How Has an Editor’s Job Changed?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

The other day, my assistant, Michelle, asked me how an editor’s role has changed since my first book released, which was in the mid-1980s. Some of my responses surprised her; so I thought it might be helpful to you all to “listen in” to how I answered Michelle.

To set the stage, let me tell you the title of that nonfiction book: But Can She Type? In it I examined unique qualities that I believed women brought to leadership positions in business.

Technology Has Changed an Editor’s Job

The very title shouts out one major change since the ’80s. Yes, I wrote the manuscript on a typewriter. It was electric and had a correction ribbon, but still…I have to say, typing a book eliminates most writer wannabes.

Time for Each Manuscript Has Changed

I think we all would guess that technology comprises a major difference in publishing, but my project portrays another change. My publishing experience involved five major rewrites of the manuscript after it was contracted. Yes, five.

But Can She Type was published by InterVarsity Press, which took each manuscript through a rigorous process. If I remember correctly, the first round of rewrites involved my reviewing the critiques and suggestions of three reviewers, each of whom had a special interest in my topic. A business woman, a woman college professor, and a woman newspaper reporter each read the manuscript and made numerous critiques in its margins. I also had what seemed like reams of comments from my in-house editor. Juggling so many perspectives on the manuscript felt like corralling five rambunctious toddlers.

The Number of Rewrites for Nonfiction Has Changed

After that major round of making changes under my editor’s watchful eye, I painstakingly tightened, clarified, illuminated, excised, revamped, and generally wrestled the manuscript to the ground through for four more rounds. I don’t think the manuscript was bad to begin with, or IVP never would have offered this first-time author a contract, but the publisher showcased a strong commitment to making the manuscript reach its potential.

I was sick of the book by the time my editor finally declared it acceptable. (Remember, I had to retype the entire manuscript and adjust the end notes with each round.)

My experience raises these questions:
  • When was the last time an editor had the luxury of grinding through five revisions with a nonfiction author?
  • Today, would a publisher today invest in five rewrites for a first-time author?
  • Would three reviewers be hired by a publisher to critique a manuscript?
  • Would the author agree to rewrite five times?

I think the only question to garner a yes might be the last one.

What It All Means to an Author

Editors’ schedules are stuffed as tight as pickles in a jar. If the editor can’t move a manuscript onto the copy editor by a certain date, other projects assigned to the editor form a logjam. And then publication dates have to be moved; ads are run, but no books are available; publicity is scheduled that becomes meaningless; and sales reps have a title in the catalog that the publisher can’t deliver.

The ship is run much more tightly today, and leeway to work to make the manuscript everything it could be seldom exists–even if you’re a best-selling author. Especially if you’re a best-selling author because the publisher is counting on your book to bring in the necessary funds to support the company. The publisher is committed to a quick release of the best-selling author’s title to infuse cash into its system.

That’s part of the reason publishers create books of 500-some pages, with egregious errors, with less than stellar editing–or even lacking strong book structure. Who has the time to hone the piece into a sharply focused book?

Now, my questions to you are:

How many times have you rewritten your work in progress? What keeps you going? (I had a contract to nudge me forward–with the advance already spent, of course.)

By the way, I might not be able to join in on the conversation. I’m at Mount Hermon Writers Conference on the faculty.

Read about the book editing process from the 1980s. Click to tweet.

How has an editor’s job changed from the 1980s? Click to tweet.

15 Responses

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  1. Great post, Janet. You’ve answered a lot of questions – I have been frustrated by the dreadful editing in recent nonfiction. Technical details that can easily be checked are often wong (for the umpteenth time, a .45 automatic is NOT a revolver), jargon is misused (Viet Nam-era terminology such as ‘friendly fire’ often finds its way into books about WW1 and WW2), and slang – admittedly harder to verify – is often hopelessly wrong.
    * As for my own writing, I usually go through one draft, as I am a savant, and my thought-to-word process is too precious to be diluted. Losing the first and finest burst of freshness would be a crime against literary culture.
    * I heard that! Did someone not say, ‘idiot savant’?
    * Seriously, 4-5 complete rewrites are the norm, and the last often bears very little resemblance to the first draft. Character names change, the plotlines are spiritual arcs are adjusted, and even characters go through name changes…and occasional gender changes, for secondaries.

  2. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Janet. I remember the joy of correction ribbon, the very first undo key.
    * I used to type contracts–back when cut and paste required scissors, tape and a copy machine. I could make the 5th or 6th version look as good as the first.
    * How many rewrites of my WIP? Three, if I count only the major changes. But my book is a lot like my wisteria (When should you prune your wisteria? Every time you walk past it). My WIP’s a re-write every time I open the file.

