Recently, Sarah Martinez (who is both a friend and one of the authors I’m working with at Booktrope) posted about the role of editors in the lifetime of a work. She pointed out classics like The Picture of Dorian Gray that have suffered from editors, and she also cited a new publisher that isn’t doing any developmental editing to its fiction because it will only accept work that is already there. Sarah then asked why editors are important at all if they are going to interfere with the idea of the work? (I’m paraphrasing, perhaps unfairly)*
Naturally, I have a response. The role of the editor is the same as the role of a focus group for a new project: to give you more information on what you’re selling before you actually sell it. When you’re writing to share, as in not just to have fun but to have people read it, then it makes sense to try to make the reading experience as effective–whether the effect you are going for is pleasure, thought-provoking, frustration, a combination of these, or others–as possible. Editors are readers, who are also hopefully highly trained. Instead of thinking of editors as someone who wants to rework the writing for you, think of it as an opportunity to get feedback from a reader. Are you characters, plot, language, and themes effective? If not, don’t you want to know that instead of just saying, “I have a vision for this book and I’m not going to let anyone lead me astray”?
Certainly, there are limits to this system. Any editor is just one reader, and every reader will have a different experience with each test. But editors have ideally been trained to articulate why something isn’t working so that you can see the core of the problem instead of the superficial “this character is annoying.” I posted last summer about how we editors have a tendency to always find something that can be improved, and so both editor and writer must enter the relationship knowing that. But the basic idea of having an editor to give trained feedback is not a bad one.
The relationship between editor and writer gets tense when the editor has the power to require edits instead of just suggesting them. This perhaps is where things are similar to 1890. When the publisher is the one putting up the money to produce and distribute your writing, they are the ones who will lose the most if your book doesn’t sell, and so the editor should have the ability to ultimately say, “This book isn’t in shape for us to sink money into it,” just the way Oscar Wilde’s publishers had the ability to say, “We’re not going to take the risk of publishing this because we might get sued.” (Incidentally, the “edits” that Oscar Wilde’s publishers made weren’t to make the work more effective or to improve clarity or anything that I would call editing but were censorship because of the sexuality in the work.)
This problem of editors having the perceived power is changing as the cost of publishing decreases. As long as the editor is earning money from the sale of the book, they should have a say in whether the book is effective. Now, though, the relationship can be more of a team and a meeting of the minds rather than one based on demands.
Even when the writer is producing the book by themselves, I think the role of editors, critique groups, or beta readers should not be overlooked. As a writer myself, I know that I get so mired in my stories that I can never see them the way my readers do. Anyone who has returned to a work after a few months or a year and seen it in a completely new light can attest to that, and even that space from the writing will not get us out of our heads enough. So when given a chance to hear how readers react to your work while you still have time to fix it, why not take advantage of that?
*Part of this post appears as a comment to Sarah’s post, but I thought it was worthy of its own spot on my blog.