A little editor tough love


I am not one of these schadenfreude people. If you don’t know what this word means, perhaps you need to improve your vocabulary. I like the word-a-day websites Merriam-Webster, Wordsmith, and Wordnik.

I don’t get the shits and giggles by telling you, the writer, that you need to work on your story-telling skills. Or that your punctuation is P.U. stinky. Or that you overuse adjectives. Or that you sometimes use run-on sentences and I have trouble following the point of the sentence and the point your are trying to make by running the sentence along for a whole huge paragraph is making me all-out crazy.

I critique and edit and proofread and make loads of comments because that is my J.O.B.

“I’m insulted”

I’ve heard this a dozen times from clients (former clients). Honestly, I’m a little sick of it. I think you are insulted because I’m not all “Oh, your novel is fabulous!” or “Oh, your book is wonderful!” like the rest of your inexperienced beta-readers and family members.

Your insulted-ness

Writers ask for my opinion and then wave their insulted-ness wand over me like it’s going to change my opinion.

Fat chance.

Your writing still needs work, no matter how many mommies, daddies, inexperienced beta-readers, and H.S. English teachers peruse your novel and say, “I love it.” And nothing else.

I ain’t your mommy

I know my Mom, and I know my Aunt Agnes (the two wonderful women that raised me). Read my About – they are mentioned.

If Mom and Ang were alive, they would peruse my writing and say, “You expect to sell this?” or “I wouldn’t read this past the first paragraph.” They would be critical of my grammar, punctuation, and story-telling prose.

And then Mom would probably give me a piece of cake to help me recover.

Do you want to improve your craft?

Elizabeth H. Cottrell (of Heartspoken, mentioned with permission) is the best client ever.

Elizabeth doesn’t accept every comment I make on her work. Nor should she. She asks questions about my comments. Sometimes she disagrees with me. Love it!

And she loves what I have pointed out – what’s lacking, what’s extraneous, what is unclear.

Googling “editor”

You take two years to write your novel. And then Google “editor,” send me an email, and expect me to know you. To “get you,” overnight.

Not gonna happen.

R. S. Guthrie concurs

If you are not convinced you need an editor, please see R. S. Guthrie’s Power-Wash Your Writing blog at Rob on Writing.

Even editors should have an editor

Shawn MacKenzie – editor for my poetry collection, my horror short stories, my memoir and historical short stories. Shawn is the editor’s editor.

I have spent two years commiserating, writing emails, and sharing blogs with Shawn.  She “gets me.” You can’t find that in a day by Googling!


The following is from Shawn MacKenzie, editor extraordinaire!  

Editors are people, too. We have our idiosyncrasies and foibles, and if you prick us, I assure you, we do bleed. Personally, I want to enjoy my work—I want to labor over prose or poetry that stirs, if not (yet) the soul, at least the imagination. Of course, if everything that crossed my desk was that good, well, frankly, I’d be fast out of work, and the state of modern literature would be cause for unremitting celebration. Not there yet.

So, yes, my meager coffers are indebted to awkward phrases and muddled plot lines, stilted dialogue and clichéd metaphors, not to mention sloppy punctuation and whiplashing points of view. But editing goes beyond the basics of grammar and punctuation, ultimately being more subjective art than objective rules and regulations. Hell, even grammar and punctuation can be tossed out the window if it serves the author’s story and voice.

This is what I try to do as an editor: to serve the author’s story and voice. I try to help them fulfill their literary vision as clearly, creatively, and uniquely as possible. My approach to an edit will not suit everyone, which is why I offer a sample of my work before taking on a new client. Making informed choices is essential for both editor and client. Up front, there are a couple of things that personally and professionally drive me frakking nuts.

1)      People who present what is essentially a first draft and expect me to do all the work to fix it. I am not a collaborator or a ghost writer. I am an editor. By the time I see a manuscript, especially for a line edit, I expect it to display a degree of polish, at the very least evidence of careful attention paid and work done. Anything less is a waste of my time and a client’s money.

And the flip side of this:

2)      People who are looking for a rubber stamp to their flawlessly exquisite prose. Much as we love unqualified praise for our words, that’s not my job as an editor. For one thing, I don’t believe in perfect writing—and I say that as a writer. Anyone who really thinks their work is perfect is apt to ignore all editing suggestions out of hand (as their right) and, again, waste my time and their money in the process. I will neither coddle nor eviscerate, but I will do my best to make the work better.


Shawn MacKenzie

Shawn MacKenzie had her first Dragon encounter when she was four years old and happened upon a copy of The Dragon Green by J. Bissell-Thomas. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. A graduate of Bennington College, she’s a writer of sci-fi/fantasy and an editor of crossword puzzles. Her stories have been published in Southshire Pepper-Pot, 2010 Skyline Review, and as a winner of the 2010 Shires Press Award for Short Stories. Shawn is an avid student of myth, religion, philosophy, and animals, real and imaginary, great and small. Thoughts, writings, and ramblings can be found at her website, MacKenzie’s Dragon’s Nest or at her Dragon’s Nest blog.
Shawn’s other links –




Filed under Editing & Proofreading, Publishing

26 responses to “A little editor tough love

  1. This is excellent. I have learned and grown so much because of my encouraging but honest editor. The last two manuscript evaluations I received made me so energized, because she gave me so much to work with, so much to strive for, so much improvement to seek. We have been working together long enough that we “get” each other, and it is invaluable to me as a writer to have this kind of honest, yet encouraging, feedback.

