Who Does No. 2 Work For?: The Editor, Writer Relationship

No. 2

I recently got an interesting response back on one of my blind pitches. Through the pitch, I asked an author who had a mystery series in the works—let’s call him M—if he would like a copy editor. His response was that he was interested but since he was the PIC, he wanted to be able to set the “agenda and style.”

Now I stared at that acronym, PIC, for quite a while, wondering what in the hell it meant. I tried googling it and came up with a whole lot of explanations that didn’t make sense,  like Partner in Crime and Pharmaceutical Inspection Convention. At last, I came upon Person in Charge, and it clicked. It made sense because M had also sent me a long list of questions I was to answer, with the remark that “the right answers will be credentials enough.”

I have no problem answering questions to prove my ability. In fact, I have encouraged writers to do so when deciding on a freelance editor. However, the nature of M’s questions raised a red flag. But more on that in a bit. First let’s talk about that term, PIC.

While the author should be the person in charge of their creative work, that isn’t the attitude you want to go into editing with. It suggests an “I’m always right” attitude that neither the writer nor the editor should have. You’re not always right about comma placement or whether a long, complex sentence full of commas and semicolons makes sense to the reader. That’s why you’re hiring an editor. Reversely, an editor is not always right when enforcing a rule, as it could unintentionally alter the writer’s intended meaning for a sentence. The writer and editor have to understand and listen to each other. A relationship has to be formed in order for the book to profit. The writer must acknowledge the editor’s expertise, and the editor must acknowledge the writer’s creative freedoms.

When I finish a proofread or copy edit for a manuscript, I always feel a degree of friendship toward the author, even though I usually haven’t ever met them in person. That’s because during the editing process, there is a sharing of a creative work, a story to connect over. Good editing requires a give-and-take relationship between writer and editor, and it forms a sort of bond. That cannot happen if either party goes into the project with a PIC attitude, only taking and never giving. No friendship can be formed if the author doesn’t offer up their story, and rather holds it close to their chest, defending it with sword and shield. No trust can be formed if the author is balking at the editor’s every mark.

That brings me to M’s list of questions to prove my credentials.

As I’ve said, I firmly believe that the final say in creative matters should be the author’s, not an editor’s. I also always make sure to tell my clients that sometimes the application of some rules (usually comma rules) may change the intended meaning or tone of a sentence, and if that happens, the author should feel free to break the rule and ignore my correction so long as they know exactly why they are doing so.

However, every single one of M’s questions was about whether I had “the ability and expertise” to let things “slide.” Could I leave a comma splice be or leave out the serial comma? Could I put reader emotion ahead of the technically correct? Could I allow a gesture in place of a formal dialogue tag?

If there had been only one or two of these sorts of questions, no flag would have been raised and I would have happily told M that I have no problem ignoring a rule or two for the sake of a piece. For instance, while working with author Jackson South on his debut novel, I threw out the rule about fragments. Normally, fragments are seen as incomplete thoughts, and when done accidentally, they are. However, Jack writes fragments intentionally and masterfully. They don’t feel incomplete; they give new meaning. They are all over his book, and I left the vast majority of them alone.

The problem was that all of M’s questions were about ignoring rules. It suggests to me that he isn’t going to like most of my edits and would probably have made for a very difficult client. The truth is, the rules are there for a reason. True, they can be broken, but it must be done intentionally and with a solid reason behind it. If the entire manuscript doesn’t follow the rules, then you are left with an unprofessional-looking piece and you really have no reason to hire an editor in the first place. If you want to hire an editor to ignore all the rules, then you are really looking for validation, not an edit. You want someone to praise your prose and say, “It’s so wonderful I didn’t have to touch a thing!” That just isn’t realistic. Even the greats have editors.

Needless to say, I didn’t end up working with M, and I shudder to think what it would have been like to give him a substantive edit (suggesting changes to plot and character) rather than just the copy edit I had proposed. Part of being a good author is knowing that you always have room for improvement, so find an editor that can help you do that and don’t take each crossed-off comma or inserted word as an insult. A good editor is there to help and will make sure not to eradicate your vision with an overly strict enforcement of rules. The real PIC is the story, and a good author and editor will do what is best for it, together.

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