Why I won’t edit your book

I turn jobs down. It happens all the time. After five years as a freelance writer, editor, and coach, I can tell when you and your manuscript are going to be a problem — and more importantly, when I can’t help you.

If I pass you off to another editor, you’re probably fine. But if I turn you down outright, you might want to take a look at your manuscript and ask yourself what you’re actually doing. While I’m sure you’ll find another editor willing to take your money, but you may not find that investment to be worth it.

Reasons why I won’t edit your book

Most of what you are about to read is based on projects that were actually presented to me. And I carefully avoided every one.

I may not edit your book because:

  • You have no audience. If think you know what you want to say, but not who you’re talking to, then you have no book. I don’t spend time on projects that don’t influence people. I want people to be changed by the books I work on. Who will you be changing with your book?
  • Your book is way too long. You’ve written 100,000 words so far . . . and that’s the first half of the book? Sure, I could edit that, and the second half when it comes along. But that’s three or four books worth of stuff, and I’m probably not willing to dedicate that much of my life to your opus (and you’re probably not willing to pay what it would cost). Maybe you should figure out what really belongs in the book and throw out the rest.
  • I can’t stand your ideas. If you’re writing a book about how to get to the top by crushing other people . . . why poor people should just get out the way . . . or why the key to fitness is drinking 12 glasses of water and one of vodka per day, then I have no interest in editing your book. I’d just highlight most of the sentences and add the comment “Wrong” . . . and that wouldn’t help you much.
  • You have no ideas. If you’re just doing an extended ramble, that’s not a book, it’s a stream of consciousness. Some people would enjoy reading that, but I don’t know how to edit it. If your book is made up completely of feel-good “be confident, believe in yourself, you are special” bullshit, then it’s not worth publishing, and I won’t be helping you. I wouldn’t know how.
  • You can’t agree on what the book is. I’ve edited many books with two authors. The authors worked hard ahead of time to create a unified vision and settled on a process before I got involved. I can smooth off the inconsistencies that come from multiple authors, provided those authors are basically in agreement. But I can’t magically resolve your fundamental differences — and I certainly won’t get in the middle and try to, because I’m an editor, not a couples therapist.
  • You’re a liar. I won’t help you publish falsehoods or distortions.
  • You write fiction. Fiction is a more creative version of lying. I have nothing against it, but I have no value in editing it, either. I’ll pass you along to a fiction editor.
  • We can’t agree on fundamentals. You know, like that sentences have subjects and verbs, that lists must be parallel, that fewer words are often better, and that stories and chapters must have beginnings and endings. If we can’t agree, then my edits won’t help you much. I explain why I do each edit or suggestion — that’s worthless unless you share my values about good writing.
  • You don’t use the Oxford comma. Just kidding. I’ll still edit you even if you don’t recognize the foundational rightness of using a comma before “and” or “or” in a series. I’ll even leave it the way you wrote it, if you absolutely insist. But I will grit my teeth and grumble.

When I will edit you

I help you sharpen your ideas, provide you have some.

I will edit your manuscript even if it is wordy and repetitive — I can help with that.

I will help if your book’s structure seems off, or if your chapters seem jumbled.

I’ll edit your sentences to be active voice, clear, and grammatically correct. If they’re too long, I’ll show you how to break them into pieces. If your paragraphs are too long, I’ll break those up, too.

I’ll correct your math if I can see how it is wrong.

I’ll indicate where you need better sources, and which parts of your arguments are unconvincing.

On my best days, I can see what you are trying to say more clearly than you can. On those days, I’ll say “I think you could put this more simply by saying this.” Sometimes that generates a little hallelujah. Sometimes it generates a better idea from the author than what I came up with. Either way, it makes your writing come alive.

I love helping your words and ideas to make sense, and to sing.

But that only works if your ideas and words are worth the effort.

So if I — or another editor — rejects you, maybe you need to take a closer look at what you’re trying to do in the first place.

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  1. You had me at “You don’t use the Oxford comma.” I’ve not yet seen editors come to blows over this issue, but that’s mostly because they were on the phone with each other. Ironically (and as I’m sure you know), many British writers, some of whom went to Oxford, eschew it. Go figure.

  2. “I had a conversation with my friend Peter, a terrorist, and a sex offender.”
    “I had a conversation with my friend Peter, a terrorist and a sex offender.”

    Just one more example of why friends don’t let friends not use the Oxford Comma.

  3. Your “grit my teeth and grumble” made this me – a no Oxford comma gal – giggle. Thank you!

    I’m sharing your post with a friend that constantly gets asked to help promote books that have the faults you describe – no audience, too long, bad/no ideas, etc. With my personal writing, I’m still stuck on who is my audience. Hope to figure it out someday.