Will an editor change my story too much? I hear writers say, “I won’t hire an editor because they’ll change my story.” Sometimes the complaint is about changing plot line or changing word use so it no longer sounds like the author’s. As a writer, I understand this concern. As an editor I respond with, “You might have hired the wrong editor.”
As an experienced, professional editor, the manuscript remains the author’s work written in their voice, in language they’re comfortable with, only better. Because in writing and editing, and in much of life, we join our expertise to find we’re better together! An editor is a fresh pair of eyes to catch errors or omissions before readers do.
There is a huge difference between editing a manuscript and changing the story, but there are also some similarities. First, it’s a matter of perspective. Second, the editor can make suggestions for improving the work, but the author always has the final say to accept or reject the suggestions. There isn’t, or shouldn’t be, an ego investment in this process for either party. The relationship between editor and writer is a team effort, with all parties moving in the direction of making the final product its best.
It doesn’t matter if the writer plans to self-publish, find a mainstream publisher, or something in between, the material should get professionally edited. If you’re submitting your manuscript to main stream publishers, the manuscript has a better chance of selling if it’s professionally edited first. I know this to be true since my manuscript was wanted by the two agents and three publishers I submitted it to. When I asked why, since this is unheard of, all said because it was well written, formatted, and needed very little work prior to publication. As a writer, I’d love to take full credit for this, but it really was my fabulous editor who helped me make my manuscript the best it could be.
As a writer, how do you protect your manuscript? Sometimes you can’t. Depending on what you’ve written and where it’s published. A magazine article, for instance, gets edited by the magazine editor and once they purchase it, there isn’t much you can do. The same may be true of some traditional publishers who edit the work and have all rights contractually to do so. This is a contractual issue of the author giving away creative control of the end result.
Most editors will suggest changes or call out shortcomings in a manuscript. Some of these suggestions may get construed as changing the story, but the editor is doing their job. And remember the writer has the right to refuse to make any changes. The following are a few examples of items I’ve encountered as an editor and author being edited.
As an editor, when the writer switches from first to third person within paragraphs and does so through the text, I recommend sentences or paragraphs get changed. The same is true for a writer who switches from one character’s point of view to another within a chapter. This requires a re-write to either change all the text to one point of view or reformat so each character gets a chapter or section to express a different point of view.
Sometimes I read a manuscript and find the story really begins with Chapter 5 or 6. The first few chapters are for the writer’s benefit to establish back story, for example. These opening chapters are an information dump for the author to gain clarity, but that’s not the best way to capture the reader. Do these words need to be cut? Maybe, maybe not. Most often the author used the backstory in other, more interesting places in the story.
Again, the writer may interpret these edits as changing the story so it’s not theirs anymore, but it’s technically the correct thing for the editor to point out and help the writer address.
Another example is when the writer raises a question in Chapter 3, but either doesn’t answer it until Chapter 7 or doesn’t answer it at all. The editor should point out either asking the question later or answering it earlier. Or suggest the question get removed. If the writer decides to remove the question, a good continuity editor may challenge the writer to search themselves as to why they raised the issue and why not answer it? This happens a lot in memoirs. Usually because what needs to get written is too painful. This happened to me. My editor was absolutely right in pushing me to answer the question I raised several times in my manuscript, but never answered. To date the chapter I wrote based on this issue remains the most commented on, and most powerful in my book.
Finally, when a writer tells a story about an event, which is relevant, but refers to “this level of business person” or “type of person” with unflattering words like “stupid” or “incompetent” or worse. To make the point, the writer provides powerful, offensive dialogue. The conversation ends by connecting all *&$#* in that industry under one ugly umbrella. If that group is the target market, that’s not good. As an editor, I can suggest changing the story so it gets told with the intended teachable lesson, without offending everyone in the target market.