Last week I included in my blog my opinion about the importance of a good, professionally trained, experienced, NYC publishing house, acquisitions editor. There were a lot of comments and questions, including this one by Atsiko:

>>I’m curious, though, as to what qualifies an editor to be an expert. There are editors who are writers, and writers who are editors, and there are editors and writers who are *only* editors and writers. So where do editors gain this talent for improving on the work of writers? Is it just practice critiquing?

First, off, there is a major difference between an edit and a critique. 

A through edit addresses pacing, plot progression, character development, plot and story arcs, the very structure and heart and soul of a novel or story. It breaks down a story into its component parts and rebuilds it with more flesh, bigger muscle, and a tightness to the composition that is often staggering. This doesn’t count the copy edit, line edit, etc. which are usually done by others, not a book’s actual editor.

Second, I know of *very* few NYC editors who write. Okay, let’s be honest. I know of none. Not one. There was one some years back who left the biz to become a writer, then later stopped writing. But I know of no editors who have the time or energy to work 60 plus hours a week and then write too.

Third, there is a lot more to a good editor than talent. A *LOT*! I’ve had quite a few of them over the last is 20 years. (I sold my first book in 1989.) For the purposes of this post I will use the universal *he*, though most NYC editors are female and in their mid to last 20s.

  1. Most NYC editors have a degree in literary arts, often a masters.
  2. My idea editor has at least 5 years working under a senior editor in my genre. If I am a bestseller, then I want the senior editor, but I’m not, so I’m not pushing it.
  3. He practically knows (by heart) the Chicago Manual of Style.
  4. He has studied his particular genre back and forth and can quote sales numbers, genre trends, new promo methods, and give me the latest NYC gossip because he is plugged into the scene.
  5. His best friend is the buyer for my genre at B&N, and he dates the buyer for my genre at BAM, and his mother is the buyer for Borders, and he gets along famously with all of them. (None of number 5 is likely, but I can hope.)
  6. He knows agents and editors in his field and in other fields. They like him enough to buy him drinks at cons, and to steer clients his way when they discover a gem-of-an-author who is not right for their house. Yes, I’ve known that to happen.
  7. He returns my emails within 24 hours (except weekends and when he is out of town.)
  8. He returns my phone calls within 24 hours (except weekends and when he is out of town.)
  9. He has no fear when it comes to fighting for good slots (this is a place for my books in the publishing lineup for the coming year) good promo money and the very best PR person in the company’s PR department.
  10. He likes me. And if he doesn’t like me, (because we simply don’t connect in that special way. I mean, what’s not to like?) he still works with me as if he is my pal.
  11. He likes my work. Really, this should be number one. An editor who likes my work is a gift from heaven. That editor will (see number 9) fight for promo money and for a better slot in pub dates. In addition, he will fight for expanded attention from the buyers of the chains, and will coo about my work to other editors from other houses, thus expanding my name recognition in the business, and my likelihood of being asked to do more work.
  12. I am sure there are more. Feel free to add thoughts about the job and value of a good editor.

A good editor is worth his weight in gold. They make writers better writers.



14 comments to THE IDEAL EDITOR

  • Great post, Faith. Just to expand on your #4, that being “plugged in” as far as the genre is concerned is key. A good editor has seen it all. He knows what has been done to death and what’s considered the next wave even before readers do. I can’t over estimate teh importance of this because tehre is nothing worse than an editor saying “this is a great book, but such and such a body at such and such a press has just beaten you to it and your work looks stale by comparison.” When an editor knows what you are working on, they can spot this kind of problem down the road and get you to redirect. Or they can say, “since you’re writing X you should read Y to see how to do it and what to avoid.” Apart from everything an editor does to help you craft a better book, he or she can be crucial in retooling the book as soemthing you can sell. Much of this is true of a good agent too.

  • Very informative, Faith. Thanks. Btw, I am half-way through BloodRing. It is the first of your books I’ve gotten my grubby little hands on, but won’t be the last.

  • Some of the points here are why I decided to go looking for an Agent as soon as the book is as finished as I feel I can make it on my own. Not only can an agent point to things I (and my proofers) may have missed, but also has a better chance of finding an editor who may better mesh with my genre, style, and perhaps personality.

  • Fabulous list Faith, and timely to boot. I hope I can get an editor with a list like you’ve written up. Next week do we get Faith’s wonderful take on what makes a good agent?


  • AJ, you are so right. My AKA and a co-writer are writing a book we thought was totaly new and unique. My agent, when he saw the proposal, said, “Oh yeah, this is lot like XYZ book.” Needless to say, we have retooled the concept.

    April… Eeeeek! Thanks!

    Daniel, yes, exactly. When I’ve had two similar offers, I have had an agent suggest one editor over another for just that reason. Because the editor was a better fit.

    NGDave, I was leaning along that line…

  • Nice list, Faith. I’d add “Turns manuscripts around, with extensive revision notes, in a timely way.” But I have an editor who meets nearly all of your criteria and NOT that one I just listed, and I’m very happy with him. So I guess it’s not the most important thing. The slow pace can be frustrating, though. And I can think of another editor who was at a major genre house — a terrific editor by all accounts — who was canned and turned to writing and is now enjoying a very successful writing career. But as you indicated, these folks are the exceptions.

  • Yeah, David, I have that one myself — slow pace on TATs for revision letters. But I ADORE my editor, and she just bought 2 more books and the check came today — so I accept it! I’d rather a slow pace rather than lose the other stuff.

    Re. the editor you know — would he have ever written if he’d not lost his job? Is this a lovely closed-door-open-window stories?

