Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Industry Insider Tessa Shapcott on You and Your Editor: Five Ways to Feel Her Love

For years, Tessa Shapcott was an editor at Harlequin, and achieved legendary status amongst the authors she worked with. She is now a freelance editor and soon to be published author in her own right with Entangled as Joanne Walsh.

Of all the relationships I’ve had in my life, those with writers whom I’ve edited have been some of the most memorable, intense and rewarding.  Being an editor is kind of like being an obstetrician, helping the author to deliver her baby—the book.  A good editor will to be there for the author from conception until the birth of a project into the market, offering guidance during gestation and a helping hand when there are complications. She will always be sensitive to how precious the ‘baby’ is to the author.

I’ve also spent a lot of time working with editors, training and supporting them to get the best of out of the writers they collaborate with and their books.  I’m well acquainted with the challenges and frustrations editors can encounter when they try to build mutually supportive, productive and satisfying writing relationships.

And recently, I embarked on a career of writing romance myself (as well as continuing to work as a freelance editor), and I’m discovering how it feels to be an author, trying to please and—ahem—actually deal with editors.  I’m seeing from an author’s point of view how editors can get it right and wrong, and how nerve-wracking and emotional it can be to hand your book over to someone else who will dissect it and disagree with the way you’ve done it. 

So, having been on both sides of the fence now, I’ve gained some insights on why author-editor relationships do or don’t run smoothly.  Today I’d like to stand in the editors’ corner and offer some tips on how to get the best out of working with your editor, by putting before you five of the most common obstacles (or aids) to harmony.

·         Communication.  Writing is a solitary business and it’s easy to build up an invisible wall between yourself and your editor.  As a writer, you can worry that your editor will be too busy to talk to you, or that when she doesn’t answer emails or call right away maybe she doesn’t want to talk to you.  Don’t take it personally! She probably is very busy and there will be times when she doesn’t want to talk to you, or anybody else, for that matter; but she will appreciate you trying to communicate when you need to, and when you can.  She’ll love you if you can keep in contact, drop her a line or two about how the latest manuscript is coming along and if you’re going to deliver it on time.  She’ll really appreciate knowing about those other projects you’ve got on the boil, so that she can work out the best publication schedule or promotional strategy to support you.  And if you’re getting in a pickle with your writing, or in any other way that’s related to it—let her know.  Chances are, she’ll be only too happy to work with you to find a solution or put your worries to rest. You know the old saying that a problem shared is a problem halved?  If you can avoid bottling up stuff and then dumping on her, which can lead to unnecessary stress and tension on both sides, and aim instead for regular, proactive, open communication, that will be good for both of you.

·         Deliver to your deadlines.  They are there for a reason and thinking that even one more day won’t matter is enough to throw the bigger picture into chaos and give your editor grey hairs!  A publication schedule is a finely-honed thing that doesn’t have much wriggle room, and delays involve a whole chain of people and cost money.  Of course, there will be times when life intervenes and you just can’t make your contracted delivery date for very good personal reasons.  Editors are trained to expect that.  But if you’re in the habit of begging a couple of extra days, and then maybe a couple more…please try to break it and get your next book in on time.  Or, if you’re running behind and you don’t let your editor know, because you don’t want to have that difficult conversation…is that you?  Delivery issues are the most perennially exasperating for editors, and probably the biggest threat to writing relationships.

·         Accept criticism gracefully.  No one likes being told that their novel isn’t working.  It hurts.  It’s also difficult to be confronted by someone else’s take when the vision you had for your baby was strong.  But every editor I’ve ever known has only wanted to help the writers they work with make their books better.  And if it feels as if your editor is coming at your manuscripts with a wrecking ball? It’s a matter of both the editor and author tuning into one another so that they understand each other’s mind-sets and learning styles.  Seize the initiative and let your editor know how you like to receive information and revisions; for example, do you prefer a phone call, an email or a letter?  Do you like to brainstorm, or are you happier noodling it out on your own?  Would you like her set out her comments and ideas in a different way; bullet points, perhaps?  If you feel that your editor isn’t getting you or your books, tell her nicely and suggest how you and she might manage things better.  She will be grateful that you did. 

·         Try to learn from manuscript to manuscript.  A writer of genre fiction can have lots of ideas and so a number of manuscripts on the go.  This indulges her creative spirit, but isn’t always the most effective route to growing her style and technique as she’s too busy to learn.  And then there is the writer who does the revisions grudgingly but doesn’t actually take their message and spirit on board, and thus finds herself back to square one when she commence the next manuscript.  All great authors keep on learning from their success and mistakes, and develop through change.  And editors are there to facilitate that process.  If you can take it manuscript by manuscript, practice acceptance and trust your editor to help you understand what your strengths and weaknesses are, you and your books will benefit, and your relationship with your editor will be at its best.

·         Write concise synopses.  Authors have often expressed to me two common views about synopses: that they are a waste of time, or that they are hard to write.  I agree with the latter; it is challenging to summarise a storyline in a specified word length.  But the former isn’t true.  A synopsis is an incredibly valuable tool for selling your story, to your editor and to the world at large.  The shorter and punchier it is, the more effective it will be!  Now, editors are there to write synopses, either using the manuscript text or other information the author has given them.  But, as an editor, I can tell you that it is so helpful if the author you are working with produces a concise resume of their latest story when they submit it for assessment.  I should also say that synopses are also incredibly useful for other functions, such as understanding a writer’s aims for her characters and storyline, and as the basis for cover copy.  The technique for writing a good synopsis is being able to take a step back from your novel and see if you can objectively pick out the key themes and elements—resist the temptation to include all those sub-plots—and summarise them on one side of A4.  In the cause of good author-editor relations, it’s worth honing your synopsis-writing if you can!
Perhaps you have other thoughts or experiences on how to feel your editor’s love, or, indeed, feedback for editors as to how they can increase their authors’ love?  If so, please do share them!

Tessa Shapcott is a freelance editor, consultant and writes as Joanne Walsh for Entangled Indulgence and Tule Publishing.  She can be contacted at, or at   


  1. An interesting interview, I had some problems reading parts of it, due to the text being odd, not sure if it is my computer or your blog. :(

    1. It must have been this end it looks ok now comment has posted!