Ask the Editor #2: How to Disagree with Your Editor


In this Ask the Editor, I outline which arguments you can’t win, how to graciously disagree with your editor, and how to get your way.

What is the point of an editor? (Other than to hurt your feelings on accident.)

My editorial philosophy can be boiled down to one essential statement: like Tron, I fight for the users (in this case, the readers).  In large part, what I do for your readers is to get there first and ask all their questions before they have to.

Why did she marry that guy? I thought they were in France? Wait, are we in the past now?

An editor is akin to a royal taster, they take a bite of all the king’s food before he eats; and like that taster, editors have a vested interest in making sure that your work is ready for the reader.

After all, who wants an editor whose previous clients’ books are awful?

You can’t win them all.

Before we get into how to get your way, you should know that there are at least two battles that you usually can’t win, even with an editor who focuses on author collaboration.

  • Grammar, punctuation, and other conventions

Your publisher or editor undoubtedly has a style manual or other guide that they use regularly. Having one set style helps your editor maintain consistency throughout your work and that of the publisher. Your editor should have told you what style he or she uses and asked you about yours at the outset. Editors will conform to your chosen style (for the most part), but unless you are an experienced writer or editor, familiar with the different style manuals, I’d let the editor use whichever style they feel is appropriate. If you are paying your editor at an hourly rate, you will want to attempt to correct your manuscript to the agreed upon guide before handing it over.

Try not to worry too much about these kinds of edits. As long as your editor is consistent throughout your manuscript, it doesn’t matter too much what guide they use. Remember that one of the reasons you hired them was to maintain consistency and correct these kinds of errors.

Editors are usually more aware of changes and trends in writing, so just assume that they know best on this one.

Exception: In genre writing, authors occasionally make up languages and names that don’t exist and that call for strange spelling or punctuation. Work with your editor to create rules for consistency for these and add them to the style guide for your work—this consistency is important to creating convincing languages and is an important part of world building.

  • Awkward or confusing sentences

If your editor doesn’t understand what you are trying to communicate, the odds are good that your readers won’t either. Assume that your readers will not understand you better or be any smarter than your editor and just edit the offending passage.

You don’t need to accept every change your editor suggests, but you will need to rework or replace any passages that your editor notes as awkward.

How to get your way without being an enormous jerk.

  • Keep your cool

Before you get frustrated remember:

-you want your book to be great and so does your editor,
-your editor does not think less of you for making errors or needing editorial assistance, and
-facing criticism is difficult for everyone. Even your favorite authors had editors who worked with them to make the books you love. Your editors are typically authors too and even they have editors.

Make the above your mantra and wait until you aren’t emotional before you do anything. Sleep on it, go to the gym, make voodoo dolls—whatever works for you. Once you’re back to wanting to do anything to make a great book, you’re ready to move on.

  • Ask why (politely)

Before you jump straight to calmly rejecting suggestions, ask your editor for more information. Does he or she want you to kill of a character because they are too similar to another, or is it to get more emotional impact? Is that semicolon gone because you use too many sentences of the same length or structure, or because it is used incorrectly?

Try sending back a note that starts with something like: “I’d like to clarify a few items before I make additional changes to the manuscript. Would you please explain the reasoning behind these changes?” Then attach a list of the editorial comments and changes that you don’t like, without any comment as to your opinions on them.

  • Reassess and pick your battles

After you’ve asked for clarification, sit back and decide if you agree or disagree with your editor’s justification for the changes. For each justification with which you disagree, ask yourself, “Self, how much do I care?” If you care more than a six on a ten point scale of caring, move on to step three below.*

*If you find that you care more than six points about 15% or more of the notes from your editor, you are not on the same page. You need to sit down and discuss expectations with your editor. You might find that you want a different kind of editorial service (proofreading versus developmental editing, for example). Work together to determine how to proceed.

  • Defend (politely)

Send back a response about only the six point or greater issues listed individually. Explain to your editor why you wrote the passage in that particular fashion and how this relates to the novel overall.

  • Decide

If your editor still feels that you are incorrect, you have a decision ahead of you.

Ask yourself:

-Who knows more about this, you or your editor?

-Is this important enough that I am willing to give up some of my room for negotiation for this issue?

The fact of the matter is that you are the creative director of this work. If you really feel that a change would be a disservice to your readers, tell your editor that you are ready to die on that hill. If you communicate properly with your editor, you won’t be looking for a new one and you might just get your way.



In the next Ask the Editor: Exposition

If you have a question for Ask the Editor, leave a comment below.


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