Are you really an editor?

I have a dear mentor in my life, one of my professors from college, who taught me two important things about editing: the first was that I should treat every writer, no matter their station in life, with respect. The second lesson she taught me was that to be a good editor you have to be able to dream the writer`s dream.

What did she mean by ‘Respect the writer’?

These two attributes seem like simple concepts, yet, I guarantee you if you submit your work as a writer, regularly, you will have an editor beat the snot out of you verbally at some point. These personally tragic events are unnecessary because editors shouldn’t treat writers this way. I’ll give you an example that I went through. I was contacted by a headhunter about a job writing copy for a company. I’m not talking about the copy-writing mills we see like or, both of whom I have worked at in the past, and they don’t pay well. No, this was a legit company that had a good pay scale for writing copy of various kinds.

I went through the application process and then sent them my sample essay. The problem was the sample essay, first of all, the topic they asked me to write about was really weird: I had to write a 700-word essay about the direction of atheism and its future survival. I didn’t like it, especially as a Christian, but I went forward and tried to remain neutral in my writing, and stick to the facts. It’s not unusual for the company to set the example topic in this type of industry, but it was unusual for the subject to be so personal, controversial, or politically charged.

I decided to use the two largest religions to set the premise for why atheism is growing, citing that these two religions—Christianity and Islam—both had checkered pasts and that Islam was really on a role of late. When I received my essay back from the editor, it had a couple of typos—normal for anyone—but then this particular editor went on a rant about how unorganized my writing was and how the entire essay was nothing more than unsubstantiated opinion—I guess this editor missed the fact that I had a full bibliography of very credible sources to back up my essay! I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was incredible. I contacted the headhunter and told her to delete me from her files and never contact me again (laughing).

My point is this: even if what the editor said was correct, and it wasn`t, he or she should not have let me see such a horrific pontification about my writing. Respect the writer.

If you`re an editor, then you should do everything in your power to help writers, not tear them down.

An important thing to note about this topic is that writers bare their souls to us as readers; if they lack skills, they can learn them or be encouraged to learn them. If we treat them like a person tied to a pole awaiting the firing squad, we may destroy the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling.

Dream the writer`s dream

I do quite a bit of work on LinkedIn because I’ve met some wonderful people there with common interests, and it`s such a great networking site. Facebook and others have their advantages and disadvantages; however, LinkedIn has a unique quality in that I rarely ever get spammed or feel like I’m being stalked like I do on Facebook at times.

One thing that bothers me about LinkedIn, however, is the sheer number of people that call themselves editors. Now, I know that there are a vast number of these folks that are editors, but I can assure you that there are just as many that are not editors, they are simply English majors that know grammar—there’s a big difference.

A good editor “Dreams the writers dream” by having the skills to do not only copy-editing but also developmental editing. A good editor must know and see grammar mistakes like a hawk. Moreover, they have the ability to see where a story needs more development. A good editor will recognize the need to cut something because it hurts the writer or the story itself. These are just a few of the major skill sets that are required in sound editing. At the press I work for, the managing editor is an amazing person. She has all of the attributes of a good editor, as I’ve described, and the ability to multitask like a superhero. Editing is a separate skill from knowing Standard English Grammar.

I`ll tell a personal story that I hope makes my point jump off the page.

I know a guy that was an obscure, local author. He is an incredibly gifted writer in spite of the fact that he has very little college training. On a side note, we sometimes forget, those of us with college training, that there are writers that were born with incredible talent—it`s innate to them. This guy is like that. He had a friend that was an English/Lit major that agreed to edit his book. He wrote some 90,000 words for this book. It was a supernatural thriller, and it was not an easy task to do such an editing job. Others, including myself, offered to help, but he was not interested in any outside help no matter the skills they provided.

He also decided to self-publish the book rather than try a few queries to an agent. In this case, it was just another mistake. When I read the manuscript, I was positive the book had tremendous potential. After the finished project had come out, it was full of glaring problems. It was not typeset, so it had well over forty extra pages in it that only served to make the wholesale cost of the book go up. So, he was unable to offer the book—again he was an unknown author—at a reasonable price. The table of contents didn’t have chapter titles, it only had the chapter number and the page number the chapter started on—huge mistake. This error alone made it impossible for bookstores to take a shot a shelving this book. Another huge mistake was that the editor talked my friend into using lowercase words in the title, the author`s info, and in all the front and back matter of the book. If you’re a well-known, bestselling author, this style choice might fly; however, with all of the other mistakes in this book, let alone the fact that the author was unknown, it made this stylistic choice look like another glaring design flaw.

