Joyce Carol Oates-

Like many writers, I’m also an editor. For the years that I ran a magazine, I edited so much I never wanted to edit again. It’s tiring work but a writer does what a writer must do. Most of us have day jobs; mine was tethered to newspaper and magazine writing, an arm of publishing that like its stubborn sibling in New York, ignored change and paid for it.

I hung out a private editor shingle to help pay bills. I’m lucky. I don’t have many to pay so I can be careful in my selection. I prefer working with experienced writers mostly because I like to work on story telling. When bad writing prevents me from getting to the story, I lose interest. Another reason I prefer working with experienced writers has to do with the bad news editors often have to deliver. In my experience, seasoned writers take bad news better. It’s not about you. It’s about story. Seasoned writers don’t take it personally, at least not for long because we’re used to rejection. It comes with the job.

Editor selection guidelines shared here about my own experiences working with editors is aimed at the growing market of ‘indie’ writers. If you are at the beginning of building an indie career you hope has legs, go out of your way to find good editors, and to the best of your ability, know what you need before you hire them. If you don’t know what you need, you may be hiring an editor too soon.

In my early years, I sought warm fuzzy personable editors; editors with a knack for delivering bad news gently. I highly recommend these kinds of editors for the newly anointed. One of my early experiences with an editor of the warm and fuzzy variety also insisted I read my own work in his workshop. That petrified me and he knew it so he invited me to sit next to him rather than stand by my seat. So I did. As I read a scene, my voice trembling with fear I could not hide, the comfort of his hand lightly touching my back was enough to get me through that debut reading of my first fiction. I recommend finding a warm fuzzy editor type for your first go-round with editing, especially if you’re a writer like I was and still am to a degree, a writer in need of support.

The many changes in publishing has released a slew of new authors into the web-o-sphere. Authors who are not ready to publish; sorry, most just aren’t. It matters not that you can freely publish. Writers should not publish freely. Writers should know that not every ‘long thought’ you have is book worthy. If you’re relatively new to writing, you have no perspective or very little. You think your words are good enough to publish otherwise you wouldn’t waste your time. I hear that, I understand that and that’s why you need to find experienced editors to vet your work. If you are truly serious about mastering the art and craft of story telling, find an editor who can help you craft and manage the hundreds to thousands of words you put on those pages you are certain readers are waiting to read. If you have the audacity to think your words should be read, let a good editor’s eye help you decide how good you are at this point in your career. Pay them, barter, trade, do whatever you need to do to find worthy editors willing to tell you that not all the words you write are worthy of publication.

That’s what’s missing in our 21st century publishing landscape, places for writers to get their works vetted by editors. Writers need to experience rejection; there’s no better teacher. Put a good editor’s eyes on the feast of story you believe hungry readers are waiting to gobble up. Let her/him tell you it’s as tasty as you think it is. When one does, you’ll treasure every syllable uttered. A good editor will do that for you, writers. They’ll also tell you when your ego needs checking.

Good editors help you find a balance. They help you find your humility. If you haven’t placed a lot of your words on an editor’s desk, you can’t possibly improve. I am sincere in this belief. Writing stories worth reading requires master-level craftsmanship to produce them. It’s not just a good idea — good ideas are a dime a dozen –it’s the execution of that idea into a story that you, the author, expect the public to pay good money to read. Writing this well takes time to learn. 21st century writers should take more time despite the seduction to push the ‘publish’ button shining brightly on peoples’ publishing platforms that include CreateSpace , KDP, Smashwords, et al.

To be a professional writer one needs to toughen up against rejection. For most of us, that takes years of story ideas/works being rejected. Even today, after 26 years of rejection letters, a bad critique still does me in. The only difference is my recovery time; quicker with perspective developed from working with editors who were spot on (more than they weren’t) about the words I wrote. Dang those editorial eyes!

Find a good editor with potential to stay connected as your tutor/guide is what I recommend to every writer hoping to carve out a career in this business. Since 21st century publishing doesn’t include much opportunity to freelance (and by doing so, work with many editors) I encourage new writers to find outlets that might offer some editorial vetting. Try to get a short piece published. See how hard it is. If you can’t find any, pitch ideas to those UBER-content Huffington Post-like sites; many look for content. Be aware that the only ‘editing’ of your piece may be in the hands of readers that include snarky trolls but it will offer some feedback.

Of the experiences I’ve had working with editors, some good, some not so good, all have helped in my growth and development as professional writer. I’ve learned that the personal side of an editor’s role can and does influence stories they like/accept. It took me years of magazine writing to realize that my editors sometimes didn’t get hooked for reasons that likely didn’t have much to do with the piece I was my proposing. I remember pitching story after story to an editor who at that time was single. Though the community we served was kid-centric, she rarely accepted a piece about new moms/children. When my kids were school age, I pitched stories to editors whose kids were just being born. They’d say ‘no’ to me and ‘yes’ to stories pitched by freelancers about moms and newborns. It happens more often than writers know –editors’ personal experiences trumping professional-but who’s going to tell us?

