The best friend your book will ever have is your editor. From the moment you have a contract in hand, that’s the most important thing to remember.
Your editor is on your side. You and she want the same thing: for your book to be the best it can possibly be when it hits the market. For it to read the best, look the best, sell the best. And in the process of achieving that goal, your editor brings to the table something you need profoundly . . . perspective. Remember, you have been in near solitary confinement with that manuscript since its conception. At this point both your manuscript and you need the light of air only a good editor can bring.
But let me step back for a moment. Sometimes an editor can be your book’s—and your—best friend even before she has offered that contract. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve had a developing writer come up to me with an editor’s letter in hand asking, “Does she really mean it?” It’s always a letter that praises a manuscript and makes thoughtful suggestions for revision without yet making a commitment.
Does she really mean it? Yes . . . and yes . . . and yes! Editors don’t have time to encourage writers whose work they don’t want to see again. Moreover, while we have no legal obligation to return to an editor just because she has invested time and energy in our work, why wouldn’t we? If the recommendations feel right, run with them. Thank her for her insights and return to her with the new draft her comments draw forth. You have nothing to lose and a possible contract to gain.
And once you do have a contract in hand, once an editor is truly yours, I have just one piece of advice, but I’ll say it many times. Listen! Listen . . . listen . . . listen! Yes, it’s your manuscript, and it will remain your manuscript, but it’s better to hear what you don’t want to hear from your editor—while the work is still fluid, still can be shaped and improved—than from a reviewer. When you hear it from a reviewer your book has been set in stone. Revisions are no longer possible.
I have a rule of thumb that has served me well in working with editors. I listen. I don’t defend. If I don’t understand, I ask questions. Then I listen some more. Even if I’m certain an editor is wrong, that if I do this thing she is suggesting the entire piece will come tumbling about our ears, I never say so. I just keep listening, keep asking. Once the dust has settled—and the more dust there is the more time it takes to settle—I find that critical comments fall into three different categories.
Most of them are simply, Of course! I should have thought of that myself. Gratefully, I make those changes.
Some are I see what you mean. And certainly it could be the way you’ve suggested, though I think it could be the way I’ve done it, too. In those cases, too, I simply, without comment, make the changes. I figure the editor is probably more right than I can see, because perspective gives her a great advantage. Besides, if it truly could be either way, why should the change matter?
Then there is the third category, the occasional suggestion that simply doesn’t fit, no matter how often I turn it over or how carefully I examine it. That’s where I hold my ground . . . quietly, respectfully, firmly. I don’t make it a last stand. I’m always aware that I could still be wrong. But usually, because I don’t take such a stand often, the editor accepts my view. When she doesn’t, after a careful discussion, we’ve always been able to find a compromise.
Singers need vocal coaches. Athletes need trainers. Writers need editors.
If you begin your relationship with that knowledge deep in your bones, all will go well.