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I recently read the assertion that many great works of fiction were chiefly down the contribution of a good editor. I must admit I was a little taken aback by this statement. I had never really thought of the writer and editor as being like the musician and producer. To what degree is this really true?

I always liked to think that as the author I am the writer and the "producer" of my story an editor is just there to clean syntax glitches and polish spelling (they are also free to point out bits of the story they don't like but surely in most cases this is a matter of opinion). If I were to read the work of others and tell them "x doesn't work" I feel I'd probably get a bunch of abuse. I try always to appraise work as "I feel this is currently a problem because..." or "this would work better if..." I always think of this as critique, is this editing?

I guess this question comes down to "What is an editor? How would one know a good one? What behaviour from an editor is appropriate?"

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2 Answers 2

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There are different levels of editing which are lumped together under the same term, which might be what's confusing you.

"Syntax glitches and spelling" is line editing, aka proofreading, sometimes called copyediting. Similar to this is fact-checking, where the editor is looking up anything based in reality or researching anything made up for plausibility.

Pointing out things which don't work in terms of plot, character, setting, world-building, etc. is content editing. Whether phrased nicely as a suggestion or bluntly as a direction, the editor is saying that something about the story itself has to be changed. (This is what you're calling "critique," which isn't totally inaccurate, but critiquing leans more towards style and less towards mechanics.)

The assertion which you heard refers to the idea that a writer and editor (one single editor) work together over multiple drafts to shape a book. The writer is the person coming up with the main idea, the plot, the characters, and the actual words. The editor points out what is and isn't working, suggests moving this bit to over there in that chapter, points out where foreshadowing could be inserted, objects to out-of-character behavior, and chops out chunks of unnecessary narration (among other things).

A good editor is someone who works with you, someone who respects your style and your ideas but pushes you to improve. Speaking as both a writer and an editor, I think what goes on the page is ultimately the writer's privilege and responsibility. So an editor's job is to suggest, and make arguments in support of suggestions, but the writer gets the final decision.

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Just remember to be nice to your editor! We don't mind if you don't want to take all of our suggestions, but if you're rude, we have big mouths. Editors love to gossip about their problem cases with other editors. =P –  Ralph Gallagher Mar 22 '11 at 17:01

We're the ones who take your manuscript and make sure you've succeeded in getting an idea from your head onto the paper. We look for plot holes, grammar mistakes, and things that just don't make sense.

Any good editor also knows what sells. They will offer suggestions and advice on parts of your book that a majority of readers may not like. They'll look for places where you need more details to paint a clear picture for your reader. They Looks for parts of the story that are boring or rambly and offer advice to tighten it up and make it more engaging.

In short, our job is to help you perfect your manuscript. We're here to help you succeed in writing and make sure your readers keep coming back for more. We're not just there to correct your grammar and find your typos but to offer advice that we feel will improve the manuscript.

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I think that editors know what definitely doesn't sell. Not always what definitely does. It's an important distinction. –  One Monkey Mar 22 '11 at 15:27
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@Ralph: is "knowing what sells" something you learn as part of the industry? where do you obtain and keep up that information? –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 22 '11 at 16:13
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It's things you pick up after editing for a while and monitoring sales and reviews. I work mostly in romance. People like kinky stories, but if you start talking about piss and scat, your book isn't going to sell. If your book is lacking any conflict, it's not going to sell (well, it will, but not very well.) Contemporary romance will also outsell a BDSM or Sci-Fi story. Since I mostly get paid royalties, I keep track of which books are selling and which aren't and go read reviews to find out why people aren't liking them. –  Ralph Gallagher Mar 22 '11 at 16:59
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@Lauren I read both, but peer reviews more than anything. They're the ones that are buying the books, so seeing what the readers like is important. It doesn't matter if the critics love it if readers hate it. Critics and pro-reviewers like flowerly prose and deep meanings. Readers tend to want entertainment, not a life lesson. –  Ralph Gallagher Mar 22 '11 at 17:50
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@Ralph: I can't speak for much but I do know that when I go into a regular bookstore and look at the SF/Fantasy shelves which is, kind of "my genre" I have an easy time passing on all of it. I am the target market and for years I've seen nothing but bizarre pointless crap that only connects with a very small portion of possible customers. I hate it all. These editors are not doing their job, they're selling to a safe audience and not trying to attract more customers they must know are there because of the huge appetite for SF TV and movies. JMO. –  One Monkey Mar 23 '11 at 9:53

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