Once in a while I’ll have a client ask me whether or not I’ve been harsh enough in a critique of mine. To some of you who have hired me, that statement might seem rather odd, since I’ve often been referred to as being brutally honest regarding my assessments. Granted, I do not ever ridicule a writer’s efforts, and if something might be particularly weak I’ll commonly joke about whatever might be deficient instead of simply saying it wasn’t at the level I believe it needed to be. But I always level with the author, since I wouldn’t want someone glossing over my material when I’ve paid for an honest evaluation.
One of the biggest challenges any editor faces is coming to grips with situations when writers will have a section or an element critiqued or edited, but not the entire work. And in my case, I’m particularly vulnerable because I encourage clients to send me early-stage material. I firmly believe this is far and away the best way to work with a writer whose skill sets I’m familiar with, as once I analyze the opening, whether it be a few chapters or 100 pages, we can work together to more quickly develop plot points and create an effective storyboard. My experience has been that this is always the most efficient and least expensive tack for any writer.
However, at times a writer will take what I suggest about opening material and assume this will apply to the entire narrative. Unfortunately, I can’t know if Ellen’s fragile psyche in Chapter 2 will work well if she becomes a harridan by Chapter 10 and a clone of SHE by book’s end. A couple of years ago, I had a client express all sorts of chagrin over the vitriol spewed by an agent regarding a book she’d submitted for his representation. When she told the agent I’d edited the draft, she was informed I’d really “missed it,” but the man expressed surprise because he related that he’d worked with other clients of mine and had always found me quite competent. I had to call the agent and tell him that I never edited the entire manuscript, but the damage was done and he has never taken another call from me. So, stuff happens.
The significance of what I just wrote is that there are reasons to work with a professional editor on the entire draft before it’s submitted for consideration by an agent or publisher. And if something is arbitrarily changed by the writer after it’s been agreed to by both the author and the editor, there can be–and most often are–problems. This is also why editors must have tough skin, as there are times when we are indeed blamed for what we had nothing to do with. In the case of a client who makes material changes to my revisions and never discusses the modifications with me, I take complete responsibility for what occurs, as it’s obvious that I had never developed the proper relationship with the writer; and I say this because the person didn’t feel comfortable enough to discuss my editing suggestion for the narrative’s continuation and finish, instead altering the text without direction and having the result vilified.
Editing is as much about relationships as writing. An author can’t be worried about challenging an editor’s opinion, just as an editor can’t be fearful of offering tough suggestions, knowing that no matter how gently something is couched, the writer is not going to be pleased with having to go back to the drawing board. None of us like to have to make revisions when we believe something is in final form, but the reality is that everything can be improved. And the key is determining what to do and how to do it, and once the decisions are agreed upon, not to arbitrarily go forward with something different unless discussing the changes with the editor. Otherwise, as callous as this might sound, why pay for this person’s advice in the first place? If a writer finds suggestions impossible to reconcile, it’s time to find a different editor.