Working with the right editor can sometimes feel magical. She gets your ideas and fine-tunes them until they sound exactly the way they did in your head. He puts a name to that plot problem you were having halfway through your book and helps you come up with a brilliant fix. She cheers you on while also being honest about the problems in your manuscript so it comes out much stronger than when you started. But an editor isn’t a magician. Their job is to help you make your manuscript the best that it can be. That’s not necessarily the same as the best that any manuscript ever was. It’s not necessarily the same as a bestseller. While it is certainly possible that your manuscript will become a bestselling book, it would need to be strong coming into editing. An editor can make a weak manuscript better—and you’ll probably learn a lot of things to apply to your next manuscript—but they can’t make a weak manuscript exceptional. Having realistic expectations about what an editor can do for you will enable you to get the most out of editing without disappointment.
One of the issues that I frequently see with regard to expectations is that authors don’t always understand the different types of editing. If you hire someone to do a line edit, which focuses on diction, clarity, and readability (the craft of writing), they are not going to fix that plot hole in the middle of chapter 12. They aren’t going to suggest eliminating that side character that’s distracting readers from your protagonist. And that sagging pace two-thirds of the way through the manuscript that you were hoping they’d help you rev up? Nope. While they will help you find the best words to tell your story, if you’ve hired a line editor, they are assuming you have the big-picture story issues locked up. Obviously, this will be disappointing to you if you were expecting that type of help, so make sure you know what type of editing you want (or need) and what kind of editing a particular editor offers. Many editors (like me) offer both line editing and big-picture (developmental) editing, so be sure both you and your editor are clear about which type of edit you are paying for.
Another thing to keep in mind is that an editor is not a ghostwriter. Even if you have hired a developmental editor and she is guiding you as you recast large portions of your manuscript, that recasting will still come mostly at your hands. Your editor may point out that your first two chapters are mostly backstory and that the information should be sprinkled throughout the first several chapters instead, but you are the one who will do the sprinkling. She may suggest that your manuscript would have more emotional urgency if it was written in first person instead of third person, but you are the one who will change all of those “she’s” to “I’s.” Your editor will use her skills and training to help you shape a more tightly crafted and well-written story, and will often give examples of ways to accomplish her recommendations, but you’ll still be doing the heavy lifting. Going into an edit knowing that there will be work to do on the other end will help you to stay excited about the work instead of becoming overwhelmed.
Many of my clients are first-time authors, and one of the most important things for a first-timer to remember is that few successful authors had success with their first novel. Nicholas Sparks wrote two novels before The Notebook was published. (He says no one will ever read them because they were his practice novels.) Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible and Flight Behavior, wrote six novels before getting a bestseller. Writing novels is hard! It takes a lot of practice. If you send your first novel off to an editor and don’t get back the effusive praise you were hoping for (and let’s be honest; we are all hoping for effusive praise), don’t be discouraged! Learn everything you can from the experience and put that knowledge into your next novel. Then send it off to your editor with excitement and realistic expectations. And when those magic moments happen—and they will—soak up the amazing feeling of watching your dreams come to life on the page.