Guest Blogger: Editor Caroline Tolley

Do editors edit? Has the ever-changing world of publishing reached the physical page of a manuscript? That seems to be a hot topic these days, though in my nearly 20 years of being involved with the world of popular fiction for women, I may have heard this once or twice before.  But the chatter seems to be louder these days. Why? And where do I fit in?

I am a freelance content editor specializing in women’s fiction. I have been working directly with authors for nearly 10 years.  Prior to this endeavor, I spent almost 15 years on the front lines of commercial fiction publishing in New York as an Executive Editor at Pocket Books.  I edited New York Times bestsellers, as well as books from first-timers. I edited while at the office; I edited at home; I edited on trips. I was always on the phone with authors discussing revisions, rewrites, ideas. I rolled up my sleeves and I edited any and all manuscripts that were my responsibility the same way; with a blue pen on paper and a stack of sticky notes nearby.  I have since gotten rid of the sticky notes, but I still edit on paper.  Given the popularity of editing lectronically (the Track Changes method), I gather that this is one aspect of the process that may be on its way out, but I am going to be hanging on to my pen until the bitter end!

The rumblings about editing that have reached me out here in my small seaside village boil down to one thing; time.  Editors and agents have less time nowadays to devote to the actual editorial process and the manuscript itself.  And because of this, manuscripts need to arrive in pristine form because in many cases, they won’t be thoroughly edited.  Editors are looking for complete works rather than partials and they are more critical in their assessments. They want it ready to go.  For many, the time is just not there to devote to a brand new writer and their book. This is a sea change from years back. Authors that have been in the business a long time will probably tell you they spend less time than in the past talking with their editor about the quality of the writing. If messing with the book is going to take up time but won’t in the end, contribute to selling more copies, then it isn’t always done. Sales and marketing and publicity plans can be a larger focus for an editor.  Editors are encouraged to focus on new acquisitions and how to get the best talent.  Who can they lure away?  What marketing gimmicks are working? Editors can spend more time in meetings than at their desks. Free time for some only comes late at night.

In some cases, only a cursory edit is done and then the book is sent on its way. Second edits?  I would hazard a guess they are rare. Are the more seasoned editors mentoring the assistant and associate editors? And what are the implications of this if the answer is no? How will the skills be kept alive? I’m sure many of us have heard a friend or peer say proudly that his or her manuscript needed no revisions. Was that truly the case, or was something else involved? And then you hear a complaint about the quality of the fiction…Did anyone EDIT this??  How can they publish this??  Of course too, there are those authors who get their manuscripts back and the rewrites are extensive. This does indeed still happen, perhaps more often than we hear about. There are also agents that still edit and polish prior to submitting a clients’ work.  In the past, an agent would hone the project and the editor would dig in to the manuscript after the contract is signed. Nowadays, odds are that isn’t going to happen in quite the same way.

Do editors edit? Yes and no; sometimes/depends.

So what choices do writers have when it comes to the editorial process in an ever-changing publishing landscape?

Some are surely fortunate enough to have found a talented partner or group that helps them hone their craft. They benefit greatly from insights, support and creativity given by other writers who no doubt can share what works and doesn’t work for them.  This is a tremendously valuable asset to have and many, many authors have achieved success with this as their base.

And there are those writers who are perfectly content in their office; writing on their own, communicating with few, hitting bestseller lists with their stellar product.

Another writer may have found an agent and yet together, they are unable to move the manuscript in the direction they desire.

But what if you don’t fall squarely into a category?  What if you are thinking of self-publishing?   This is a popular option these days as so many writers feel what is offered in some cases by a publisher is less than generous, especially for new writers in the mass marketplace. The author then has to go it alone and wear many hats as a result. She must market and publicize at a minimum, by herself.  The rise in popularity of freelance editors is a by-product of this new reality. Authors are looking for options and hiring a professional can perhaps give them an edge. Being open to this kind of critical assessment may or may not be for you. But if it does appeal, one should research the editorial services being provided and in my opinion, connect with an editor who has experience editing books similar to your own.

