10 Ways Being an Editor Is Like Being a Doctor

My sister-in-law actually is a doctor, and she would probably say an editor isn’t like a doctor at all. Technically, she’d be right. (And thank goodness—no one wants me giving out medical advice.)

Not-so-technically, here are 10 ways being an editor is like being a doctor.

1. An editor’s submission inbox is a waiting room. It’s packed with people (manuscripts), and sometimes it can take a while to get in to see us. Many editors take between 4 and 8 weeks minimum to review a submission, so you may want to get comfortable. (But hey, you know we’ve got a ton of great reading material out in the waiting room to keep you busy.)

2. Editors want to know your health history. If editors gave out health history forms, here are what the questions would look like:

  • Have you ever been published before?
  • How many words do you write a day?
  • Do you edit regularly?
  • How many critique partners have you had?
  • Are any of your relatives authors, booksellers, or librarians?

3. We like making diagnoses. Editing is all about figuring out what ails your manuscript. This can be anything from dialogue to punctuation to character arcs to action scenes. We look for the big issues first, and then narrow down from there.

4. We also like finding a cure. A good editor can find the problem and help give you a solution. There may not be a pill that can fix a manuscript in a snap, but a revision regimen will get your book into great shape. If you find yourself with an editor who only points out problems and doesn’t offer helpful suggestions, you may want to work with someone else.

5. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. When editors provide edit notes, we almost always point out what’s right with the novel before we point out what’s wrong. This isn’t just to raise an author’s spirits—it’s to highlight the parts of the manuscript that are working well so the next draft can build upon that success.

6. One word: surgery. Let’s be real, editing is basically book surgery. Our red pens are basically scalpels. Our edit letters are basically medical charts. And hopefully, the author had some anesthesia before the operation began.

7. We deal with difficult patients. I’m lucky that 99 percent of authors I work with are easy-going folks, but that’s not always the case for everyone. Some authors demand lots of second opinions or refuse to take their medicine. Others want the doctor to hold their hand every step of the way (even if the doctor has other patients).

8. We work long hours. Okay, I definitely don’t work crazy night shifts like my sister-in-law, but editing can take a looooong time, especially if you’re an editor with a lot of books on your list. The Editorial Freelancers Association estimates that a developmental editor (aka an acquisitions editor) can do 1-5 manuscript pages per hour, or 250-1,250 words. If the average novel is about 70,000 words, you’re looking at a minimum of 55 hours of work…and that’s only on the editing. Editors also work on jacket copy, metadata, cover direction, presentations, research, reading submissions, and more.

9. Our job is to keep authors and books healthy. It’s always my goal to help authors start or continue a successful writing career. Editors want their authors to be happy and successful, and to have a book (or books!) that is well read and reviewed. We take our jobs very seriously to provide the best possible care for the author and the manuscript. We don’t have a Hippocratic Oath, but maybe someone will create a Shakespearean Oath one day soon.

10. We want you to come back for a checkup. I love working with authors on a second or third or fourth book! Building those relationships are what make this job so rewarding. So if you’re enjoying a great working relationship with your editor, be sure to go back with you next manuscript.

After all that, if you’re still not convinced being an editor is like being a doctor, well, you’re right. But we’re pretty close.

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