Fear of editors

Are you a writer who worries about working with a developmental editor for fear of losing control over the project?

You’re not alone

If so, you’re not the only one. One writer put it this way recently on an online forum: “I worry that an editor will erase my voice.” Another said, “I fear I’ll end up with a book I no longer recognize as my own.”

At the same time, authors are discovering that agents and publishers now insist on a polished manuscript that’s ready for production, and won’t accept a draft that still needs work. And since most big-company acquisition editors don’t edit these days, that leaves the author without any editor at all, whether going the traditional route or self-publishing.

So it’s vital for authors to have realistic expectations about hiring and working one-on-one with their own professional book editor.

How a good editor-author relationship works

I’d like to address some of these concerns and perceptions, and what I see as the reality of the editor-author relationship from my point of view as a book editor who has worked closely with writers for many decades.  And later, if there are any questions about all this, I’ll be very happy to answer them in comments.

Perception: I’ll lose control of my own creation.

Reality: The writer is always the boss. Good editors subsume their own egos and enter the consciousness of the author. Any editor who insists on big changes that compromise your core intentions, who demands deletions, additions and new material – or else – isn’t doing a good job. A good editor can’t be a frustrated writer or have a didactic professorial approach to the work.

Perception: I’ll be intimidated, and won’t be able to resist making changes that I think are wrong.  I worry that the book will lose my voice.

Reality: Good editors are sensitive to an author’s literary style, basic story, and core motivation. They appreciate that an author’s voice is essential and precious to preserve, for both the writer’s artistic integrity and unique point of view. They know how vulnerable an author may feel when exposing their unfinished work to an outside reader.

Perception: I can’t tell if an editor is any good or not since there’s no rating system, license, or industry standard.

Reality: An editor’s track record is the best way to judge competence. Have they edited successful books you recognize or may have read? If a prospective editor can’t produce such a list of prior work, either on their own website or by request, you should probably seek elsewhere.

Perception: Agents won’t take on my book if I’ve worked with a private editor.

Reality: Most agents are happy to hear that you’ve worked with a good developmental editor. It means you’ve cared enough to make the investment in making the book as good as it can be, and have had the benefit of professional feedback. They know that virtually every successful writer, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Kathryn Stockett, has worked with an editor.  Agents do, however, worry about freelance editors who are not accomplished or have a negative impact, and rightly so.  So once again, choose carefully.

Perception: If I do get an agent or publisher, I won’t be able to produce another book as good as the first one without help.

Reality: Authors are usually pleased to establish a long-term relationship with an editor they like. Agents, publishers and ultimately readers are also happy about the results.

Perception: An editor will produce a new manuscript and I won’t be able to restore the original if that’s what I decide to do.

Reality: Editors today work with Tracked Changes in Word documents which allow an author to see what’s recommended to be deleted, added or revised and permits them to accept or reject each edit, one by one.

Perception: I’m already in a writer’s critique group and don’t need any other help.

Reality: Members of writers groups are unlikely to have the experience or objectivity you need for professional and candid feedback. Developmental editing is not usually a good job for friends or family.

Perception: I won’t be able to have a close working relationship with an editor since I haven’t found one who lives nearby.

Reality: Most developmental editing is done through email and phone calls. Skype is also a very effective way to communicate these days. Many long-standing editorial relationships – examples like Hemingway with Maxwell Perkins, Raymond Carver with Gordon Lish – weren’t based on close proximity, but on other forms of continuing communication.

Perception: Developmental editing is expensive. Is it really worth the investment?

Reality: The cost of editing varies depending on what you need and who’s doing it. The decision on your best choice and what you can afford is a personal judgment based on your own priorities. But there’s no doubt that the better your book is, the more successful you’ll be in the long run.

What about you?

Have you worked with a developmental editor?  What were your concerns?  Were you able to resolve them to your satisfaction?  Were you pleased with the outcome?  Any suggestions for fellow writers?

For more detail on how to evaluate an editor’s professional status, track record, compatibility and accessibility, take a look at this earlier post, Choosing a freelance editor: What you need to know

17 Responses to Fear of editors

  1. Jevon Bolden

    This is so good and certainly the way I try to interact with my authors on every project. By the way, I really enjoy your website. Your wisdom and perspective from your many years in the business is very helpful to and much appreciated by this editor.

    Thanks so much!

  2. Guilie

    That’s brilliant, Alan–thank you so much for sharing! As a novice at this, I’ve been learning–fast!–about the value of editing, both proofreading and developmental, and I’ve seen these concerns expressed in more than one blog, more than one conversation. I consider myself fortunate, because it was through your blog right here that I first heard of something called a “developmental” editor–had no clue something like that even existed before (I’m that naive, yes). And you’ve shaped my perspective of this in a very positive way. So thanks again–for your generosity with knowledge, for sharing your expertise, and for caring enough about stymied authors like me to want to give us an education. Happy holidays!

  3. J. C. Wabash

    I have to say that I wasn’t worried about losing control of my book when I asked for editing help from you, Alan. Does that mean I’m stubborn? Wait -don’t answer that! I knew the author would have the last say, and in my case there was one suggestion that I considered but ultimately rejected.
    An editor can find problems I NEVER would have caught myself. But the big surprise was how an editor can point out things that I kind of knew were problems but hadn’t wanted to face. I had this experience with an agent too – she told me what I knew but didn’t want to hear. In both cases I got to work and made the revisions that were needed. I just self-published my ebook and it’s much better because of editing.
    About readers – early reading is different from editing but important. You never know who will give you helpful feedback in the early writing stages. For me it’s my husband, but in general it’s not friends and family. If you find a good first reader, hang on!

