Six impossible things

Meddling or editing?

Patricia, what is the dividing line between editing and meddling? The retitling of one of the Harry Potter books comes to mind.- Gene Wirchenko

There are a lot of flip answers I could give to this question, because it’s based on a fundamental misconception about the publishing process:  the idea that editors and publishers commonly make changes to an author’s work for which the author has no input and no recourse.

The reason for this misconception is that the editor’s work is invisible to everyone outside the process. The final book does not contain labels stating that this phrase or paragraph came from the editor, or that this scene or that was added or deleted due to editorial demand. So anyone who does not actually have an “in” to the business is guessing about just what parts came about as a result of editorial intervention, and what parts didn’t.

And what does the average reader or critic base these guesses on? Generally, it is the complaints they’ve heard authors make about the horrible things editors have done or have made them do. And the reason for this is that it is considered deeply unprofessional for editors to complain publicly about the work they put in for their authors, so they mostly don’t, resulting in an extremely one-sided picture.

On top of that, you have the situation with movie and TV scripts, where it is very rare, from what I’ve seen, for a script to have only one author, and it’s unheard of for any of the authors to have absolute veto power over the input of any of the other artists involved in what is, after all, a gigantic collaboration. Stories and complaints from this venue get folded into the realm of novel publishing – it’s all writing, isn’t it? – and it seldom occurs to people that the processes and basic assumptions for writing a screenplay are very different from those for writing and publishing a novel.

So, getting back to the original question: I would say that meddling is when an editor deliberately makes changes to an author’s work that the author does not have the chance to review and refuse.

In the case of the first Harry Potter book, 1) it is exceedingly common for foreign editions to be completely retitled; changing one word is really pretty minimal. (“Dealing with Dragons” was published in the U.K. as “Dragonsbane,” a much more significant change, and nobody, including me, thought anything of it. Some of the titles on the translations are even farther off, though that’s often as much a language problem as a marketing one); 2) changing the title is nearly always a marketing decision, not an editorial one, meaning that the editor frequently has nothing to do with it (aside from conveying the news to the author), because it’s the marketing gurus who make the decision; and 3) Rowling was consulted at the time; I believe she later said she regretted allowing it, but hindsight is always 20-20 and at least she had the opportunity to argue about it if she wanted to. (Admittedly, many first-time authors do not feel confident about arguing with a publisher over something so minor, especially when said publisher is paying them large sums for foreign rights.)

By my definition – changes to the work made without my input and with no recourse – I would say that I’ve never once had this happen to me in over thirty years of being published. That “Dragonsbane” thing? Hazard of selling foreign rights, and no big deal; certainly not meddling with my words (since “Dealing with Dragons” was the publisher’s suggestion in the first place).

Most of the stories of truly egregious editorial meddling that I’ve ever heard date back to the early-to-mid-twentieth-century (Horace L. Gold had quite a reputation for it, I’m told). The very few more modern instances I know of (and they are very few) are all, to the best of my knowledge, either instances where something slipped through the cracks (a particularly unfortunate last-minute change by a copyeditor that they forgot to run past the author before the book went to press, for instance – i.e., a failure of procedures, not deliberate meddling) or else are cases involving miniscule amateur presses, of the sort where everything from acquisition to production is handled by one person who has never actually worked in the publishing industry and who is therefore operating on the same misconceptions about “what editors do” as your average reader.

Note, please, that I said “the few stories” of editorial meddling – meaning that even among small, miniscule, and fan presses, it is highly unusual for an editor to change an author’s work without the author having the means and opportunity to change it back, should they desire to do so.

It is not meddling when an editor covers a page in little red circles and writes at the bottom: “You have seventeen semi-colons on this page, and that seems to be about average. Does your husband know about this love affair?”  It is not meddling when an editor changes “we went out” to “we left” and notes “You said ‘the candle went out’ just above; change to avoid echo and confusion.” Nor is it meddling when the editor says “You have this great action scene that your POV character is only told about. You need to have her be present for it” and then you have to write 10,000 new words in order to put the scene in. (And yes, those are actual examples.) It is especially not meddling when the author gets to see these (and all the other editorial changes and comments) before the book goes to the typesetter…and then gets another chance to go over everything when the page proofs come.

