Getting Inside an Editor’s Brain: An Interview with Julie Sturgeon

Every author wonders what editors think. When our precious baby lands in the hands of an editor, what happens? I’ve worked with Julie Sturgeon, and I can say what happens is magic. Julie agreed to give us a peek behind the curtain in her editing process. I am so pleased to share her insights with you. Welcome, Julie.

I’m always flattered when someone asks me to be a guest on their blog, and I do a happy dance when they provide questions. That list is an excellent way to figure out what people want to know—and where misconceptions are lurking in this big, wonderful industry we know as writing.

Inevitably, a handful of what I label “emotional” inquiries jump out at me:

  1. What is it like to edit a manuscript when you don’t like the story? 
  2. Do you ever get “tangled up” in the writing where you’re so lost in the story you forget to edit?

As a development editor on contract with Simon and Schuster’s Crimson Romance imprint, I’ve put my head down on my desk and sobbed once during the 200+ manuscripts I’ve worked with. The author and I had collaborated from the start on various plots, and I’d suggested she kill off a specific character. That went over about as well as asking her to climb up to her roof and toss her dog over the edge.

Well, it was her book, after all.

But, of course, as I went through my editing drill, I kept seeing how this death would affect the events emotionally, positively, memorably. I pedaled the heck out of my cycling gadget under my desk. I wrote Job-style laments in my editing notebook. I squeezed my basketball stress reliever so tightly, the goop leaked through the seams.

And then this character did, indeed, bite the dust. You’d have thought I’d just been told I could eat an entire box of cherry Pop-Tarts for dinner. Through my tears, I layered in comment boxes with suggestions for how to ratchet up the surprise and the impact via previous events. And I took out the distancing words in the scene, too.

You see, there is a very important distinction between editors and authors: we aren’t using the same brain.

When I get a manuscript, I pull out my notebook (the one with “Good things come to those who hustle” stamped into the turquoise leather cover. When that one is full, the next one in line says, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”), grab my yellow highlighter and two Sensa pens, then use the one with blue ink to write C1 on the first line of the first empty page.

As I read, that notebook becomes my planning board: I summarize events in the story and mark whether they are positive or negative in blue ink; highlight beats; and longhand my impressions, my concerns, my own questions, and potential solutions in red ink.

That’s the macro level.

I’m also using the Track Change comment feature in the document itself to explain everything from grammar issues and writing style suggestions (repeated words/telling/deeper POV/stage directions/overwriting/passive voice) to laying out my case on why a particular action doesn’t make sense, why your heroine just jumped out of character, and why the conflict is veering into trouble rather than a true, interpersonal struggle between the couple.

I’m like a cop walking a beat, searching for unhealthy self-images and attitudes, potential clichés you can avoid, and details in chapter 20 that contradict chapter 4. I check to make sure the scene arcs close properly, that the characters’ voices are balanced (i.e. that one hasn’t done all the talking lately, rendering your other a cardboard cutout), and your characters are truly sharing their experiences rather than reporting them.

In a nutshell, I’m analyzing this manuscript similarly to the way you’d play three-dimensional chess. In this game, you don’t fall in love with the knight—you merely move it on the board.

Sure, well-turned phrases or conversations will jump out, and I share my applause. (More Track Changes comments!) But the editing process isn’t a step to provide feedback on my personal reaction to the story. It’s an unemotional investigation to find the weakest spots in your writing, probe them, and give you a report so you can shore up those issues. I don’t need to like the story upfront to dissect it. And I’m too focused on the “how” to get caught up and wander off my track.

Of course, editors do read for pleasure—they simply shut down this brain function when they open the book. And the good news is, when your manuscript is in front of a development editor you are getting unique feedback your street team can’t cover.

We can all smile about that!

Visit Julie at her website CEO Editor.






10 thoughts on “Getting Inside an Editor’s Brain: An Interview with Julie Sturgeon

  1. I love that you refer to authors and editors as using “different brains”. So cool how differently we approach a story.
    I sure hope I get a chance to work one-on-one with you someday. I’ve heard so many other Crimson authors rave about how you improved their work. I’m jealous. 😉

  2. I loved these insights into an editor’s brain. It never occurred to me how they would think differently from writers — though on an intrinsic level I knew this. I just never those got about it. Next time I get back edits from my own editor, I’ll definitely see them through different eyes. Great post!

  3. Wonderful post, Julie and Betty! I have had the honor of working with Julie on several books. I call her my book whisperer. Now I have a little more understanding how our two brains work so well together!

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