  4. Dean Sudan

    Thank you Alan. I am glad to hear other writers sometimes feel vulnerable sharing their incomplete work with an editor or other publishing professionals. Now, I wont be as scared to bare my soul in my work, before it ultimately reaches the public.

  5. Andy

    What about works that have already been self-published? I have released a novel as an eBook. It went through an independent editor that gave me primarily proofreading services but it is getting very little traction. Would it be worthwhile to engage a developmental editor and re-release it as a second edition?

  6. Alan Rinzler


    Yes, it’s absolutely OK to edit and revise a book that’s already up as an Ebook. That’s one of many advantages of self-publishing in the digital age.


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  9. Christine Osborne

    A sensible writer will employ a professional editor to do the necessary work before the MSS is submitted to a publisher.

    Having said this, while I have been published by several publishing houses and have never felt I was losing control of the book, I plan to self-publish the one I am currently working on. It has been edited in America to my satisfaction and I will obtain services of a professional proof-reader.

    Thank you.

  10. Judith Briles

    These information are great and the questions you pointed out can really provide a relief to writers who are still in the stage of doubt and fear especially to their relationship with their editors and other people who they need to work with. I think that it is good to point out that even if we do have doubts, skepticism and fear during the process of making our book good enough for the public to enjoy, we should bear in mind that these are normal and are simply challenges.With the right attitude, we can get through them.

  11. sam

    I am sorry, but I disagree. Why would an author hire an editor when they will be edited by the publishing house they sign with? If their editorial skill level is so poor that they can’t polish a book reasonably well, they can learn. Publishing houses hire editors because those editors are experienced and skilled in a way that reflects the kind of editing a publishing house wants for their books. You run the risk of having one editor suggest changes another editor wouldn’t.

    Write the best story you can. Get feedback about that story. Then submit. All publishing houses worth submitting to have editors that will work on your books.

  12. Alan Rinzler


    Unfortunately, traditional publishing companies seldom offer developmental editing for books that they acquire. Very few acquisitions editors I know want a book that still needs work. What they and the agents who submit manuscripts to them are looking for, is a manuscript ready for production.

    There is no one kind of editing, moreover, for publishing company developmental requirements. Perhaps you’re thinking copy-editing, where every house does have its own style of spelling and punctuation.

    Also, many authors today are not submitting their books to traditional publishers in the first place but taking control of their own do-it-yourself process. Here again, as with all successful authors I know, they need and are advised to seek out professional developmental editing.

    And remember, as this post reminds the author: it’s your book, so if you get conflicting opinions from editors, friends, family, critics — in the end it’s always your call.

  13. Walter

    Alan, what % of manuscripts submitted to you for developmental editing do you turn down?

    Thank you.


  14. Alan Rinzler


    I read every outline, proposal, or manuscript that’s sent my way. It’s time consuming but there’s no other way I can decide whether to work on a project or provide an estimated cost.

    Some of these submissions are clearly not a good fit for me or worth the investment of the author’s time or money. Some have potential but need some rethinking and core revision before they’re ready for a full developmental edit. These authors ordinarily have a consultation with me that provides a new plan for specific revision. The final category is manuscripts that are ready for a full scale page-by-page developmental edit.

    About 50% fall into the first category; 25% the second; and 25% the third.

  15. Slugs Nineteen

    Dr. Editor:

    Kinda sounds like “Dear Abby.” Anyway, I get so nervous when I try talking to an editor, that I feel like throwing up. Sometimes I fell I should run and hide. I think it’s sorta like the old fear of authority or fear of responsibility complex, or something like that.

    I looked on your site for a speak-to-the editor feature. Didn’t find one. But I realize that if you put such a feature on your site, you’d spend all day giving away free advice. So, I see your point. Few work for nothing these days, well, maybe Habitat for Humanity cats or folks like that, Jimmy Carter and that gang. But then he’s a saint. Not for the rest of us.

    The question: I once give several dollars to a book publisher–since bought by a legitimate publishing company. I held off publishing my book with that bunch, thinking that perhaps I might find an agent–just try, buddy–or even a major publisher. Hasn’t worked. Now I still have the book that I paid good dough to this publlishing co. to publish. Now since the merger, I wonder if I should go on and publish the darned thing and get it over with. The trouble with the book is I had an editor look at the thing and he told me it was pretty much of s stinkbomb. So now I’m in a muddle over the entire deal.

    Another question: I’m getting right along in years, retired and have few cares, and fewer worries and no responsibilities–the way I like it, especially since I read the other day that worry is as bad as smoking for a fellow’s health. Is it possible that a 73 year old fart such as yours humbly to ever get published? Or is there enough time left for me to get ‘er done?

    Love to hear your response and assistance.

    Thanks, entirely
    Slugs Nineteen

  16. Alan Rinzler


    Yes, there’s enough time to publish your book. Why not? You evidently paid for those services already. Maybe you should also listen to that editor who said it still needs work, since it’s not too late to make it better. You care about this book, I’m sure, and have something you wanted to say. Making it the best book you can will attract more readers and give its publication a greater chance of success.


  17. Slugs Nineteen

    Dear Editor:

    Thanks for your generous reply.

    I saw in the post above mine that you read every book that hits your desk. Thank you for doing this. It means so much to those who sent them to you. Darned nice of you.

    The editor I spoke of in my post didn’t say it needed work. He/she said it was a stinker, or words along those lines. But the cash has fled now, and I’ll do as you say, and publish the thing. I can always use the books for doorstops, right?

    Slugs Nineteen

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