“Editing is a conversation, not a monologue.” ~Author and Editor Susan Bell
When my daughter was applying to college, she kept asking me where I thought she should go. I couldn’t give her an answer, obviously, because I’m not her. Only she could really know where she belonged. But I could use my knowledge of the process and of college life to help her think about her decision. I had her consider whether she would prefer a quieter, more peaceful campus that may not have as much going on or a larger, urban campus that would provide more entertainment opportunities but may at times feel overwhelming. I had her think about whether she would rather be a part of a small, close-knit community or if she wanted the diversity and anonymity afforded by a larger student body. Did she want to be able to come home easily and frequently or did she want the independence of being farther away? I gave her the benefit of my experience, and I guided the way she approached the decision, but in the end, the decision was hers.
The author-editor relationship is similar, especially with a developmental editor or a line editor. (A copyeditor deals with issues such as grammar and punctuation, so there is not as much subjectivity.) An editor’s job is not to tell an author what to do but rather to point them in the right direction, to give them new ways to think about their manuscript, to guide them through the revision process. If an editor sees something that they think is a problem, they will make suggestions for ways to solve it, but these are only suggestions, not commands. They are your editor’s way of asking which campus you’d prefer.
What does this mean for you as an author? It means that you don’t have to be shy about saying no to your editor. It is certainly in your best interest to fight back the natural feelings of defensiveness that can come during an edit and listen to what your editor has to say; there is no point in paying someone to edit your manuscript if you are going to reflexively reject everything they say. And you should believe that your editor is using all of their training and experience to steer you down the right path. (If you don’t believe this, find another editor!) But if they have explained their reasoning and you still don’t agree, then say so! This is your book. You know better than anyone what you want to say and where you want to take your readers. Your editor is a teammate who is thoroughly invested in helping you accomplish your goals for your book, but you always have the final say.
Even if you disagree with an editor’s suggestion, you still may be able to glean something useful from their comments. Perhaps your developmental editor suggested that you cut a side character from the book because he was taking up a lot of space but wasn’t pulling his weight when it came to moving the plot forward, but you really feel he is important to the story. You can disagree about removing the character but still see the editor’s point. Maybe you will decide to rewrite a few scenes to give the character more reason to be there. Or maybe your line editor has pointed out a section that she feels may confuse your readers and has given you some potential ways to rewrite it. You may not feel that her rewrites fully capture your point, but you can revise in your own words to clear up the confusion. Other times you may just say no altogether and keep things the way they are. Make sure you have given your editor’s suggestion some thought and are basing your decision on a reasoned consideration and not just emotion. If you are, then feel free to stand your ground. In the end, it is always your decision.
Hopefully, you have found an editor you trust, one you feel consistently makes your work better. And hopefully, most of his or her suggestions ring true to you. But in those instances where you disagree, don’t be afraid to say so. Editors want to help you make your book the best it can be, but they understand that this is your book, not theirs. A good editor won’t have her feelings hurt and won’t try to force her way of thinking on you. Rather, they will listen to your reasoning and apply what they’ve learned about you as a writer as they continue the edit. As Susan Bell said, editing is a conversation, and both author and editor benefit from the exchange.