The Writer Editor Relationship

I’m working with Barry Burnett on his novel, HOW TO LIVE FOREVER (A Very Fictional Guide), and in talking with him about why he chose to self-publish and to pursue an original ebook only, he made a point I found fascinating. I had asked him what advice or thoughts he’d pass on to other writers who want to self-publish, and among his observations was the following:
There’s a reason editors exist. And why, perhaps, they should not be working directly for you. I’ve tried it…but I’m too foolishly enamored with my own style, and could too easily say ‘Nope’. Friends and reading groups help, but time turned out to be my editor – cutting out the stuff that turns stupid in a week or a month. Still limited by your own ear, but that may be part of what makes indie authors interesting.
There has been much said about the importance of editors in publishing, and Barry’s comment caught me off guard. Editors most certainly have their place and play an important role. They help bring good books to the marketplace and they help writers to refine their stories.

But Barry has a point. Sometimes, some writers are their own best editors. I’ve seen in writing workshops that colleagues’ replies can flatten an original voice, and it does seem that some wonderful writing is not finding the support it deserves from the editorial gatekeepers in traditional publishing and therefore, until the rise of self-publishing, not reaching readers.

Barry’s latest novel, How To Live Forever (A Very Fictional Guide), is a romp of a read about a young family practice doctor in Boulder, Colorado who, against his better judgment, opens a longevity clinic that offers patients HGH (human growth hormone) to lengthen their lives. This is a comedy with a heart, with a dash of romance, a definite bad guy and a thriller-like chase, a moral conundrum, and the most perfect ending. In sum, it defies categories and would make traditional publishers nervous. Especially since it includes subtle reminders about how to take care of ourselves. (Another category!)

Barry’s writing and this novel are what’s great about the new possibilities in publishing. He’s offering free downloads through August in a variety of formats. If you want, find them here:

What do you think? Do writers always need editors? Or, is it more a question of when one should work with an editor? Or, is it a matter of finding the right editor?


Joni Rodgers said…
My standard response: Publishing without an editor is like applying lipstick without a mirror.

That said, I agree that it has to be the right match. If you're not on the same page, as it were, changes aren't going to resonate, and the work doesn't grow, it just changes to something else that isn't quite *it* for either party.

I also agree that time is a good editor, but sometimes the opposite happens; the work gets overwritten because the author can't stop noodling at it.

One of the greatest gifts in my professional and personal life: a stellar critique group. Peer editing is a valid middle ground for indie authors - if they're lucky enough to have peers with mad skills.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Caitlin.
I agree with pretty much everything Joni has said, including that the editor has to be the right match. I also agree that people need to have a stellar critique group, but the problem is that it's often hard for fairly advanced but not yet published writers to find such a group.

I recently got up the nerve to ask three dear friends who are also smart readers, editors and writers to read the beginning portion of my novel to made sure it still makes sense. I've reached a point of blindness where, while I have the confidence to send to an agent (she says, while at the same time wanting to throw up), I'd still like to make sure that in my revisions I haven't done something really strange. The people I've chosen are good readers and have never read any portion or version of the book. But will they be the best readers for this work?

That's the problem. I'm at a level where I'm really too advanced for most newbie or "amateur" writing groups, but since I'm not yet published, I can't exactly ask published writers to read my work. So I'm sort of in critique group limbo right now. I do plan to ask a couple of published writers to read my NEXT work, assuming that I can at least get an agent from this one. But if I don't get an agent, I think it's going to be hard for me to convinced already published writers to work with me, because they'll still see me as too much of a newbie.

THAT said, I would never dare to self-publish without at least hiring a good freelance editor. I'm building relationships with some editors on twitter, and keeping them in the back of my mind, should I end up going that route.

Great post, Caitlin! And this is a great way for me to answer my students when they say "but what does an editor really do anyway?"
Editors have reined in my excesses, put me back on course, and gently pointed me toward greater possibilities than I would've ever come up with on my own. The right one is a blessing, and the wrong one can be a curse.

Glad to've had a lot of right ones in my corner, including the skilled critiquers I also rely on.

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