A few years back, I hired an editor based on similarities I noted online. I was looking for an editor for one last ‘sweep-through’ of a novel I planned to publish actually before I published Deadly Little Secrets on KDP. There was some flab and my hope was she would help me see my blind spots. By the time I hired her, this novel had been developed with the help of a private editor on retainer for nine months, critiqued by several solid writers and then critiqued some more via an online critique group. The editor I hired to do that last ‘sweep-through’ was also an author on the road to publication of her first book, a novel.


This editor hated my protagonist; absolutely hated her throughout the 72,000-word manuscript. She didn’t hate the story. She didn’t hate my story telling. She hated my protagonist. There’s more to this story but the part that’s pertinent to share here is that after all these years, I still hit and miss with editors. I am still learning this lesson about an editor’s feedback. Editors are people first and some will be triggered to react in ways that may show more of their personal self than they intend to show. I do believe this is what happened here but that inkling didn’t come to me until after this editor published her novel a few months after we worked together. In my novel, my protagonist cheated on her husband. In her novel, her protagonist was cheated on. Could it have been that my protagonist triggered lots of stuff and none of it good from my editor as she read my story? I’ll never know but it was another reminder that editors are people first.

When I entered the commercial writing world in the late 1980’s, editors weren’t writers. If they wrote, they wrote under a pseudonym. Editors were voracious readers and really smart people, usually from schools where the really smart went before they headed to New York to establish their careers. Today’s editor/authors should know the drawbacks of offering their writing for public consumption. I remember the first time I hired an editor and then read his novel. I was inexperienced back then and did become disappointed in the quality of his storytelling and that did impact how I perceived his feedback about my story.

By the time I worked with another editor, this one retired from a heralded career in New York publishing, I didn’t care that his debut novel (published after his retirement) didn’t measure up to his editing acumen because by then I understood the different skill sets each brings to the page. This revered NY editor offered weekly workshops once a year that overflowed with writers. To get the most from his wisdom, I always arrived early each day to nab the spot literarily at his feet in this standing-room-only workshop. I’d sit there listening; mesmerized by this editor’s command of story, like no other I had worked with before or since. This editor, the pull-no-punches kind who came up during the Max Perkins era of publishing, taught me about professional critiquing. Never had I heard critiquing done so impersonally. It was only and always about story; the person writing it, the mere vessel. He could be biting in his criticism but always to champion craft. You couldn’t argue when he nailed the weak spots. You just couldn’t. He was that good of an editor so when I read his novel, not only did I not care that it read mediocre; the fact that it did impressed me even more about the skill set needed to write a compelling tale. It’s so very hard to do. If this noted editor could have accomplished this Herculean writing feat, he would have.

Another editor I hired back when the voice of my protagonist of Deadly Little Secrets was just being born. She was supposed to be a supporting character but she wouldn’t take stage left. She wanted center stage and started yapping in my ear as I was about to attend a writer’s conference so brought a short scene and read it to a workshop leader. He loved her voice and encouraged me to let her tell this story. His opinion affirmed my own and she became the protagonist. To this day, I’m grateful for this editor’s take.

An editor that helped me birth the novel that featured my cheating protagonist began working with me soon after that first burst of story hit. It came in scenes. He was the only one who told me to keep writing and worry about scene placement later. Though we parted ways soon after I completed that first draft, the method he supported — writing scenes without worry of chronology — has stuck with me. His encouragement to trust my process helped this writer pen that first draft with white-hot speed.

All editors are not the same. I liked some more than others. I respected some more than others. Some were good. Some were right. Some were god-awful wrong about my work. I’m a lifelong believer in learning so one bad apple never made me turn away from hiring another editor. It made me more cautious and that’s a good thing. Editing isn’t cheap. My concern is that today’s writers don’t put themselves on this firing line of vetting done by experts who know better than you even if you don’t think they do. Back in the day of vetted publishing, most editors (exceptions, of course) wouldn’t have kept those editing jobs if they didn’t know more about this craft than their writers did.

With all these new writers emerging, I hope you all understand that writing a solid paragraph is different from writing a compelling story. If you haven’t immersed yourself in the art and craft of story telling, you likely will need the help of a good editor. How do you know which one is right for you? You don’t but there are markers that if you pay attention, will lead you to editors who may be good fits.

Editing is an art form unto itself. With all the changes in publishing’s delivery, I hope good editors continue to give us hell when our stories suck. Most of us need it.

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