Ask an Editor: What Can and Can’t an Editor Fix?


What kinds of things CAN’T an editor do? Or, if an editor says she likes my book, why is she rejecting it? Isn’t that her job – to make my manuscript publishable?


These are good questions and honest ones. The views herein are my own, based on my couple of decades’ of experience. Other editors may feel differently, and if so, I hope they chime in.

When I’m looking at submissions, I’m looking for books I love. Page-turners. Stories that stay with me. Whether a picture book manuscript or an epic trilogy, I am fond of strong narrative voices and plotting that surprises me. (You probably are, too.) Sometimes I read manuscripts on submission that have one or more of these elements, while other elements are not developed enough or simply not present.

So, assuming that most of what we acquire needs editing, how do I decide what I can and can’t take on?

I used to work with someone who suggested an 80/20 rule as a starting point for acquisitions: if the manuscript was 80% publishable, with 20% needing more work that was a good benchmark. If it was less than 80% formed, then it needed too much work, and our time was better spent elsewhere. This idea formed our baseline–and we pretty much ignored it every time we acquired.

Because sometimes a project is, say, 20% formed, and 80% all over the place. And that 20% is amazing. In those instances, the 20% is so great and full of potential that even knowing it could take a year for the author to revise (a few times), the result will be worthwhile. That is, assuming the author is willing to trust in the process and invest the time.

Though I still invoke in the 80/20 formula out of habit, I know from experience that there is no formula. I can hope to see a spark in a project and help set a book’s course. I can help an author steer through revision(s). But there are many things I can’t do, such as:

  • I can’t write the book. Right? Right. Even if I believe you have a great concept. Without good execution, your idea is a house without a foundation.
  • I can’t “save” a book, either (and I have tried!) by telling the author how to plot, write dialogue, etc. over and over again in the revision process. In other words, I am not a creative writing instructor. I have a full list of projects and deadlines that already make me dizzy.
  • I can’t love your book just because you ask (or tell) me to, or because your agent or crit group loves it.
  • I can’t make your book a bestseller.
  • I can’t write a two-page editorial letter about how to “fix” your book if I’m rejecting it. I can’t because I don’t have the time to invest in something I’m not interested in pursuing. I’m not being mean, just practical!

I CAN tell you this – if you’re committed to your project, and no one is interested in publishing it, then it probably needs more work, and you are the only person to do it. If you’re writing alone, without a critique group or trusted readers, then explore the resources right here on the Swoon Reads community: Post your work, digest the feedback, and pay it forward by reading the work of other writers.

Have a question for our editors? Let us know in the comments below.

Author spotlight

Liz S.

Hi, I'm the Editor-in-Chief at Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. I've worked in the book biz for over 30 years (let's just …

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