Here is a peek through the window of how I like to approach working with authors…

I am a large canvas editor. I read with two hats on; my reader hat and my editor hat. I use my reactions on both levels to form suggestions for clients.  I react as I read and clients can often find scribbles in the margins. I do not censor these comments or try to sugar-coat a reaction if it happens to be negative. I do not believe that it makes sense to wear kid gloves while working for a client.  My job is to give the writer an advantage, if I can. My job is to assist the author in getting the manuscript as close to perfect as we can.

Stories need to be great. We’ve all heard this; at workshops, on tape, in critique group. The hook is key. Does it hold, lure to a satisfying ending? When I edit, I don’t follow a formula or have a checklist. I focus on the main characters; are they likeable; are they believable; are the circumstances believable.  I have no problem with an old plot with a new twist. I look for pacing. I hate clichés. I hate cop-outs. I focus on tense.  I focus a lot on point of view.  Are there too many at one time? Is reading like watching a tennis match?  Am I with one character enough to get a grasp on that character, or being moved onto someone else too quickly?  Conflict is always a big issue for writers and seems to come up a lot in conversation.  Does one character have something another character wants?  If I am reading a love story, is there an obstacle that needs to be overcome?  Does Life throw a believable curve ball at these folks?

Sometimes I do edit toward the market.  Is it funny enough? Is it sexy enough? Is the police procedure creative? Is the puzzle hard to solve? Do I feel the jeopardy the character is in? Does the writer know where she/he would like this manuscript to end up? Is there an audience out there that might be the right one? Does the author peruse the shelves in the bookstore?  Has the author done his/her homework in this regard?

I am not a proofreader or a copy-editor or a fact-checker. I am not a writer. I do not have books on my desk about style and rules. I have not written self-help books about writing.

A freelance job for me is not a quick thing. It takes time. I try to work at a good pace as I know there is an anxiousness to get results and move forward. But sometimes it just doesn’t work that way. I fly by the seat of my pants a lot. I listen to my immediate reactions a lot, both positive and negative.  I think of myself as an author’s editor rather than a company person (so to speak). Editing for me is a truly enjoyable thing. It was always the favorite part about my job when I was in Corporate America. I think of my work as entering into short-term partnerships; helping to create something, making it great and then patting it on the head and sending it on its way.

Book publishing has changed, is changing, from years ago. Editors lugged bulky manuscripts home then; now they carry Kindles. Then we often edited at our desks; now, that probably isn’t encouraged. The Mouse clicks instead of a blue pen. Then, there were budgets for historical romances (albeit minimal!).  Now?  Not so much. It’s always been about moving the product, in as many quantities as possible. Now, perhaps doing more books with one author is preferred over focusing on many.  The New York Times has an E-Book bestseller list; that fascinates me. And surely more changes are coming. We will adapt as we continue on to the next thing…I just hope that those of us who so enjoy working with writers can keep the art of editing (and our blue pens!) alive.

Caroline Tolley is a graduate of Skidmore College and hold a BA in English. Her publishing career began after college when she went to work for the direct mail-order Book Clubs; The Literary Guild, The Rhapsody Book Club, The Book of the Month Club, etc. She moved on to Pocket Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, one of the  largest publishers of commercial fiction in New York, where she worked for 12+ years, moving up the ranks to the last position she held as their Executive Editor. A number of her authors made appearances on the New York Times, PW and USA TODAY bestseller lists. A large number of the romance writers were RITA nominees and winners and Golden Heart finalists.  She acquired brand new talent and worked with authors who penned in different genres. She traveled extensively to RWA conferences, spoke often, and even had her photo in the New York Times!

She has been freelancing for ten years on all genres of popular fiction; including YA, fiction for men, mystery, cop books, literary fiction and of course, romance.

She is a stay-at-home mom to two sons who are all boy, all the time and a 95 pound Rhodesian Ridgeback who also happens to be male. She enjoys running on the beach, traveling, fine dining and reading and can be reached at

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