Don’t Shoot the Editor

August 30th, 2007

Just finished going through the copy-edit of Last Argument of Kings. All I can say is that I need to learn the differences between span and spun, between no-one and no one, and between half-way and halfway, and my life would be a great deal easier.

For those of you who might not be familiar with how the editing process works, allow me to elaborate:

I write the last words of the book. I celebrate said book’s completion. Hurrah for me! The manuscript is sent in the form of an electronic computer file to my editor, the resplendent Gillian Redfearn at Gollancz.

1. Edit
She reads the book and makes general, large-scale comments. This chapter is not as effective as it might be, this strand is not working as well as it might, the behaviour of this character is unconvincing, things of this nature. She makes suggestions as to how some of these problems could be remedied. This, I suppose, would also be the point at which she would say – this book is shit! Die, author, die! Fortunately, that hasn’t happened quite yet. My fingers are always crossed.

I now make a pass through the book looking at her changes and making cuts of my own. I agree with some things, refuse to do others. I rethink, realise she was right, and do most of the rest. Sometimes, her comments stimulate new ways of thinking in my fragile mind and I make improvements not suggested. Other times the text seems to have set like cement and it is a gargantuan effort just to change a sentence. I am not forced to do anything. If my editor feels very strongly about something, it would behoove me to carefully consider her opinions and find some compromise, but, in this tiny corner of my life, mine is the final word. Having celebrated the completion of the book, it is returned to my editor.

She goes through in detail, marking up the manuscript. Clunky writing gets the red pen, cuts are suggested (usually at the level of sentences or paragraphs, rather than whole chapters), factual errors, mistakes about the light in a room, time of day, what could be seen or could not, are flagged up. I go through the manuscript and address these issues, accepting the changes I agree with, rejecting those I don’t, and do another round of fine tuning of my own.

Editing is finished. I celebrate completion of the book. Hurrah for me!

2. Copy Edit
The manuscript goes to a copy-editor (also called a desk-editor) who goes carefully through it, looking chiefly at the fine details – spelling and grammar, imposing house-style (the right kind of apostrophes, punctuation, and capitalisation etc.) It gets sent back to the author, previously as a big heap of paper, but more recently as a Word file with changes. I go through and accept what I like, reject what I don’t. Probably one more pass through the whole manuscript at this point, to check no clangers have been made at any stage, and smooth off any rough prose. My critics guffaw. Alright, any prose that I think is rough.

The copy-edit is finished. The book is therefore finished. I celebrate its completion. Hurrah for me!

3. Proof-Read
A month later or so, with bound proofs hopefully printed and on their way to reviewers, the page-proofs come back, a big-ass heap of A4, pages set as they will appear in the finished book. I read through once again, checking for errors with the setting, plus a last look through for spelling mistakes, dodgy turns of phrase etc. Hopefully no glaring plot-holes at this point because (in theory) I must now pay for each correction I ask for (though if you don’t do too many they usually let you off.) Simultaneously a proof-reader somewhere is doing the same. Between the two of us, hopefully, we catch any remaining mistakes.

Having reached the end of this final read-through, the book is finished. Time to celebrate completion, hurrah for me, etc.

Job done. Time to write another book …

Clearly this is my experience, and I can’t speak for every publishing house and every author, but the sharp-eyed among you will note that at no stage am I forced to do anything. In the light of this, it’s amazing how often you read, in forums, blogs and reviews, opinions along the lines of “this book could have done with a tighter edit.” How do these folks know that the book was not in fact already slashed to a third of its original length, thanks to heroic efforts on the part of the editor? Or that the editor didn’t plead and plead for timely and intelligent cuts only to be refused by the author?

Another one you often see is “This book was full of spelling mistakes. It needed better proof-reading.” Well, maybe, but perhaps the proof-reader already fixed 90% of the legions of errors? And why didn’t the author make sure there were no mistakes in it? Did they not bother to proof-read it? It’s their name on the front, no?

