When Writer and Editor Disagree (It's Okay)

Writers and editors don’t have to agree on everything, and you absolutely don’t have to accept every change your editor suggests. But your editor is there to help you improve your writing. It can be a shock to face a sea of Tracked Changes in a manuscript you'd already declared “final,” but remember that your editor’s job is to see what your reader will see. Take a deep breath, then dive in with an open mind.

This week, an author (one I am not associated with in any way) took to Twitter to share her outrage at what she says was terrible copy editing in her manuscript (I’ll share the link below). As she worked through the changes, she became increasingly incensed at the “bad choices” and even errors the copy editor had made.

Without seeing the work or knowing the situation, it’s hard to say for sure whether this is a case of bad copy editing, an author having a hard time being edited, or something else entirely. If this was genuinely a case of poor editing, I hope she can work it out with the publisher (and that’s a whole other blog post), and either way I hope the poor copy editor never sees her tweets.

But I want to talk about this situation in general, because it’s not uncommon: when writer and editor disagree.

Your editor is not out to wreck your book
I’m active on lots of editing discussion groups, and I’ve taken many editing courses and read lots of books on the subject. Believe me when I say that we talk a lot about how important it is not to be intrusive in our editing, to keep the writer’s voice intact. This is a very important part of the editing profession, and every editor I know takes it deeply to heart.

Your editor does have a job to do
You know what else is an important part of the editing profession? Editing.

Sure, it’d be great if yours were the project in which the editor said, “You know what? I have found absolutely nothing to fix here. This is incredible.” But you can guess how many times that has happened… ever. Not to Margaret Atwood, not to Diana Gabaldon, not to Robert Munsch, not to Malcolm Gladwell.

You’ve been deep inside your manuscript for months, even years, and it gets really hard from so close-up to see it the way a reader would. Your editor comes at it with fresh eyes. Their job is to help you get your words across as clearly (powerfully, elegantly…) as possible. And that invariably means making some changes to your writing.

“Just fix the typos”
Okay, you expected changes. But you really just wanted someone to catch your typos, make sure you hyphenated consistently; you didn’t expect any reworking of sentences. [I'll use copy editing as the example but you could find yourself surprised at the number or substance of changes no matter what type of editing you hired for.]

A copy editor’s job is not just about finding stray typos. Their job is to make sure your words make logical sense, convey the meaning you mean to convey, are grammatical, and are not confusing (see Types of Editing for more). You’ve been very busy crafting a beautiful narrative with complicated plot twists… it’s perfectly natural that your individual sentences may need tightening up.

Now, technically you could tell your copy editor that you absolutely want nothing but actual mistake-fixing (i.e., keep the copy editing very light, and don’t do anything that tends toward stylistic/line editing). A good editor knows how to separate the two. But what if your manuscript needs more than that to truly sing? A sentence might be grammatically correct and still not really work—wouldn’t you want to know about it? At least have someone flag it for your consideration?

What’s important is that, when hiring an editor, you make sure you talk through what level of editing you’re expecting. And always get a sample edit upfront so you know what to expect. Do your due diligence to find an editor that you will work well with and whose editorial choices you trust. And then trust them when they say it needs something more than you thought it did.

“I did that on purpose—I can’t believe they tried to change it
One last point. Let’s say you’ve deliberately done something unconventional that you’re absolutely set on keeping. The best thing to do is to discuss it before any editing begins. A good editor will work to respect your creative decisions, and you’ll avoid unnecessary work on both your parts.

But part of your editor’s job is to point things out that may be distracting or puzzling to readers. So despite having agreed upfront to leave your specified non-standard stuff alone, your editor could still offer comments like, “Despite your good reason for it, [this thing you're doing on purpose] may confuse some readers; I’d advise against it. If you’re really set on it, consider finding a way to better set it up near the beginning [or other suggestion].”

You don’t have to take their advice, but there’s no sense getting angry about it, either (“I said it was intentional!!”). Your editor isn’t trying to stifle your creativity, they aren’t oblivious to your artistry—they are legitimately flagging something that might jar your readers. That’s their job, and such feedback is worth considering.

You’re in this together
It’s not easy for anyone to encounter a sea of Tracked Changes on what they’d already declared a final manuscript. But remember that your editor is there to help improve your writing. Don’t take their changes personally; I promise they aren’t judging you or criticizing you. This is a collaboration—writer and editor are a team. Commit to letting your editor into your work, knowing it will emerge stronger for it.

Have you ever disagreed with an editor? Have you had a great writer-editor relationship that you and your writing truly benefited from? Leave a comment below.

––

Did you notice all the singular theys I used in this post? Ooh la la… The use of they as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun is not new, but it’s been making headlines recently as prominent style guides have officially begun adopting it to varying degrees. (I freely admit that while the singular they has always rolled easily off my tongue in speech, it is still a little weird for me to see it in writing. I’m working on it…)

––

Oh, and a quick point about spelling choices. A couple of times, the irate author (here’s a Storify of her tweets) talks about the copy editor’s spelling choices, specifically for compound words. At one point she admits that the editor did catch one thing that was “grammatically incorrect”—that corn bread should be two words.

Actually, spelling choices like this are not about correctness at all; they’re about consistency. As long as corn bread (or cornbread) is spelled the same way every time in the book, it’s absolutely fine. Generally a copy editor will have instructions (from you or from the publisher) to follow a specific dictionary, and that’s how they can end up turning a compound word into two words in a way that might seem arbitrary (or even wrong) to you. But unless your publisher is a real stickler about their dictionary usage, you are totally within your rights to change it back. Just keep it consistent throughout your book.