The common perception is that when you get published, the publisher assigns an editor to work with you and improve the manuscript. In some cases that actually happens, but in many others, not at all.
In my case, as a hired ‘lancer, I have been not so much assigned editors as I was assigned to editors. The editor has a major say in that; if she wants me on the project, and I’m interested in it, I am on the project. (Feminine pronoun used advisedly, as about 3/4 of my editors have been women.) Obviously, if she has asked for me, we probably have a good rapport and track record, or someone recommended me to her, so I probably want to be on the project. I’ll only turn it down if I think I would do so poorly it would damage my overall standing. My interest or lack thereof in the subject matter is immaterial. The pertinent question is “can I do a good job?”
So what is editing like? Editors all have their own processes. My first editor rarely provided feedback, just took the work and changed what he felt he needed to. Later editors have run the gamut from little modification to extensive requests for change. What no one does is suggest wording or send back proofreading; she is not here to teach me how to write, as I’m supposed to know that part already. I can’t recall an editor ever saying anything gratuitously cruel to me, but I have had work returned to me with comments, queries and requests for rewriting. Sample comments:
“Please provide more detail. How does the widget actually work? Why is unobtanium essential?”
“Here you imply that he is a criminal, but you haven’t laid any foundation for what kind of crime.”
“Please rewrite this to give an idea of the worth and rarity of each item. The reader does want to know this, at least an estimate, even if it’s a moving target.”
I have been told that work needs to be redone, and how it needs to be redone, but no editor has ever said anything like: “This is abominable, a crime against literature. Please tell me where you attended college, so I can make sure my children steer well clear of its liberal arts programs.” Or: “My dog did better than this claptrap when I let him out this morning.” Never have I felt that an editor sought to offend me for the sake of doing so. She may be very direct and frank about the problem, but she presumes me to be professional and cooperative, preferring candor, open to improvement. If she thought I was a drama queen or a fragile soul, she wouldn’t want me around in the first place–nor should she.
Do I have a voice? Freelancers do not get much, but that doesn’t mean I have to be silent. If there is a usage, term, or some other device I feel is crucial to the whole, I explain in the editor’s notes I append to most work. If I can explain the necessity to her satisfaction, she generally goes along; however, I don’t often do this. My deal is to write what she assigned me to write, and I have zero legal control over the end result. I will be edited, and that’s part of the gig. Even if I don’t like how she did it, or she actually inserted a mistake, that’s the breaks. One must (wo)man up and live with it. Anyone seeking any sort of literary career needs to get okay with editing, even embrace it.
The net result has been very positive. Editors catch you when you get sloppy. Some provide more detail, some less, but if I’m lacking in an area, I want to step up my game. I have come to like and respect nearly all my editors. Even those I wouldn’t say I liked, I nearly always respected, which is far more to the point of it all. My goals are to be punctual, easy to work with, and do quality work to spec. In return, I have found editors accommodating of life circumstances, conscientious about assuring that I get paid, and fun to work with. Their goal is to assemble and print the highest quality work for a reasonable cost, and if I want to keep ‘lancing, I must further that goal.