It is also not meddling when my editor and I disagree about a particular change, or set of changes, and I lose the argument. And that does happen, now and again. Yes, I could be one of those my-every-comma-is-golden authors who insists on winning every time…but the point isn’t to win all the arguments. The point is to make the book as good as it can possibly be.

If an editor suggests a change that I think is wrong-headed, or that I think will fundamentally change what I want the book to be, I object. Strenuously, sometimes. But I have to recognize that I am not always right, even about my own story. Being edited is a learned process. It is seldom comfortable, but the right editor can teach a writer a lot about humility and objectivity and taking the story to the next level.

  1. I personally look forward to an editor “meddling” with my work. They’re industry professionals. In many cases, they’ll know what works better than I will. That’s not to say I’ll love all of their changes, but that’s just part of the beast.

  2. Thank you for covering this.

    I thought it occurred more often than you think. Of course, I assume you know much better than I.

    A related question: Is an author being unprofessional if he were to state: “Please do not make any changes. If you want me to change something, I will certainly consider any suggestions, but I want to do it.”? I do not like nuances being lost.

  3. Some day I will have have the opportunity to work with a fiction editor, and I’m sort of resigned that, at least initially, I’m going to screw it up. I work with editors all the time in technical writing (my day job) but the relationship is a little different, because a technical editor is usually putting together an entire document, and the writer is usually responsible for one piece–a procedure, an overview, etc. So it often happens that the editor wants to make a change that will make the article fit better in the overall document, but will also misrepresent the technology I’m documenting.

    Which means we fight, argue, circle, beat each other up, yell, until one of us gives way. Meanwhile everyone in all the other cubes are wondering why we hate each other so much. I was actually asked that question once: “why do you hate your editor so much?” And I was dumbfounded. “What are you talking about? This is the best editor I’ve ever had!”

    You get away with more when you’re working one or two cubes away from your editor, and your editor knows that aside from the writer being arrogant (well, I am) he’s also trying to make sure that the article doesn’t give the reader information that is flat-out wrong. In the business world I’m frequently more of an authority on the specific topic than the editor is, because the editor is managing multiple topics from farther away, while I have a specific topic that I’ve immersed myself in. So the familiarity we develop initially combined with a slightly different perspective makes it easier for us to fight, walk away bruised, and laugh about it later.

    The horror stories I’ve read on blogs about editors who have had to deal with uncooperative writers sound almost exactly like my work environment, only it’s pretty clear that it’s not a good thing. So the first editor in fiction I ever work with will probably use me as an example on a blog post somewhere in the “DO NOT EVER DO THIS EVER AND YES I KNOW AS AN EDITOR I’M BEING REDUNDANT BUT I’M SERIOUS” category. Hopefully not the second, though.

  4. One place where much editing went on (and was resented by the writer) was Heinlein. It seems that quite a few of his middle works were sent back for modification. It seems like 20 years ago that we had “author’s cut” versions of Podkayne of Mars with a new ending and Stranger in a Strange Land with 50,000 words you never noticed were missing.

    I felt that many of the later novels were printed with no editorial interference and were weaker because of it.

  5. Sometimes, the longer work is better. Sometimes, it just has not been edited properly.

    An editor who does not look for things that need to be improved is not doing his job. In rec.arts.sf.written, it sometimes comes up that a big-name author’s work does not get edited, and needs it.

    Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series comes to mind. Someone in rasfw once joked that the series had been turned over to who wrapped it up in four pages.

  6. Ah, this blog does not like the characters less-than and greater-than. That last sentence again then: Someone is rasfw once joked that the series had been turned over to an author (whose name I forgot) who wrapped it up in four pages.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,