It is clear that writers sometimes have bad experiences with editors and others good experiences. I have had both. First, let me make it clear that I am both a published writer and a professional editor—a trained professional editor, not someone who decided she could edit because she was a writer or had been an English teacher. But although I am now freelance—and a great many of the best editors today are freelance—I also worked at major publishing houses, starting as an editorial assistant. I also studied linguistics. But for the most part publishing houses in recent years, in their restructuring and acquisition phases, streamlined editorial departments to a bare minimum, if even that.
Thus, most freelance work is better than what you may find working in-house today since publishers think bottom line these days, being managed by marketing and not editorial. That usually means that they hire young inexperienced people and unfortunately often do not bother to train them. As one young thing said to me one day while I was working on-site, “Oh, I am so excited to do this, it’s my first real editing, and I am so nervous because grammar is my weak area.” And she became an editor? I was dumbfounded, and still wonder about that.
But for many, there is also the confusion of what an editor does. Many people are not aware that some editors do only copyediting while others are primarily involved in line editing or developmental editing. The first thing a writer has to know is what his or needs are in terms of the manuscript, or at least seek advice. Many seasoned writers turn in manuscripts that only need copyediting, and don’t need developmental work. But that may also be because it has become customary these days to have a manuscript edited before submission, and I wonder if that began as a result of the dearth of real editors in-house these days. Most first-time authors absolutely need to work with a developmental editor.
That thought reminds me of another misconception. I still recall one writer handing in a manuscript, assuring the editor that the “book needed no editing because he had already edited it.” A writer cannot “edit” his own book, he can only revise it. We all need editing. Maybe some more than others, but generally we become so lost in the thought that we often forget the mechanics, and words we expect to be on the page appear before us whether they’re there or not. We become mired in using the same words repeatedly in the effort to get the ideas out, and that fresh, professional eye catches what we missed. It is true that a bad editor can make a mess of good writing but, on the other hand, a good editor can add that final polish that gives the work that professional quality. The critical goal of the editor is to make the writer look good.
In today’s market many agents and publishers insist that an author have the manuscript edited before submission. They may even indicate that developmental editing is called for. Publishing has changed greatly from the days of Bennett Cerf, who kept a well-staffed company and proved you could make money publishing literature.