An editor in my office used to drink from a mug with the message Editors Do It with Exclamation Points. That mug went with her everywhere and left rings of coffee stains on dozens of authors’ manuscripts over the years.
Working at a big publishing house, I’m surrounded by editors and copyeditors as tenacious as terriers who spend their days with red pens tucked behind their ears. Okay, the red pen has largely gone the way of the 8-track tape as most editing is now done electronically, but you get the point. (Pun intended.)
The word on the street is that editors don’t actually edit anymore. Whenever I dig into another incarnation of this rumor, it’s usually propagated by folks who have never had a book published by a big house or indie press, nor worked for one, as far as I can tell. So let’s put this to rest once and for all, shall we?
It’s true that editors have a lot more on their plates than ever before. (Don’t we all?) As headcount at many publishers has shrunk, rarely are there separate acquisitions editors, developmental editors and copyeditors. In some cases one person might have to wear all editorial hats. That means handling tough negotiations with agents and finding that pesky missing comma on page 87 of your manuscript. Sometimes in the same hour.
It’s also true that with their limited time, editors often have to decide which books get more attention than others. If they have the next manuscript by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan on their desks, you can bet that gets moved to the top of the pile. (See Publishing Is a Business.)
None of this means that short shrift is paid to first time or mid-list authors. As an author, I can attest to my manuscript having so many editorial comments and copyediting notations, it looked like it had gotten into a fight with a rabid raccoon. And the raccoon won.
But don’t take my word for it. Read about debut author Helen Keeble’s experiences in her fantastic post here.
Sometimes those who believe that editors don’t edit gravely point out that books have mistakes in them as fuel for the fodder. Do editors miss things? Of course. We recently found an error in a prologue long after the book had shipped to bookstores nationwide—the word read had been substituted for reach. To suggest that it’s possible to have flawless books would be to believe that editing is done by robots, and whenever I peek into the editors’ offices they seem like flesh and blood to me.
Another issue is the recommendation of some agents and industry insiders for writers to hire freelance editors before submitting their manuscripts. I’m not sure why this is seen as evidence that in-house editors aren’t doing their jobs. I liken this suggestion to buying a new suit for a job interview. You wouldn’t show up in flip-flops, unless you were interviewing for a position as a lifeguard. It’s never a bad idea to spiff up and put your best foot forward. Your manuscript is your introduction, your first impression. Why not make it a good one? Agents and editors appreciate clean copy. It’s easy to overlook the sharp prose and brilliant characterization if the manuscript is riddled with basic grammatical errors.
I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever felt overlooked by an in-house editor? Did you ever have an editor who went above and beyond the call of duty?
Jacquelin Cangro’s first book, The Subway Chronicles: Scenes from Life in New York (Penguin/Plume), is a collection of essays about the New York City subway system. Her follow-up The Subway Chronicles: More Scenes from Life in New York is now available on Kindle. This fall she will be teaching online classes in creative writing and novel pitches at The Loft Literary Center.