This blog post is a little bit different than my others. I was discussing this subject with a writer friend, and I realized this isn't really talked about enough (at least on my radar). When choosing a developmental editor (DE), there are a bazillion articles and posts about what to look for: experience, skill, rates. And while all of that is important, a writer-editor relationship is so much more than that.
It's more intimate than most people might think. It requires not only a level of skill and professionalism, but support, honesty, and trust (and not being a psycho, how about that?).
I work predominantly with fiction and romance authors, a VERY intimate, VERY creative subject matter in developmental editing, where anything can go wrong. So that's what this post focuses on.
Here's the problem: Many times authors stick with editors who bully them, maybe because they aren't confident about their work, and think editors know everything. On the other end, editors may stick with poorly behaved authors just because they need the job.
*Note: I don't mean situations where authors secretly hoped for praise and can't handle any feedback. I'm talking about writers and editors who make an effort but may not be good for each other.
How do you know if you've found The One? Here's what to look for in a good developmental editor:
A good DE has a trained eye for storytelling (different than good writing), story structure, writing techniques, content editing, and the ability to generate new ideas or solutions. It's mentally intensive and the editor is deeply invested in your characters. (More so than any critique group ever, trust me.)
After you know that a DE has mad skills, she must also be able to communicate her findings. If she loves a part of your story, she needs to provide a reason why, so YOU know why it's working and what you're doing right.
Meh: "This is good."
Better: "I love Miranda's thoughts about her body issues, how she struggles with her appearance and feels awkward around other women. Readers can relate to this insecurity and feel sympathy for the main character."
If the DE points out an issue that can be improved, she can't just say...
???: "This character needs more development."
Why? How? What is this *dramatic air quotes* development you speak of?
Better: "Readers may like to know where Miranda's body issues come from, if they were created by a harsh, unforgiving parent; or maybe she had an emotional incident at school. This will help deepen her character and backstory, which relates to her present outlook."
With every piece of feedback, a good DE needs to diagnose the issue and, if possible, brainstorm a suggestion for the author. Otherwise, what are we all doing here?
If you wouldn't say it to your mother, don't say it to your client. I've actually heard authors confess that their editors yelled at them or sounded impatient with them. All I have to say to that is NOPE.
Okay, I have more to say.
A good DE will never let personal pet peeves interfere with her work—whether she's pointing out a story issue or communicating with an author.
Eeeep: "I don't like your main character because I was a victim of kids throwing their barbies at me when I was a child." or "I told you to watch your cliches!" NOPE.
A good DE will express her suggestions from a constructive viewpoint or on behalf of future readers (knowing the target audience and anticipating its reaction).
Better: "As a reader I was a little confused about Miranda's childhood. On p. 2 she says she's an orphan, but on p. 102, she mentions her mother's role in her life." or "That sex scene was a level ten hot with a whopping side of dirty, and very well written. However, this is a sweet romance, and readers might not be prepared for this scene. Let's discuss this more."
A good DE will also communicate with an author in a clear and supportive manner.
Nice: "I love Miranda's fierce reaction to Kevin in Chapter 3 (adds great chemistry), but throughout the rest of the story, she feels passive and subdued. Maybe add a turning moment before Chapter 5 for why her personality changed, or you can add more of that fierceness into her character. For instance, on p. 47, when Kevin comes to her rescue by the cliff, instead of mumbling her thanks and fainting in his arms, maybe she's clutching his shirt and arguing with him about not showing up sooner. Certain reactions like that may help keep her character more consistent."
A bad DE might say:
Blech: "Once again, Miranda is simpering and sighing and completely out of character. She needs more development."
The fact is, writers and editors will disagree about something, whether it's about a plot point or the ending, or whatever. A DE can suggest a lot of solutions, but only the author can pick the one that feels right for them and their book. That's basically a non-issue for healthy, professional partnerships.
But a writer and editor must share the same goal. That means the DE will understand what the writer is trying to do or bring up questions for the writer to consider.
A bad DE will try to change the writer's entire book without prior discussion or thought.
In this type of dynamic, the only way for two highly creative people to understand each other best is through empathy.
One more thing: Having empathy is basically another skill set for editing fiction and romance. A DE needs to be able to understand the intricacies of human nature.
All of these qualities amount to Trust, capital T. A good DE proves their storytelling knowledge and editorial prowess, communicates in a productive way with the author, and works to understand the author/project in order to achieve the same goals.
And they lived happily ever after.
Bonus Tip (because that sounds cool).
If you love yourself enough, you'll recognize when someone treats you the wrong way.
Before we all spiral into writerly self-loathing....
With any relationship, pay close attention to your gut and show yourself some compassion. Like you're giving advice to a friend, "Girl, he said what to you? Oh, no. I think you should dump his ass. You deserve better." If you would tell your friend that, then tell yourself that.
I think you know what I mean.
For editors: If you're feeling anxiety and stress from an author, feeling like the author isn't receptive to your good sense or continuously misunderstands your intentions; or you're sensing a lawsuit down the road, it's probably time to end that relationship.
For writers: If you're feeling distressed, scared, or humiliated; you feel a constant need to satisfy an editor (or she'll spit fire at you); you're not getting productive help with your work; you don't feel like you're becoming a better writer in the long run; or you feel like the editor is always suggesting story ideas way off base from your goals...it's time to find a better developmental editor.
Finding the right DE may give you heart eyes, a sense of accomplishment, tools to revise your story for the better, and the realization that you never want to publish another book without her. (The love is mutual.)
Need help with your story? Check out my editing services.