If at times I feel that, with regard to critics and readers, writers can’t please everyone, all I have to do is to think about editors, who often get blame they don’t deserve, and seldom get the credit they do merit.

I occasionally get comments about typographical errors, and often those comments blame the editors for those errors. Nope. With electronic publishing, I’m the one who made almost every typo that exists. If one slips past the editors, they get blamed. As I have noted in earlier blogs, a few typos in a 200,000 word book does not “destroy” it. After all, five typographical errors in a million characters is still an accuracy rate of 99.9995%. As a side note, I’ve also observed that those typos that tend to escape editors’ usually eagle-eyes take place in either the “driest” or the most exciting parts of books.

The other comment that I often see is to the effect that my books could use editing to get rid of all the “extraneous” material or “padding.” That doesn’t mean either exists; what it means is that the reader is reading the wrong book for his or her taste, and that they expect three hundred pages of non-stop action and the SF/fantasy equivalent of continual shootings and car chases, interspersed with various other salacious and/or extraordinarily violent encounters. As most of my long-term readers know, I don’t write those kind of books. [Try George R. R. Martin].

Editors are always faced with the problem of considering whether a scene is “necessary” or not, and the difficulty is that what is extraneous to one reader is vital and interesting to another. What a good editor does is to consider the “necessity” of a scene in light of the author’s readers or expected readers. This is also something that good reviewers do as well, and it’s frankly the mark of a bad reviewer to condemn a book for doing something well that is essential to the integrity of the book and to the expectations of the majority of its readers, but contrary to the desires and expectations of the reviewer.

I’ve often told beginning writers that, if an editor has a problem with something in a manuscript, there’s almost always a problem – but that it may not be exactly the problem that the editor thinks, since editors see where the problem appears, but not necessarily where it begins (because the error may lie in something that the writer did not do).

Editors sometimes even get blamed for the cover art, although it’s seldom entirely, and sometimes not in the slightest, the editor’s fault, since cover decisions vary to some degree from publisher to publisher and involve to varying degrees the editor, the art director, the marketing people, and sometimes the publisher. [But I can say that almost never is a predominantly green cover as good idea… and in my experience, lots of yellow doesn’t help much, either.]

Good editors can also keep authors from making horrendous mistakes, provided the author listens to them, which, unhappily, I’ve seen too many beginning authors fail to do. Part of such authorial failures lies in the fact that editors like to have books succeed, and succeeding means selling enough so that the publisher doesn’t lose money. So editors do tend to advise authors against writing strategies and books that are likely to fail. Sometimes… editors are wrong, but if you bet consistently against the editors, you’ll lose, as do most [but not all] authors who do so. A good editor can also mean the difference between success and failure for an author, and some authors will take a higher advance from another publisher and end up with more money in the short run, but find themselves with an editor either less suited to them. And, unhappily, at times an author has little choice about the editor with whom that author must work. Depending on the author, that can be very good, very bad, or make little difference.

Most of what I’ve noted above must be taken with more than a few grains of salt, given that much of it comes from observation, rather than direct personal experience because, in almost forty years of writing and publishing books, I’ve worked with exactly two book editors, one of them, and his various assistant editors, for all but two books, and, for me, that has worked out extraordinarily well.

2 thoughts on “Editors”

  1. John Prigent says:

    Nobody commenting? Oh well, I’ll jump in. I’ve done some editing on novels ((as well as non-fiction) and I always try to confine myself to pointing out clear errors (such as having a named character leaning out of a window to shout to someone below who just happened to be himself) and to making suggestions. Those can range from identifying the flagship of the Roman Fleet to the order for raising oars on a trireme – both in a book recently published. On the other hand, I do query mistypes and hope to spot all of them – though sometimes things do slip past author, beta readers and the editor as well. My favourite source of errors is the map in a novel. It’s not always sent with the typescript, and can vary considerably from what’s described in the text. Luckily that one doesn’t happen too often since most novels don’t have maps!

  2. D Archerd says:

    OK, I’ll accept LEM’s assertion that the authors, not the editors are responsible for typos. But what I have noticed is a noticeable increase in the number of typos in published works over the last decade, and that goes in spades for electronically published books. Most, though not all, of the spelling errors can be attributed to over-reliance on spell-checking software which will not flag words which are legitimate but the wrong form/spelling for the situation, e.g. rain vs. rein vs. reign. Unfortunately, there’s no substitute for a person with a decent education simply reading every word.

    I had to laugh at LEM’s comment about the higher number of errors that slip through occurring in the driest or most exciting parts of the book. It serves to emphasize that authors, editors, and reviewers are, after all, human.

    But I have no real explanation for my perception of increased errors in the past 10 years. I don’t have any hard data, and I have no clue whether I’m just more persnickety as I age and therefore notice them more, or if the general level of literacy among English writers and editors is deteriorating.

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