    • I love my editor, too (Shawn). She gives me a lot to think about, suggests changes that would help the story/poem, makes me reach deeper, makes me work for it. And it all improves my writing. Isn’t that what it’s all about? We must all move forward, or else we’re just standing still.

  2. P.S. I’ve just shared this post with our Children’s Book Hub Facebook Group. I know our members will appreciate it.

  3. Yes! Why hire an editor if you don’t want feedback? Sure, you can disagree about a few things, but if your instinct is to disagree with EVERYTHING, the problem is likely with your ego, not the critique.

    • So true, Chris. I’ve worked with a lot of clients now, and I am still amazed at the people that ask for critique and then discount everything I suggest. I would also like to take a moment and thank you for your help on that bump in the road I hit! It is nice to have other editors to turn to when I have a problem or question. 🙂

  4. What Chris said. Get over yourself. If you want validation, limit your writing to clever quips on your facebook memes. If you want to grow as a writer, list to your editor. Listen. Digest. Don’t respond until you have an intelligent, egoless query.

    On a side note, if you have a tough (but fair) editor, it makes it all the better when she finally thinks you’re nailing it. Something to work for.

    • I think I have learned to leave the ego behind. Shawn is a great editor – she’s tough, she’s good. I never have to think about her comments. I usually love them all right away. But then I do think about them for a day or two or three, just to digest and think about the new direction a certain sentence, paragraph, or stanza needs to take.

  5. Pingback: A Few Words on Editing « MacKENZIE's Dragonsnest

  6. Tough love has its place. Editing is definitely one of those places. 🙂

  7. Thank you Miss Karen. I are doing my best to git better and you am a big help. I also love, love, love you.

  8. Even as you claim your non-professional writer status, Rick, your stuff is some of the best I’ve ever read. You really need to think about that memoir. Sharing the love!

  9. This is great…and oh so accurate and true. One of the things that spurs me on to finish my damn MS is knowing that I have you to send it to and get some of that feedback tough love 🙂

  10. Karen, I’m touched by your nice comments, and I’m sad for all those authors who don’t realize the enormous difference a competent and compassionate editor can make to your work. The first time I ever used you, I was thinking I mostly needed someone to correct typos and errors. I was taken aback at first when I saw all the suggestions on my document, but as I worked through them, my inner voice was saying things like,

    “Oh my gosh, that suggested wording is so much stronger!”

    “Yes, I can see that wasn’t very clear.”

    “Yes that word/phrase is fluff and doesn’t add anything.”

    Even when your suggested wording was not my original intent, your comments usually made me realize someone else could have been confused too, so I found a better wording.

    In short, you always make me look so much better than I would have otherwise! From you I’ve learned new words, identified chronic bad habits, and so much more.

    As you and Beth have both mentioned, it is critical that your editor “gets you” or tries to, but an author should assume an editor has their best interests at heart unless proven otherwise.

    Having a good editor — and Karen is among the best — is like having a really great back-up friend with you when you get into a street fight. It’s huge to know that someone’s got your back.

  11. Thank you for all these nice comments, Elizabeth. You really are a dream client. And friend. I’ve got your back, and I am holding a really sharp red pencil!

  12. Karen you made me laugh out loud with this confessional from an editor’s POV. My parents were also brutally honest and critical, and this may make the difference in being a person who accepts, even appreciates criticism. They would read something I wrote for them and say, “good you are going into science”. A writer not having an editor is kind of like not looking in the mirror evey once, before going out of the house – could be embarassing later. I’m reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” and was touched by how he appreciated his editor as a writer.

    • Oh, the horror stories I could tell you…but I don’t do that. I suppose we all have horror stories – from a writer’s perspective and from an editor’s perspective. I have had some amazing clients, like Elizabeth. I’m working with a very talented writer right now. Your analogy about looking in the mirror – that’s a great one!

  13. You’ve failed to mention what most consistently infuriates me with clients: their willingness to play fast and loose with the deadlines they themselves set. They get all mad when I turn down a prearranged job because they were late getting me the manuscript–which leaves me somehow looking like a villain even though *they* didn’t follow through. What really gets me is when they interpret “get me the manuscript today” as “get me the manuscript by 11:59pm today.” You do they think they’re fooling?

  14. Deadlines can be a bug-a-boo. Late submissions can certainly create ripples in the editing pond. I am sort of sticky about deadlines, even with my blog. If a guest blogger is one day late, that messes up my schedule, messes up posts… I make promises only after I have received the submission in the manner in which I asked for it and received half payment. Then I’m ready to work, and then I’ll give a turn-around time.

  15. I wish I had an editor. At this point however, I think I would have to sell a kidney to afford one.

    Awesome post — I benefited more from feedback I got from one bestselling author (not an editor, but someone who has published over 40 books and is very familiar with what agents and editors look for) than from every friend/family member/fellow unpublished writer who has read my work put together.

    Sorry people can be such a pain in the arse to deal with. I love negative feedback as long as someone gives me a constructive way to approach fixing it. You can’t get better by just getting your back patted over and over again. That’ll just give you a sore back.

    • ***To clarify, the above wasn’t meant as a jab toward friends/family/fellow unpublished writers — simply meant to say that there’s a threshold that non-professionals can’t necessarily cross and that the vast majority of loved ones and new writers might not even see. Professional opinions from people who make their living selling or editing books are a few galaxies away.

      • I love to get atta girls from friends and family. But I do agree – that it takes a more professional approach (like you said from a successful writer) or an editor to get into the nitty-gritties.

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