…I can’t even. Just stop signing contracts with these people. Please.


KJ Charles is a freelance editor with twenty years’ professional experience, thank you, and an author. Her next book is The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, coming 16 June.