A lot of people who are not published authors don't have a clear idea of exactly what an editor does, or why they're needed by an author. In addition, there's a lot of stories out there about horrible things editors do or have done to people and their stories. This is becoming a VASTLY more important issue because so many people are going the self-published route and really, honestly don't understand why they might need an editor at all.
I want to talk about my own experiences and views of editing, garnered over the past ten years of being a published author. Admittedly, that's not that long – there's people in the business who've been published for thirty, forty, fifty years (and then there was Jack Williamson, who was a published and still actively writing science-fiction author for seventy-eight years) – but it's long enough, I think, to have gained some insight into the process, and its necessity.
And it is a necessity, let me say that up front. There is no author, anywhere, who doesn't need an editor. Any author who says they don't need one… either doesn't understand what editors do and why they do it, has run into really bad editors, or, well, has gotten rather too full of themselves. Hopefully I'll remember that if ever I become hugely successful, rather than embarrassing myself by ignoring my own warnings.
So what does an editor (well, a good editor) do? In short, an editor tries to find ways in which you can tell your story better than you have told it, while leaving it still clearly yours. A good editor is not going to (nor would they want to) rewrite your story their way. While in some settings and times an editor may well change text on their own, a good editor will rarely do this in a substantiative fashion.
If an editor wants something changed, they will instead ask you, the author, to do it. And – again if you're dealing with a good editor – this will almost always indeed be "asking". It is of course an unwise course for an author to play the prima donna and refuse too many requests by the editor, but in general the editor is making suggestions, not commandments from on high. There are some exceptions, but usually an editor will make those crystal clear (for example, "we can't publish this if it goes over 140,000 words. You have to cut it below that point").
A good editor also doesn't want to deliver too many ultimatums like that to authors. We authors tend to be defensive, cantankerous creatures and being given too many orders gets our backs up; we may just pack up our pages and leave in high dudgeon if pushed too hard.
To clarify what I mean about an editor making your work better, I'm going to use some examples from my own work.
My very first published novel, Digital Knight, was originally submitted to Baen as the three stories called "Gone in a Flash", "Photo Finish", and "Viewed in a Harsh Light". Baen liked it, but it was too short as it stood for publication. Jim Baen also pointed out that he really wanted something in the book that explicitly told us that Verne had exited the drug business, and possibly why, as Jim Baen (understandably) didn't want a sympathetic secondary character in the book who was also a drug lord.
That particular request – which I now can see as a classic "editorial" comment, though I didn't think of it as such then – made me think in more detail about that change in Verne's character and how he and Jason interacted; this produced the section of the book called "Lawyers, Ghouls, and Mummies", and I think made the characters and the book far stronger (leaving aside the fact that it also helped me expand the book to publication length, along with the other "bridge" section "Live and Let Spy" and the fourth adventure "Mirror Image".
Grand Central Arena's original draft started with all of the human characters assembled aboard the Holy Grail and about to make the jump. I'd done this because I didn't want to wait too long before getting Our Heroes into Arenaspace and the real wonder of the book.
But,as Toni Weisskopf pointed out to me, I'd gone too far in that direction. That first chapter had a ton of infodumping/"as you know, Bob" commentary just to set the stage for the jump, and you still knew almost nothing about most of the characters. She asked that I give us some more background, a few chapters that let us get to know the main players so that we'd really feel more of the IMPACT when the rules of their lives completely changed.
Well, it ended up being more than just a few chapters, but overall I think she was completely right; I needed to establish who these people were, why they were working together, what was different about the world they lived in from the one we live in and what was the same, and ultimately give us a chance to care what happens to at least a couple of them so that when the disaster happens, it grabs us as readers.
Ironically, the opposite happened with Spheres of Influence. I originally started Spheres with the crew of the Holy Grail in a meeting, concluding their briefing of the CSF and SSC on the events of Grand Central Arena. There were several other chapters before we got to the one that currently starts the book, and a number of other pieces of writing which were – as Tony Daniel pointed out – actually slowing the book down. They weren't bad, but they were keeping us from getting back to The Arena, which was after all where the readers are likely to want us to be doing.
It was Phoenix Rising, though, where editorial advice clearly went far beyond the more obvious ("you need to tell us more about these people", "you're taking too long to get to the point") and really ended up improving the book beyond the (deceptively) simple matter of pacing and character description.
In the original draft, there were a number of significant differences from the final, published version. The most obvious differences(to those who had the opportunity to read both versions, of course) were these:
1) In the original, Thornfalcon is not the one who killed Rion; he is a more "loose cannon" than a careful plotter and while he is still terribly formidable, killing him is only a step along a longer path.
2) Xavier Ross is only seen for a short time – basically in the chapter when he reveals himself and the immediately following one or two of conversation. He's there mainly to provide impetus for a couple of specific conversations and a few pieces of information,and in more general terms to establish clearly that there is more than one group of heroes, solving more than one set of problems, active in the world.
3) The beginning of the book (aside from the opening prologue) followed Kyri from the age of roughly 12-14 onward through several chapters before the one that currently opens the main book.
4) We do not see the details of Kyri's journey alone that takes her to the region of the Spiritsmith.
5) The battle with Thornfalcon ended the conflict in that book – there was no secondary battle.
6) There were several sections which were from the point of view of the unknown being who was running the false Justiciars.
7) Instead of confronting the remaining Justiciars at the Temple and revealing the truth, the party follows a different path; the book ends at a point that currently is shown early in Book 2.
These changes were all driven by a few remarks: first, that the book had to have something that could be considered an ending – some closure, not a cliffhanger. Second, that a character could not be given prominence and active presence in only a couple of chapters and then disappear forever (i.e., Xavier); third, that part of the closure had to be a an actual achievement by Kyri, if no one else, something that would be a victory for her personally.
Thinking on these requirements and a few other comments showed me that I had, simply put, made some mistakes. I had skipped over certain events and elements because I was in a rush to get to certain other ones; I had therefore not allowed Tobimar and Poplock to really "connect" with Xavier, and deprived both the reader of a chance to see the strange intersection of worlds, and the characters of potential contacts and allies.
I had mentioned that the Mysterious Mage was doing a whole bunch of things, but missed out on the perfect chance to actually show him in action; and all I needed to do to give Kyri a victory was let Thornfalcon be a better villain than he had been, more advanced, more resourceful, and more powerful, so that he could be the actual killer of Rion – and thus Kyri would be achieving one of her real goals by killing him (not that Thornfalcon didn't deserve a lot of killing anyway). Doing this also allowed me to give Thornfalcon rather than someone else the direct connection to Moonshade Hollow which provides the lead-in and goal for the second book.
The resulting book is, I think, vastly better now than it was in that first draft, and that's entirely due to Tony Daniel's editorial comments.
I'm not saying that all editors are good (they're not) or that they don't ask you for things that aren't nearly as helpful, even if they're good editors. There are a few minor things I've had to do with my books that annoyed me a bit, most prominently the fact that I had to change a bunch of names and titles in Phoenix Rising (and the title itself!) simply because Baen felt that I should avoid words that were associated with religion.
On the surface that may not seem like much, but when you've had the names and titles in your head for a decade or more, it's a bit jolting to have to change them all around like that.
Still, the editorial commentary and assistance I have gotten have, overall, made my books vastly, vastly better than they would have been without such assistance… and they're still quite completely my books, in style, in concept, and in execution. I'm preparing to do a Kickstarter for one of my unpublished books, Polychrome, and one of the key things that the Kickstarter will provide is the money for me to pay a real editor to go over the book and make sure it's as good as it can be.
Because, in the end, that is what a good editor does. Takes your book… and helps you make it better.