Often the ‘author apologists’ will go quite a few steps further, in fact, something along the lines of “I heard the author was forced to cut thirty pages to suit some arbitrary commercial pressure, and the start of the book felt a bit rushed, so I bet they made them take out loads of brilliant stuff at the start. Yeah, it would have been amazing if only those really great bits had been left in.” As if the all-powerful editor is sitting on an angular throne, cackling with glee as they consign the best pages of the manuscript to the flames of Mount Doom, while the sweating author, chained hand and foot, weeps, “no, please, don’t destroy the bestbits your Dark Majesty! Think of the readers!”. It reminds me of people getting excited over deleted scenes on DVDs. I mean, there’s a reason why they were deleted in the first place, right? Because they were unnecessary, and, in all probability … cack.

Maybe I’m just amazingly lucky, but the folks I work with (chiefly the aforementioned Gillian Redfearn at Gollancz, but also the wondrously tall Simon Spanton) don’t want to spoil my books and cut out all the best bits. Strangely, they seem to share my goal of wanting to make the books better, and, what’s more, they know how to do it. There might conceivably be trifling reasons why a book would be better commercially at a certain length, but the ultimate commercial pressure, after all, is that the books be good.

Oddly, I’ve never EVER seen the reverse opinion expressed in a review. “Brilliant work by the editor. This book was exactly the right length.” The author always seems to be given credit for good pacing. I mean I’m not saying they shouldn’t get the credit (especially if it’s me) I’m just saying they should shoulder the blame for the faults as well (even if it’s me).

Ultimately, it’s the author who has to take responsibility for their book.

So don’t shoot the editor, eh?

Posted in process by Joe Abercrombie on August 30th, 2007. Tags:

3 comments so far

  • Aidan Moher says:


    I always love to get a look at the industry from an insider’s perspective.

    I was surprised to see how much control over the edits you were given, especially being a new author. It’s nice to know that there are editors & publishers out there with enough respect for their authors that they are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in matters of editing.

    How long would you say the process takes between you handing in the first draft of the manuscript and actually seeing the book on store shelves?

    A Dribble of Ink

  • Aidan, thanks for stopping by.

    I may be unusual in the amount of control I’m given, but I doubt it. Publishers buy books, after all, because they feel that the author has something unique to contribute, and no decent editor would want to squash that by forcing changes that are counter to the authorial vision, if you will.

    Of course, an author doesn’t want to overplay their hand in refusing chages either, it’s a delicate balance, and you’d probably like to get a new contract, apart from the fact that, as an author, you sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to cuts and revisions. I suppose my point is that the relationship between author and editor should be (and usually is) a collaboration, while many readers seem to assume it’s a battle.

    As for the question about timing, that’s going to vary a lot depending on the specific book. The publication date will have been scheduled a year or more in advance, when the book was first signed, and is only going to move back if it really can’t be met. But in the case of Last Argument of Kings, say, the first draft was finished in April, I think, the editing went back and forth until July, then the desk edit came back last week and only took a couple of days to go through. Reading copies will probably start to circulate in October, I’d guess, and the book will actually be published in March. So almost a year, which is probably the sort of timescale that publishers would like to have.

    Of course, the odd thing about that for me is, by the time Last Argument of Kings is published, I’ll hopefully just be submitting Best Served Cold for an edit. The readers are generally at least a book behind.

  • Juan Ruiz says:

    Hi Joe:
    It is nice to know about how the things work inside the book industry as aidan mother said. I think you made a point about DVDs and so… but between movies and books there is a big difference. You are the AUTHOR of the work. You made it in your time and probably the publisher company has made their market research, once they know the material is good (as in your case). In movies, the producers pays the movie and the director gets the authorship, but phisically, the movie is the producer’s. And as you say, probably sometimes the director is right (Sam Peckimpach, Arthur Penn), other times is the producer (ehmm… mmm, mmm, for example Alexander Korda).
    I think maybe the difference is that you are a first author, when you are more famous amd had sold millions of book (hopefully), you will sign a contract for five books in four years of “northern heroic fantasy full of action” for trillions of dollars… and then, you will know what kind of breath has the editor next to your ear (and I would not like to give names as Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Bernard Cornwell, Julian May…)
    I know a famous Spanish Author to have been rejected four drafts of a book, inside of one of the contracts as the one I have predicted for you; for not to be “as the standards of quality agreed in the contract” (how can you test quality???????). Maybe the book was rubish or not, but he was famous, he had power (he could choose copy’s, editor and so…) and he was rejected!
    Of course I don’t want that to happen to you…

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