banner ad

What Editors Do

What Editors Do

A Session with Olivia Rupprecht

Just what is it that editors do? As aspiring novelists increasingly turn to editorial services before submitting a manuscript to an agent or in-house editor – or for that matter before taking the plunge and self-publishing – it is a good idea to become as educated as possible regarding the role of an editor and the difference they can (or cannot) make in the story you have to tell and the manuscript you want to sell, whether it be to a publishing house or on the free market yourself. Since most of my personal experience is in traditional publishing and many of the most experienced editors offering freelance services have roots there as well, we will focus on what editors do in traditional publishing, but with an awareness there is an overlap into the indie publishing world.

When I sold my first novel in 1989 (note: the fifth novel I had written; the first one to sell), I really had no idea what an editor did beyond having the ability to make my grandest dream a reality. I remain grateful to Carrie Feron, then a senior editor at Bantam Books, for recognizing some quality in my storytelling that was fueled more by ambition and naiveté and the raw desire to be published than any mastery of the novelist’s craft.

Much of the mastery acquired over the years since – an ongoing quest to be sure – is directly owed to the editorial guidance I was (mostly) fortunate to receive from a variety of editors who worked in different publishing houses with varying degrees of responsibility, clout, talent, skill, and areas of expertise. Just as not all writers are created equal, neither are editors, but in the best of all worlds an editor is a kaleidoscopic being who is knowledgeable about the market, is savvy about the tough business of publishing, has terrific instincts, has a deep understanding of book structure and the critical reasoning skills necessary to elevate a book to its highest potential, respects the je ne sais quoi magic of story while balancing popular demand with literary merit, and knows how to deal with authors who can have a wide range of temperaments, skill, talent, and level of professionalism themselves.

There Will Be Killing by John Hart and Olivia RupprechtGreat editors rock. They can do almost EVERYTHING but write the book themselves – and you know what? I’ve known some editors who practically did write the whole book themselves by the time it was all said and done. I am not one of those editors, by the way – at least not with regard to There Will Be Killing, the novel I co-authored with John Hart (be sure to read his session on creating characters with personality here), who funneled much of his personal experience from the front lines of a Vietnam War psychiatric unit into the novel’s pages. Lou Aronica, publisher of The Story Plant, is our editor. He rocks.

When Lou invited me to contribute to this Authors First session, I was flattered but intimidated about taking on such a complex topic. Solution? We are going to keep this as simple as possible. I’ll tell you a bit of what I know and why, offer a personal example, then put you in the editorial driver’s seat to get a sense of how it feels to sit on the other side of the desk where deals are made, hearts get broken, and good books have a chance to be made better – possibly even elevated into something great.

What I Know

What I know is how much I still do not know about what an editor does even after a solid twenty-five years in the publishing profession, first as an author, followed by nearly a decade of work in various editorial capacities, before pinging back to the author’s side of the desk again – only this time with a better understanding of, and respect for, the role an editor can play in an author’s career, in the development of their maturity as a writer, and the make or break influence they can bear on the quality and potential success of a book.

Most serious writers acquire a certain degree of editorial experience by educating themselves, developing that “inner editor” by working and reworking their own material and possibly honing those skills by critiquing other manuscripts. This is a basic, rudimentary level of what an editor technically does with a manuscript – they have to be able to think objectively, critically, and, hopefully, kindly, particularly with early efforts. My first, official editorial position did not require a lot of the above since I served as editor for NINK, the monthly newsletter for Novelists, Inc. The bar was set pretty high just to be a member of this professional organization, and the members wrote the columns, so I didn’t have a lot of hands-on technical editing to do. I did, however, take on many responsibilities that introduced me to another level of what editors do: no sooner had I accepted the position than most of the columnists left! The mass exodus wasn’t personal – and it’s important to realize that the vast majority of editorial rejections are not