What do Women Writers Want from an Editor?

Laurie Garrison, Ph.D. is the director of Women Writers School, a blog and course provider that works mainly with female authors. She has recently self-published a manifesto for her business, Women Writers in the Twenty-First Century. Previously, she was a university lecturer, an internationally renown critic of Victorian literature and the author of the book, Science, Sexuality and Sensation Novels: Pleasures of the Senses.

The online world is bursting with free advice for writers. Everywhere I look I see articles geared toward helping the writer shape her emails, pitches, proposals, synopses and, above all, her manuscripts into something an agent, editor or publisher wants to see. When the time comes to approach our target reader (whether they’re an agent, editor or publisher), we must tread very carefully indeed. We must make no approach until we have completed the necessary research on titles, authors, style and interests (not our own but those of our target reader).

When we make that first contact, we must be concise and get straight to the point. Our reader has very little time to spare. We must list our achievements with confidence but not boast too much, lest we irritate our reader before the attachment is even opened. We must choose the perfect comparison titles, but only those that strongly resonate with our intended reader, and we must get this right or a door will slam in our faces. We must be keen but not so keen that we ever chase for a response because, unless successful, a response is just too much to expect.

Publishing Advice and Women’s Experience: Is Change Afoot?

This detail-oriented, anxiety-ridden, almost desperate determination to shape oneself into whatever it is the recipient on the other end of the email journey wants is familiar to a lot of women, not just in publishing but in other competitive professional situations as well. The question of whether a woman should mold herself to fit the world around her (what I’d call the ‘Lean In’ approach) or whether it is the outside world that needs to change (what I’d call the ‘Lean Out’ approach) is a subject of much debate in modern feminism. Clearly, the majority of us in publishing are taking the ‘Lean In’ approach, not least because sometimes we just want to get published and will have to reform the world at another time.

However, we are operating at a time where things are changing quickly. I wonder if a changed world, where agents, editors, and publishers cater more to the needs of writers, might not be so far away after all. In recent years, the rise of ebooks, the social web, and self-publishing have turned traditional publishing on its head. Dedicated independent authors can now sell as many books as authors from the Big Five. In the new status quo, it matters much, much more what the audience thinks than what the agent, editor or publisher thinks.

Add to this that women are experiencing a disproportionate amount of success in self-publishing, and I would very much like to ask, will there be a time where agents, publishers, and editors must cater not just to writers, but to women writers? What would the profession look like if it was shaped to suit the needs of female writers rather than the schedules and budgets of the publishing industry? For the sake of discussion, I propose that it would look very different from the world currently represented on publishing advice websites. That is where a writer is encouraged to mold every detail of herself and her work to fit what a hypothetical agent, editor or publisher is looking for — whether the idea of that agent, editor or publisher is realistic or not.

A New Kind of Writer-Editor Relationship

I’m going to propose a more equal relationship between writer and editor. It’s a kind of relationship that represents what I think a woman wants from an editor. I can’t speak for all women, but I do speak from experience. I’m basing my description on many years of teaching mainly female students, supervising the work of postgraduate students (again, mostly female), working as an editor, teaming up with colleagues to act as co-editors and working with commissioning editors, peer reviewers and journal editors on my personal list of publications. I’m using ‘editor’ as a catch-all to mean anyone who takes part in a developmental editing process, so I think some or all of this could apply to agents, editors, and publishers.

I believe there are three qualities to writer-editor relationships that work best for women. There needs to be a sense of shared responsibility for the quality of the work (as opposed to a top-down or competitive atmosphere), lots of personal interaction in the form of frequent communication, and the development of a long-term relationship where trust and familiarity can develop. Here’s what I think this would look like in practice.

1. The process of editing and revising a manuscript would be a team effort

In my best editing relationships, the editor reads the writer’s work with the intention of making the manuscript better, not with prescriptive solutions but with questions and pointers where the writing has become loose. After all, it should be the writer’s responsibility to come up with the solution. This type of back and forth between editor and writer is especially crucial when complex ideas are involved: spelling them out enough to engage the reader engages while avoiding the pitfall of being too pedantic. In my experience, this kind of collaboration works best through conversations, not email or comments on manuscripts. If there are multiple ways of improving particular portions of a text, a conversation is often the most successful means of working this out.

2. The editor would be able to judge the right time to empower the writer to take charge of editorial decision-making

Every manuscript is different, and every subject is different. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for any editing challenge. If the editor is acting as an expert on structure and style, then the writer should be the expert on content and whether or not proposed changes work with the content. I have done developmental editing on manuscripts about subjects as disparate as eighteenth-century phrenology and the US-UK special relationship in James Bond novels. My role as editor in these situations has been to think creatively about how that unique subject would be best presented to an audience, bearing in mind that the final say has to go to the author as the person who knows more about the subject than anyone else.

Very often, editorial decisions will depend on subject matter expertise. At these times, pointing out where there are decisions to be made is a better course of action than trying to work out a solution.

3. There would be a balance of positive and negative criticism

The process of editing focuses so much on negative criticism (with the best of intentions) that it is easy to forget that a writer also needs to know what works well in a manuscript and which are the stand-out points that should be kept at all costs. There have been times when I have got the distinct feeling that my editor was desperately searching for corrections to make. I mean, for example, lots of unnecessary fiddling with word choice when the edit was supposed to be a big picture view of the manuscript. Sometimes a manuscript doesn’t need much work, but an editor wants to feel like they’re doing their job. Not just in these situations, but in any editing task, we should seek to fill up at least some of the space with positive criticism because it can be equally helpful for honing technique and developing confidence.

4. There would be regular, enjoyable communication between editor and writer

I have had a number of editing relationships where I really looked forward to the conversations I would have with my editor or with the writer. But I have had an equal amount where there was no possibility of having any conversation at all and I had to make my best guess at exactly what the editor was asking me to do when the comments were unclear. I just don’t think an editor-writer relationship can be completely successful if there is no possibility for conversations between the editor and writer, at the very least to get clarification on some of the comments. When communication has been at its best in my relationships of this type, discussing the manuscript is more of a brainstorming activity than an exercise of passing information back and forth.

5. Both editor and writer would improve their own writing as a result of the writer-editor relationship

In my best writer-editor relationships, the process of working so closely with another writer results in a transformation in my own writing in future manuscripts as well as the one at hand, regardless of which role I’m taking. This is what happens when you spend a large amount of time working on someone else’s writing, which can be a bit of an exercise in being in another person’s head. If you find someone you can work with on this level, hang on to that relationship, but also keep looking for others. Multiple relationships like this can open up all sorts of possibilities for experimenting with new styles and approaches. There are so many different ways a writer’s work can transform over the years of a career, and I think editing relationships have everything to do with this.


This is what I think women want from an editor. I would love for this piece to start some discussion. Is this the way you imagine an ideal writer-editor relationship working, either for men or women? Or is there another way that works best for you? Leave me a comment in the box below, and I’ll do my best to answer.

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  • Milena Fialová

    I have a luck to be working with exactly that kind of editor, though we’re both at the beginning of our careers, me as a writer (and a few other jobs) and my friend as an editor (and other literary functions), and it’s very beneficial for as as a professionals and people. For me, the dialogue is a part of the process, how somebody else sees the story, describes the characters and coments about what is working and what isn’t. It challenges me as an author, opens new possibilities to a story and well, gives a bit of appreciation that what I’m working on is actually readable, even if just one page. It’s then just an amazing motivation to add another good paragraphs to it.

    So I really agree with this post as I’m the lucky one who knows it really works to cooperate in that way.