  3. Carol Ashby says:

    I entered my first 3 full manuscripts in the Genesis contest only to discover I was writing omniscient narrator and I needed 3rd person limited. So…100% rewrite for the first three. Before I brought one of those to market last November, I would say I did the equivalent of at least 8 or 9 full edits. I read the novel in its entirety 4 times, changing anything that didn’t seem exactly right and making sure there were no continuity mistakes within the book or with other books in the series. But I reread and refine previously written sections frequently as I’m writing a new section, so that would add at least another 4 edits to the total, maybe more. Even when it’s fully formatted and ready to publish, I do one final super-careful read-through, checking everything. When you’re indie publishing, you have betas (mine are superb) and a critique partner (mine is stellar) and even a partial content edit (can’t afford a full), but I’m my own line editor. The onus of making the book at least as perfect as a trad publisher would is entirely on me, but I’d do just as many edits if I were with a traditional publisher.

    The second book of those three will be out in May, and it will also have the equivalent of at least 9 full edits. But it’s not a burden to do it. Word processors take all the pain out of adjusting even the tiniest detail. I love my plots and my characters, so spending that much time with them is very satisfying.

    Maybe you can chalk up my obsessive approach to working with engineers for so long. If you don’t build the bridge as close to perfect as possible, the first truck driving across it might go into the river.

  4. If it doesn’t try y’all’s patience I’d like to pose two editing questions – which may help the community here. They’d sure help me.
    1) When do you know that you’re done editing? The Edge was quoted as saying that a U2 album is never finished, just abandoned; do you feel that way about your work, or are there signposts that tell you you’re done?
    2) How do you handle continuity edits, for example noting that your private investigator protagonist’s car has turned from a silver Jaguar XKE into a light blue XJS between one chapter and the next?

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Andrew, for me, it’s done when I can read through it and find virtually nothing I want to change.

      *Regarding the color of the car, have you considered adding a paragraph sentence about him taking it in for service at the dealer, having it destroyed in a fluke accident, and the dealer giving him the new model as a replacement? No? Then I’d start with “find” and fix every place it shows up. (Been there, done that with something else when I learned about a particular Roman law. The ancient Romans didn’t drive Jags.)

    • David Todd says:

      You’re never actually done editing, Andrew. You reach a point of 1) diminishing returns; 2) satisfaction with the text; or 3) the urge to barf if you have to read it one more time. For those working in trade publishing, there’s also the deadline that limits editing.

      • I’m completely on-board with David on this. A self-critical author can re-re-re-re … reread the manuscript an endless number of times and still want to tweak it. But at some point you have to let it go. The Law of Diminishing Returns bites hard!

    • Deadlines in the traditional publishing world controlled when I was “done.” Because I had to be. But the thing that helps me most with both your first and second question is reading aloud to myself. Somehow, actually hearing the words helps me spot things like a change in car. I write historicals and once changed a horse’s name after it crossed a swollen river in the spring. An editor caught that … I didn’t. So having an excellent copy editor is also part of the equation–and that can be a detail-oriented friend.

  5. This is an interesting post, Janet. As I read your ending paragraphs, it brought to mind a story in yesterday’s newspaper about an A-list actor whose published memoirs just came out, published by a well-respected publisher. He took to Facebook and other social media complaining about all the egregious errors and mistakes in the book. I had my own opinions about his actions, but after reading your article, it begs the question of how well he struck to his deadlines. If he wrote the book to begin with . . . His actions struck me as wrong on many levels, including the reporter only published one side of the story: the actor’s,
    *Anyway, in answer to your question, I am on my third rewrite of my current work in progress. One of my mentors always says writing is rewriting. I’m learning this firsthand. 🙂
    *I enjoyed your post today. I hope you have a great week at Mt Hermon! One of these years, I’m going to make it there.

  6. The “especially” about best-selling authors in your post explains a couple of big disappointments I’ve had as a reader and fan of a couple of secular NY Times writers in the recent past. Never would have thought of that! I lose count when it comes to rewrites. I’m a serial self-editor. But that’s one of the things I love about writing … the chance to make it better. And the control. Maybe it’s a God-complex LOL.

  7. Carol Ashby says:

    Off topic. Andrew’s having another beast of a day. He’d appreciate prayers.

  8. I’m writing something new this month … but the story I was working on before that has been revised 15 times. I really hope I’m close to done! If not, at least I have something fresh to work on that might be better.