Any schmuck can claim the editor title. There’s no training for it, no formal certification. There’s a generally-accepted idea of what an editor is and does, but there’s so much leeway in its application that few people question it when they work with an editor.
One definition of the editor is the gatekeeper. He’s the guy putting together an anthology, and thus the guy the writer has to buy drinks for at a convention. To some he’s the Statue of Liberty, welcoming the tired and poor and huddled masses to his inbox. To others he’s Cerberus, viciously shredding manuscripts in his three sets of jaws and keeping the wannabes in their place.
Another definition is the editor as proofreader. Some editors will run a manuscript through Word’s spellchecker and call it a day, trusting the pro writer they admire to have the skill to turn in a flawless manuscript. Others wield their red pen like a scythe, slashing at the text until the manuscript looks like a murder scene.
Finally we have the editor as consultant, or perhaps developer. The easy-going editor asks the writer to tweak the ending because he didn’t understand it. The writer changes exactly three words and the editor says “great job” and moves on (possibly without even reading the revised manuscript). This guy’s opposite number is the micro-manager, the guy who forgets this is the writer’s story, not his own, and dictates changes down to the minutest detail.
For my money, an editor should be a blend of all three, and a good editor will work somewhere in the middle ranges of these scenarios. A good editor can make a decent writer look great, but a bad editor can make a great writer look like a monkey raping a typewriter. Just as a good editor should analyze the strengths and weaknesses of a writer, a good writer should analyze the strengths and weaknesses of an editor.
This is why a writer must ask himself whether this person is his editor or his adversary.
For those of us coming up during the POD boom ten years ago, we saw a lot of editors slap together an anthology and call it a day. The stories were uneven, some writers turned in crap because they could, and the books were often rife with typos and grammatical errors. We started to figure out pretty quick that this style of editing wasn’t doing any of us any favors.
I also know two guys who worked with a prominent editor at a New York publishing house. He asked them for changes to manuscripts that made no sense, and pretty soon they figured out this guy wasn’t even reading the manuscripts in the first place. This explained a lot of the other crap hitting the shelves under this guy’s watch, and my friends ultimately moved on so they wouldn’t be dragged down by the rest of the line.
These editors are your adversary. They do not have the writer’s best interest heart, nor even the book. They want their name in lights or to just collect a paycheck.
I also know editors who bring out the best in their writers. They understand good storytelling and they know what style guides are for. They take the time to check historical facts when necessary, and they know how to push a writer to make him work harder. They make sure the writer’s work is the best it can be, and that it works well on its own or as part of a collection or anthology.
These editors are the editors you want to work with, for obvious reasons.
Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with more of the good editors than the bad guys, but it doesn’t always work out that way. We may always turn in the best work we can (at least, I hope we all are), but there are times we also have to take the extra steps ourselves.
And in extreme cases, there are times we just have to walk away from a gig.