For the readers whose mouths have just dropped open, note that I have license to characterize editors that way because I am one of the species, and because I can empathize with the discomfort of being on the flip side.
You’ve composed what you thought was a masterpiece, only to have an editor claim that it’s riddled with faults. When you’re confronted with criticism, it’s natural to feel offended, frustrated, and discouraged. The true mark of maturity, however, is the ability to respond humbly. Your level of teachability will determine how far you’ll go as a writer. One of my favorite quotes about writing is by Ernest Hemingway: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
If you’re expecting nothing but praise from an editor, your mindset needs adjusting. An editor is not going to dole out the biased (and sometimes ignorant) raves of your family and friends, who predict that your novel will be the next best seller. An editor won’t be cruel—she might even include some encouragement with her corrections—but she will be honest about areas that need improvement.
When an editor returns your document, and you’re daunted by all of the red marks, don’t reply immediately, because your defenses will be up. Take some time to mull over all of the editor’s changes and recommendations. You might come to realize that she has X-ray vision and saw weaknesses that you couldn’t. Finishing a novel is an accomplishment to be proud of, but your closeness to your work inhibits you from analyzing it objectively.
Also, keep in mind that Microsoft Word’s track changes feature practices what it preaches—it tracks every single alteration that has been made to your document since it left your hands. If an extra space gets removed, or two hyphens are converted to an em dash, the action will be recorded. Even with a simple proofread, your editor will probably spot several copy errors, which are not an insult to your storytelling skills. So your manuscript’s condition may not be as scary as it looks.
Grammar rules and writing techniques are constantly shifting and changing, and different style guides often contradict each other. An editor is obligated to stay up to speed with the times and be adept at discerning the appropriate instances to apply certain rules, whereas a writer is more focused on creative expression. When you apprehend that an editor’s job is to kill things that are harming your story (even when the process causes pain), you won’t shy away at the first sight of blood. Our goal is to prevent the manuscript you’ve sweated and wept over from languishing in a drawer because of awkward wording or misplaced punctuation.
However, know that editors are fallible too. We’re human. After spending weeks scrutinizing a manuscript, we may leave a typo or two behind. (You should be concerned if an editor commits numerous mistakes, but a few is nothing to be alarmed about.) Or, we may rewrite a section of text, but the tone doesn’t quite mesh with the author’s voice—in which case it is perfectly acceptable for the author to speak up and suggest his own revision.
If you do find yourself disagreeing with an editor, just be sure that your reasons are solid and that you can explain your stance clearly and graciously. Never directly assault an editor’s judgment—especially about matters concerning spelling, grammar, and industry-standard writing principles. An editor will react more positively to a client who asks questions to gain understanding rather than accusing her of sabotaging the manuscript.
Editing and writing are equally tough professions, and both editors and writers need to be thick-skinned to survive. If writers trust that editors are their advocates, and editors remember that writers tend to be insecure, the projects we complete together will be more powerful, because we’ll have developed a loving relationship with each other.