The biggest mistake an editor can make


Don’t butcher a writer’s work without consent.

Last time I talked about what the process of editing involves – this time I’ll discuss what editors shouldn’t do.

Recently there was something of a major flurry in the virtual universe of the internet concerning a particular small-press publisher, upon whom much vitriol was poured (and rightly so, considering his actions). A writer we shall call M submitted a story to publisher A for a themed anthology. The story was accepted within a matter of days, much to the delight of M as this constituted her first ever acceptance. Naturally she was very excited about the prospect of seeing not only her story in a book but her name in the table of contents and her by-line under the story’s title. She duly signed the contract and waited.

First warning sign that something was amiss was when she had to buy copies of the book she’d contributed to (the only time that ever happens is in vanity publishing and they’re nothing more than scams in my opinion – no author should be asked to pay for their own work). No matter, this was her first official publication so she let that one slide. Turning to the table of contents, she looks for her story and, to her horror, her name is spelt wrong as well as the story title. Flipping to the page where her story starts, she finds the story title misspelt again but in a different way. At least they got her name right (I think).

Those mistakes turned out to be quite mild in comparison to what else she discovered about her story. It had been completely rewritten in parts, nameless characters named and others renamed, and a quite questionable subtext added to the tale by the author. And all this had been done without her knowledge or any form of consultation by the editor, Mr. A. In the publishing world, this is considered to be a heinous crime. And, to top it all off, when Miss M emailed the editor his reply said something along the lines of “you should be grateful for what I’ve done because it was unsaleable otherwise.”

I am not here to debate the merits or otherwise of the story itself as I haven’t read it, but what I am going to say is that even if the story was completely rubbish the level of editing it received went far beyond the remit of the editor. Of course, all authors expect some form of editing of their work, even if it’s just the odd typo, spelling or grammatical mistake. I would think that’s acceptable without consultation (unless there’s a specific reason why there are misspellings e.g., they’re part of the process of delineating a character whose education isn’t up to scratch – but then a good editor would infer that from context or, if they’re unsure, would automatically contact the author in order to clarify) but to rename people and then add whole chunks of text along with a completely inappropriate subtext is totally taboo. For a start, even if the changes are needed, the editor suggests them in consultation with the writer and the same goes for any rewrites. The ultimate authority on any story is the person who wrote it.

Certainly, the editor exercises his knowledge and experience in order to bring the best out in a story, suggest where it could be strengthened or to delete unnecessary passages or sentences. I emphasise that word suggest. I see the process as a collaboration between two different spheres of expertise – writing and editing. Each requires different skills and knowledge, but there’s also a certain overlap, a meeting ground in the middle where the two work together. It’s a form of negotiation, in other words, which looks to secure a mutually beneficial result i.e. the fully formed, publishable story.

In this case, Mr. A overstepped the boundaries by several miles. First, he left out the most important element in the process, the author, without whom he would have nothing to edit. On top of that, he displayed sheer unalloyed arrogance by assuming that, by submitting a story to him, that meant the author gave him carte blanche to do with it whatever he wanted. Thirdly, he felt so confident in his own literary abilities that he thought he could just add things where he felt like it, without any consequences. If the story needed any additions or rewrites he should have asked the writer to do them. It’s as simple as that.

Now, since the furore blew up quite spectacularly on the internet (and those of you who have been paying attention over the last couple of months or so should be able to figure out which editor I’ve been referring to) a lot of stuff has come out about the editor and his ways, namely running and shutting down several different imprints, bringing out an anthology a month (which, apparently, nobody ever read), overpricing of eBooks and generally shafting a few people in the process. Needless to say, his name got spread quite unceremoniously over the entire virtual aether and within a few days he’d shut another imprint down. No doubt at some point he will re-emerge under a different guise and carry on as if nothing had happened. This is the way of such people.

So, if you want to become an editor or you need to deal with one, the above (as well as my previous columns in this series) will give you an indication as to what an editor does and doesn’t do – the good ones anyway. It’s especially important for those writers who are just starting out and entering the literary arena for the first time to take note of these things, because many unscrupulous types take advantage of the fact that newbies are unaware of how things work. My advice at this point is not to give them that chance.

Next time, I’ll look at how to go about finding an editor.


Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on


  1. I always butcher with consent;)

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