  • Is it a good thing or a bad thing that my comment was apparently so in need of addressing? 😉

    I found your list quite good. I found number 4 particularly desirable, and liked AJ’s expansion a great deal. As an apsiring writer and a fan of the genre, I do my best to keep abreast of the trends and currents in the field, but writing has to come first. So it’s good to know there may be someone with such great experience there to lightent the load a little.

    I didn’t mean to imply that a good editor is just the result of natural “talent”. I was attempting to use the word in a more general manner. Maybe “ability” would have been a better word. I’ve realized from reading this response that I was focusing only on one specific aspect of the question, which was a mistake, although, I wasn’t trying to suggest that all an editor does is critique. Your list paints quite an agreeable picture of what I would define as a “good” editor.

    The only one I really had questions about was #1. A lot of discussion in the authosphere–both among aspirants and initiates is the value of creating writing classes–and, more specifically–degrees in the area of the “literary arts”. A large portion of the current advice is to get a degree in something _besides_ writing, something that will provide interesting and broad life experience to work into your stories–and also help you get the all-important day job for until you are possibly able to make a living off of your writing. Do you think literary degrees, or, at least, the experience that goes with them, would be of great benefit to writers as well, or are they more useful for editors?

    This seems especially relevant consdering your comment on the process of actual “editing” of the text. If it goes through all that with an editor, one has to wonder what the *writer* spent all their writing time on. Not in a judgemental way, of course, but more of a question as to whether writers should be focusing more on those aspects of the process. If the editor can create such a large improvement not having spent significant time writing, why do authors who have spent a great deal of time on the process not have this grasp on the structural components? Where does this “staggering” change come from? Can a writer judge their mastery of the craft in terms of the size of this improvement?

    I think the tl;dr version of this is: What does this improvement (or change, or tightening, or whatever you want to call it) say about the writer in this equation? Is there something they are missing, or is it just the result of being too close to the work? Or something else? Is it simply too big a job for just one person?

    Anyway, this was quite a thought-provoking post.

  • Atsiko, I have a problem with the degree part (especially for writers) too. Some writers plan on making it as writers and that is the direction their schooling goes. What they do with a journalist degree or a degree in literature in today’s market, I don’t know, but higher ed is far more important to the shaping of a mind than just to finding a job. I went to tech school for the day job schooling and am glad I did. Working in a hospital lab has fantastic benefits far beyond insurance and 401K. For editors, they need the higher ed. Most employers want it.

    As to what the writer does in the editor / writer relationship, it is his vision, his conflict, his plot his characters, and, most importantly, his voice. Shaping and tightening the story is the job of editor. Do some books need very little editorial work. Of course! I had one book with only a one page rewrite letter. I was soooo stunned. But when a writer is writing under time constraints, and has normal life issues of work, family, health, and such, and has to write 1 or 2 books a year, the outside eyes and outside suggestions are crucial.

  • I think higher education is very important for writers, but I’m in the non-lit degree camp as far as writers go. And not for the money either… 🙂 I’m getting my BS in linguistics, after all, which is only slightly more likely to get me a job than a writing degree. But I’ve tried to take classes in as many interesting areas as possible. Not so much lit, which classes for some reason drive me crazy, but more like world history, sociology, anthropology, non-western religions, etc. Seem like good choices for a prospective spec fic writer.

    I agree about the time constraints, etc.

  • May I also suggest a poetry class, for word choice and rhythm, a short story class, and as many creative writing classes you can squeeze in. I took those at Winthrop U after I graduated tech and they stood me in good stead.

    I envy you the linguistics classes. I took private French classes as an adult and Spanish in high school. I wanted to speak and read all the romance languages and Arabic just to live the poetry…

  • Yeah, I love linguistics. I’m also taking Italian, and hopefully Russian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, or German… or whatever the most efficient combination of those I can fit into my schedule. I took as much Latin as was possible in high school, and I had mandatory Spanish classes in elementary school. My problem with school has always been that there’s never enough time to take all the classes I want. 🙂

    I’ve been writing poetry for several years, including a great deal of time critiquing and receiving critique. I also work as a poetry editor for a small e-zine. As much as I love poetry, I am much more prolific in terms of novel ideas. I’ve never submitted any poetry, mostly because internet critique has a way of putting work in the public “eye” in a way that usually precludes someone publishing it. I may or may not submit some work in the future, if I write something I particularly like.

    As for the creative writing, I’m not sure how much it would help me. Not that I think I have nothing left to learn. But I think I have a good handle on most of the concepts I would be exposed to. Again, I have plenty of room for improvement in my understanding and application of those concepts. I’m just not sure a creative writing course would be the best environment for that improvement.

    I know this will sound a bit cliche, but there’s not necessarily a great deal of respect for genre writing in college CW classes, which is what I do. A lot of college creative writing programs focus on mainstream and literary writing, and some are almost factories to churn out material in some style of lit-fic. I am not lumping all or even most classes into these categories. But while my school is pretty accepting, it’s also pretty small. I’m not sure there I could find appropriate classes for me. Although I plan to look into it.

    Also, the vast majority of CW classes I have experience with are focused on short stories. I have greatly enjoyed some short stories, and I know they can be very useful tools to specifically address various aspects of the craft. But they aren’t really my thing. I have tried on several occasions to write a short story, and it has never gone well. This may be some inherent flaw in me or just a lack of experience. Perhaps a creative writing class would help to answer that question for me. But considering that I already have more classes I want to take than I could reasonably fit into my schedule, I’m unsure as to whether it is worth the risk.

  • (laughing) You *are* ambitious!
    Yeah, don’t overdo. It sounds like you have thought well and hard and are making decisions that work well with you.

  • Wow. Thanks for sharing this, Faith. 😀 This is something that I’ve been wondering about. 😀