Recently, I’ve had several friends go through crises because of abusive editors. Personally I’ve been fortunate, but this upsets me on the behalf of writers I care about, so I’m here to dispel the whole bullshit myth about editors. Urban legend has it that every truly great editor is a hard-ass, and often rude and/or condescending, and that authors should feel lucky to get someone so brutal. This mythology grew up out of the legacy publishing system, which was essentially a locked monopoly allowing a few egocentric (and yes, in some rare cases brilliant) editors to let their megalomania and self-importance run rampant.
The truth is that a good editor is not just about skill or knowledge, but also understands how to play well with others. Editing is a team project, and respect has to go in both directions.
Now, editing always hurts, and there will be times when your editor(s) floors you with something grammatical you never knew before, or eviscerates your plot line with abandon. It happens. But that is part of the process of editing; it is not a license to act like a know-it-all or denigrate the author.
Coming from a journalism background, believe me, I’ve been edited to within an inch of my life. It is a different experience than the editing I’ve received as a fiction writer (journalism editing happened faster, and was much more ruthless because of deadlines and space constraints) but I was lucky in my younger years to work primarily with an editor who is truly a good man. He had a fantastic eye for the written word and very strict house rules about grammar and style issues, so no one got away with anything. Sitting down to read his edits was a torture I looked forward to because I knew I would learn something. He respected me as a writer, encouraging me at every turn, so talking with him about edits was never something I avoided. I welcomed it. And so should you. If you don’t, it is time to rethink your relationship with your editor.
Warning signs for an abusive editor are pretty straightforward: passive aggressive communication techniques, trying to pass off stylistic changes as “industry standards” (making style changes isn’t a sin, sometimes it is necessary, but the editor should be honest rather than hide behind vague “this is how they do it”), an unwillingness to accept any changes the author makes to the edits (I repeat: editing is a two way street), and stonewalling progress by sitting on the manuscript longer than necessary. Especially revealing (and more common with volunteer editors, but it happens at the pro level too) is the attitude of “you are nothing without me” that some editors get. Even if it is a true statement, it should not be something the editor lords over you.
I know editors reading this are groaning because they deal with difficult writers all the time, but I’m not trying to brush that issue aside. Learning how be edited is as much a skill set as writing itself, and some writers have to learn the hard way to put their egos aside.
But really good editors, the kind I’ve been fortunate enough to work with for the most part, also put their egos aside. Editors are not gods, and if yours starts acting like she is then it is time to pay someone else to do the job or ask to be reassigned to a different editor by your publisher.
There is never, ever any excuse for anyone to treat you with less than professionalism and respect. Period.