You write a book. You think it’s excellent. Your beta readers love it. You send it off either to a freelance editor that you hired with the intention of self-publishing, or to a publisher. In the latter case, let’s assume your book gets accepted, and it undergoes a round of edits. Either way, you get your manuscript back and it’s covered–absolutely covered–with notes. Maybe the editor felt a character’s motivations weren’t strong enough. Maybe there were factual inaccuracies in your book. But that doesn’t matter. You know in your heart that your book is perfect, and the editor is trying to stifle your creative voice.
I’ve edited fiction as both a freelancer and for a small press, and in that time I worked with authors who were genuinely grateful for my feedback, as well as authors who had mistakenly confused “editing” with “uncritically praising and applauding” and did not like the dose of reality they received. Some of my greatest hits:
- An author whose manuscript contained the n-word over three hundred times. When asked to remove every instance of the word, the author balked and insisted that it was needed to maintain the historical accuracy and realism of the book’s Old West setting. It was a vampire book. Bonus: the word was almost exclusively used against indigenous Plains people. Author’s response: “They didn’t have bad words for Native Americans back then.”
- An author who called me at home after ten p.m. on release day because a minor character who never appeared “on-screen” and whose name was mentioned once in the first chapter of the novel had the wrong middle name when mentioned for the second and only other time at the end of the book. This was my fault, she informed me, because a “true professional” would have caught it (though she didn’t during numerous passes of her own manuscript). The author insisted that “hundreds of readers” had reported the mistake to her, but real-time sales data showed that the book had been purchased twice.
- A freelance client who refused to pay me for the work I did on her over 100k word manuscript because she felt I was “too critical.” The work was later published, though whether she took my advice, I don’t know. What I do know is that she cheated me out of nearly $700.00.
It may seem obvious to you that this behavior isn’t acceptable, but I find it astonishing how many authors don’t. That’s why I’ve consulted some other editors I know to share–anonymously–their favorite cautionary tales.
• “In recent memory, my worst author response was actually a non-response. I encourage every author to tell me what he/she needs–even if that means they need a different editor. This is a business. I don’t take it personally if a client needs a different editorial style. Just buck up and be honest. Recently, an author emailed me just a few days before her book was due. She said it wasn’t written. I was kind; these things happen all the time. Less than a week later…she released said book.
Now, it was a full novel. She couldn’t have had it written, edited, and revised in 6 days. So clearly, she hired a new editor but didn’t want to tell me. So she lied instead…despite knowing I’d see her posts on her personal profile and author page on FB.
I don’t wish her ill will, and I hope the book sells. But the fact is, she cancelled with too little time for me to fill the hole in my schedule, which means I didn’t earn a paycheck that week. I suspect authors forget sometimes that when they mess with an editor’s schedule, they’re also messing with her livelihood. I take great care to meet my deadlines. It’s a point of pride. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to ask clients to do the same.”
• “I once had an author tell me that she was working really hard, trying to get her book finished as quickly as she could by a fast-looming deadline. Not more than ten minutes after receiving that email, I saw that the same author was tweeting about going to the salon to get her hair colored and her nails done and after that she was meeting her husband for lunch and a movie. “
• “I worked for a publishing house that, despite preaching author equality, had a vastly different set of rules for their bestselling authors vs. the rest of their author pool. Company policy was that all manuscripts must be ‘finaled’ (edited, proofed, formatted, etc.) and turned in to management two weeks prior to the release date.
However, I routinely edited manuscripts for a certain author, who was one of the company’s bestsellers, two to three days prior to the release day because that’s when she’d finish it. The worst was when my designated proofer and I pulled an editing all-nighter while the author sent the manuscript a few chapters at a time because she was still writing the book the night before it released. Actually, make that the morning before it released. I don’t think I got the last chapter until four AM, that morning. It went live at ten AM.”
• “I was editing an anthology. We were getting down to crunch time when one author finally sent me her manuscript for edits. It was rife with misogyny, plot holes, and characters that were TSTL. I worked for days editing this book and sent it off to the author asking that it be turned around ASAP. Almost two weeks later (less than a week before the anthology was supposed to release), I finally got the book back with a note telling me how hard she’d been working on it. Yet, when I opened the manuscript, not a single edit had been made until late in the evening ten days after the manuscript had been returned to her. The book then sat untouched for another two days when she attempted to do all of the edits and somehow added twelve thousand words in one day. Track Changes makes a time and date stamp on all edits. “
• “I’ve had more than one author go on social media upon receiving edits to complain about their editor not liking their writing and/or that their editor thinks they’re stupid or failures. Conversely, there are those authors who complain that the reason the edits were so bad was because the editor doesn’t like the genre or doesn’t understand the story. “
• “I was editing a a book that had been co-authored by two authors. It was an M/M erotic paranormal story. Now, I’m not one who believes that all erotic content should follow some sort of unwritten rule. The sexual interaction can come early on or later. It’s whatever fits the story. However, if you’re going to market a book as an erotic tale, there needs to be some kind of erotic content. As I went through this book, I got about three-quarters of the way only to realize there’d been nothing more than a kiss. And I was only a couple of chapters away from the end. So I asked the authors what any editor would… there is going to be erotic content in your erotic novel, right? But what’s better is that they both wrote in places they could add some, but neither ever did. Ended up going multiple rounds in order to actually reach their marketable audience.”
• “An author called me at home, crying, because a proofer said that they felt a phrase the character used was ‘a little corny’. This brought on a deluge of angry, hysterical tears.”
• “One author argued with me about whether or not a scene was rapey. Heroine is actively saying and thinking no, she doesn’t want to have sex with all these men. “Heroes” proceed to have sex with her anyway. Or, as it’s accurately termed, the “heroes” rape the heroine.
• ” I was editing a book, and I came across a mistake that, dear god, made me laugh so hard. And it was written incorrectly not once but twice because the author thought it was the correct phrasing… The author wanted to say that the character had gotten angry, but wrote…. ‘and he let all his mad out.’ This same author also continually mixed up your and you’re. When I politely reminded them of the difference they left a comment saying they already knew the difference. They had no idea why there were so many mistakes, then proceeded to mix them up again throughout the edits.”
• “I’ve had authors who insist on keeping ethnic or racial slurs when they’re pointed out, because ‘They’ve become common usage.'”
• “I used to work with an author who, when I would ask a question about a character or the plot, would write paragraphs upon paragraphs in comments explaining it to me. Even after working on numerous books together, this was a regular thing. A good rule of thumb, if something needs that much explanation, that information needs to be in the book, not in comments to your editor. As an author, you aren’t going to be on hand when readers ask these questions. ”
• “The overenthusiastic thesaurus user—As much as authors should avoid repetitive words and phrases, sometimes, it can be made worse than simple repetition. In an effort to avoid repetition, it requires much more than simply pulling up thesaurus.com or clicking synonyms in your document and replacing the word. That can lead to some clunky and awkward sentences—particularly when the new word isn’t exactly the same as the word replaced and it actually changes the meaning of the sentence.
So there you have it. Don’t argue with your editors, ignore their suggestions, miss your deadlines, and if you’re going to lie, don’t expose yourself on social media. Follow these way not difficult rules and you should be fine.