Pitiless editing

Editors can’t be sentimental or be swayed by politics within author organizations. The only thing that matters is what the reader will read.

As a nonfiction book editor, your only concern should be whether a book will be worthwhile and successful. That success depends on the answers to these questions:

  • Will the reader want to buy this?
  • Will the reader want to read this?
  • Will the book help, educate, or amuse the reader?
  • Will they tell others about it?

Your job as an editor is to identify problems that prevent a book from succeeding on this basis. For example:

  • Is the idea worthwhile?
  • Is it stated as clearly as possible?
  • Does the title intrigue the potential reader and connect to the idea?
  • Is it easy to talk about and share the idea?
  • How is the book differentiated from similar books?
  • Does the book’s opening draw people in?
  • Do the chapters lead naturally from one to the next?
  • Is the writing within the chapters clear and engaging?
  • Are there stories or case studies?
  • Is there useful advice?

You must identify these problems and suggest solutions to them. There is a natural hierarchy to these questions — for example, there’s no point in fixing the writing if the idea is lame.

Your mindset is the mindset of the reader, not the author or the author’s organization. If the reader is going to have a problem with the book, you must identify it. Your expertise is in standing in for all types of possible readers, in identifying the types of problems that exist, and in making useful suggestions about how to fix them.

You must be pitiless in this evaluation. The author’s feelings don’t help solve the reader’s problems. You cannot consider the author’s feelings in your evaluation or suggestions.

Obviously, the author enters into the way you make your suggestions. You must be sympathetic to the author’s challenges and try to suggest solutions that the author is capable of implementing. But your work identifying the problems and the potential fixes should focus on the reader, not the author. (If the author were capable of getting outside their own point of view, figuring out how readers would react, and deciding how to best serve them, they wouldn’t need an editor.)

These things shouldn’t matter to editors

Here is a list of things that affect books, but that editors must resist:

  • The author’s tics. If the author uses the word “leverage” in every paragraph, or likes to wax poetic about things that no one cares about, or is unreasonably in love with exclamation points, you must identify and suggest fixes to those problems. (If you get sucked into ignoring the author’s tics, you are less useful.)
  • The author’s whines. Ignore the complaints. Fixate on the text. Start with “I’m sorry, that sounds really difficult,” then proceed to the pitiless suggestions. (Overly sympathetic editors may be popular, but they’re not what the book needs.)
  • What other “smart readers” have suggested. If some people have read the book before you, they may have made suggestions to the author. Unless they are professional editors, those suggestions aren’t that likely to be useful, as they are made without a complete understanding of all the needs the book must fulfill.
  • What other editors have suggested. Editors often have to clean up after other editors have failed to solve the problem. This makes the challenge more complex, because now you need to deal with not just the manuscript and the author, but what another editor thinks the problem is. My inclination is to start by ignoring the other editor’s suggestions and come up with my own. If they turn out to coincide with the other editor’s suggestions in some way, great. If they contradict the other editor, you can’t back down. Your loyalty is to the manuscript and the reader, not the other editor.
  • Publisher politics. A book needs to be the best it can be — even if the publisher wants to drag it in another direction. This is why outside editors can sometimes see and suggest better fixes than the editor at the publisher.
  • Company politics. If the author works in a company, the company may have ambitions for the book. But if those ambitions take the book in a direction that’s worse for readers, the book is less likely to succeed. So outside editors should, as much as possible, avoid company politics.
  • Coauthor politics. If there are several authors, they may be fighting about content. Your job is to make a pitiless, expert choice about what would be best for the book — regardless of how the various authors may react.

In the real world, sometimes this is hard

Politics exists. So does bias. It’s challenging to ignore all that and concentrate pitilessly on the reader and the manuscript.


Figure out the problems and suggested solutions first. Then, and only then, figure out how best to present them with sympathy and in ways that are politically possible.

Your job is to find the right answer and work with the author to get it implemented. You can’t do that if politics is skewing your judgment.

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One Comment

  1. This one really resonated with me: What other “smart readers” have suggested.


    A while back I was working on a project. A friend of his was all too eager to provide input. Big red line there.