The Writer-Editor Relationship: a Case Study
I am currently working with a first-time writer, Robyn (not her real name), as mentor and developmental editor on her fiction manuscript in the ‘chick lit’ genre. I thought it would be helpful for other writers to read about the writer-editor relationship in this context.
We began with a mini appraisal on the first few chapters of Robyn’s book. She had finished writing the manuscript – about 75,000 words – but she was not confident enough about her writing to consider submission to a publisher yet. She realised that she needed professional guidance and sought it out.
As I read some sample chapters from her manuscript in order to do the mini appraisal, I saw potential in her writing – despite her lack of confidence, which is a common issue with new writers. I work with many new writers, and I respect them for seeking professional guidance. It’s a big step to leave the comfort of anonymity behind and put their hard-earned manuscript into anyone’s hands, let alone those of a professional editor when they really don’t know whether they will be applauded or crucified! Yes, I have heard some horror stories from various clients!
Having completed the mini appraisal, Robyn and I then discussed various options for moving forward. In brief, one of these included Robyn making changes to the whole manuscript by applying the suggestions from the mini appraisal, and then having me edit the complete manuscript. Another option was having me work through her manuscript in ‘chapter chunks’ so that by the end of the process, she would have a strong second or third draft that would probably only need a copy edit. I provided some additional options, and combinations thereof, but what Robyn decided was to send me her work in ‘chapter chunks’, initially three chapters at a time and more as she grew in confidence, and I would give her feedback to apply not only to the reviewed chapters, but also to the rest of the manuscript as well. This is because individual writers tend to make similar errors throughout their manuscript. For example, some writers overuse the passive voice; others consistently make errors in punctuation – and when this interferes with the flow of the story, it becomes a distraction to the reader; others have trouble correctly formatting their manuscript.
In Robyn’s manuscript, some of the areas that required work were:
- Overuse of clichés
- Not rounding out her principal characters, which made the read confusing
- Using too much argot (the vernacular) in dialogue without any explanation. While the vernacular is great for characterisation, if readers didn’t understand some of the expressions the characters used, she was going to alienate potential readers. This narrows down the audience of the book, which needs to be as broad as possible so that potentially any reader of the genre is ‘on board’ with it
- Making assumptions that her readers would be familiar with the location of her book, when she needed to add a little extra detail for the benefit of ‘out-of-town’ readers.
Whenever I send a writer an appraisal or a sample edit on their work, I explain that it is important to the writer-editor relationship that they not feel discouraged by what may seem to be many comments and changes on the returned manuscript. Referring to the ‘track changes’ feature of MS Word, I let them know that many of the marks relate to formatting, or to some very minor editing changes. The edited manuscript always looks worse than it is.
The editor’s role
Changes and comments should always be helpful and encouraging, never critical or cruel. The job of a professional editor is to critique a writer’s work, that is, to provide the writer with constructive criticism, not to criticise it.
In that spirit, with Robyn’s manuscript, I brought to her attention some suggestions that would make the story tighter, make it flow better, and improve her characterisation, all of which would create a strong foundation for the rest of the book. These included the areas mentioned above, as well as:
- Moving information around to make her story flow more smoothly. She had many changes of location and time within chapters, which were distracting and interrupted the flow of the chapter
- Bringing in detailed character descriptions when she introduced each character.
Because Robyn had completed writing the first draft of her manuscript, she already had the raw material to work with, and the ideas. She also had the natural ability as a writer to improve upon her first draft.
Key to the writer-editor relationship is that the writer feel encouraged by the editor’s comments and suggestions and maintains the enthusiasm and drive to keep on writing, and so I ended the mini appraisal by suggesting to Robyn:
- Always remember to keep your readers engaged
- Begin and end each chapter on a ‘high’ note, which encourages the reader to keep on reading
- Remember that every word, every sentence, every paragraph needs to count. The aim always is to move your story forward.
Robyn made the suggested changes to her first three chapters, and returned them to me for a second review. I was so encouraged by the improvement in her writing that I felt like doing a little dance!
Subsequently, Robyn has completed a couple more iterations of these three chapters and she has recently sent me the next three chapters. We have only been working together for a couple of months, but during this time I have seen her confidence grow from that of a newbie ‘apologetic’ writer, to someone who now believes in her ability as a writer. She is shortly to attend a national writers’ conference where attendees take along their writing and their prepared query letter. The latter will be submitted to every literary agent who attends the conference.
Robyn has definitively come out of the ‘writer’s closet’ and is striding towards writer’s success.
If you have written your manuscript and you would like a full manuscript appraisal or a mini appraisal, or a sample edit, or you would simply like to make a no-obligation enquiry, please send me your contact details and let’s talk about your work.
Quotation from beginning of post acknowledged to “Embrace Your Editor (but Not in a Weird Way)” by Erin Browne. (Note update March 2018: the link to this article no longer works and I can’t find the article elsewhere. However, I’ve kept the original url for acknowledgement purposes – http://www.authormagazine.org/articles/brown_erin_2011_10_14.htm)