The problem with this horrible ending to what could have been an excellent book was that the editor, whom I know personally, did not dream the writer`s dream, nor was this person an “editor.” This person was a good reader, good with grammar, good at assessing academic essays, but this person was no editor of a novel.

Today, that guy has totally given up on his book, and I have to say it haunts me—that`s how good the story was. But, the book will probably never reach the readers it deserves to reach.

My whole point in writing this is not to sound like a “know-it-all” about editing. My point is to encourage those who call themselves editors to understand the full scope of that title and that job. If you see something in this post that helped you recognize a skill that you lack—that’s an easy fix! The worst thing we can do as writers or editors is to stop learning and think we have it all figured out, right?

Good luck, I hope this helped someone.

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  1. Reblogged this on and commented:

    If you`re an editor, then you should do everything in your power to help writers, not tear them down. Scott Biddulph

    Writers and editors should be working together for the benefit of the publication. Writers bring ideas to the table and editors make sure those ideas are presented in a way to make them read by a large audience, the relationship should be a partnership, not a war of words. A good editor must know and see grammar mistakes like a hawk, it is their job to correct the faux pas made by the writer and to ensure the publication benefits from the writer’s knowledge, how they treat the writer is all important.

  2. Scott I love the challenge of the essay you had to complete – I had a similar one about Christian theology which gave me the same challenge as an atheist, it is my belief the idea is to have you think from a different angle. I have always thought that the act of tearing someone down is wrong – to my mind you should encourage people as best you can. However we must recognise that encouragement can have harsh elements included within it because the aim should be to have the writer improve.

    I agree a good editor should dream the writer’s dream, and you are right they must develop the story if it is needed. A good editor, say for a factual magazine, may also bring the contribution of two writer’s together where they cover common ground.

    Thank you for a great set of thoughts on editing.

    • Yes, I would agree with your assessment that they intended to give me a “trial by fire” experience with such a topic choice. That said (and I was aware of that), if I could show readers the comments by the editor of that sample essay, I think any reasonable person would agree they were over-the-top. The larger point, however, is that I should have never seen this editor’s comments at all. They should have simply notified me that I didn`t cut the muster; that would have shown “respect to the writer.”

      I work with authors on a regular basis now that I work for a press. I make sure, as we communicate through email or through Track Changes on Microsft Word, that my tone is always respectful and encouraging. I`ll share an example here: one day as I was editing the manuscript for a book that will soon hit the shelves, the assistant editor suggested that I make comments in the body of the manuscript in places that I thought were funny, or where I saw a great sentence structure, etc. This both shows the writer respect and helps the writer to fulfill their dream.

  3. Good morning, Scott; again, you’ve accurately taken the writer’s perspective and framed the thoughts of many of us. We can all improve our writing, but when an editor reduces our concepts and ideas to solely grammar and then bashes us for an em-dash error, or a dangling participle, or another type of mistake, many writers just quit.

    Or the editor that decides in fiction that a particular character wouldn’t think or feel in the way described. Granted, as the character develops, there are certain attitudes and postures that become predictable, but to have an editor unilaterally declare that, “this character would never think, feel or do that”, because they didn’t want the character to change, is fundamentally wrong.

    As an aside, I wonder if J. K. Rowling had trouble with her editor when Severus Snape seems to depart to the dark side? Guess I won’t know without a Google question later today. Two things I do know though, are:

    1. Her editors didn’t think boys would read a book written by a woman, thus using her first initial and adding the “K”.
    2. She was told to get a day job because children’s books didn’t sell. So much for the editors, and they were from the publishing house that picked up the book, not the dozen or so that rejected the manuscript.

    You’ve got good points in this, and unfortunately, many people do profess to be editors, without distinguishing which type, and there is the crux of this issue – which kind and how kind they are in their role as editor.

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