Writing Wednesday: How to Work WITH Your Editor


So, you got a contract for your manuscript. Now what?

Well, first you wait. And wait. You will probably get an email early on, telling you who your editor is. They may tell you to look for certain words in your manuscript, or to do another run through before first edits come around, or they may simply introduce themselves. And then, you wait.

Now, my advice to working with an editor isn’t so different from my advice on contests and rejections. There is a good way to do things, and a bad way.

See, the first thing you need to know is that the person who acquired your manuscript is, more than likely, not the person who will edit it. This may be a good thing. It may be a bad thing. For instance, the person who edits your manuscript may actually detest your work.

This will be bad for your ego. It may not be bad for your manuscript.

When you first open that manuscript, your heart will sink. There will be so much red that you will wonder if you’re looking at your manuscript or if you’re actually looking at a snapshot of the Battle of Gettysburg. My first piece of advice: Close the email.

Also, as an aside, I changed the color the comments come up in. I find blue to be much more soothing.

Yes, closing the email is my first piece of advice just about every time. But I think you should take in the fact that someone didn’t think your baby is perfect. Before you read all of your editor’s comments, write your editor a very polite email, thanking him for all of his hard work. You don’t want to do it after you’ve read his comments, because your first instinct will be to get upset. And no matter how polite you think your email is, if you’re doing it right after you’ve read those comments and tried to absorb all that red, your email will be snotty.

And you don’t want to go there.

Close that email, and write a polite thank you to your editor.

The next day, open that email and read the comments. As many of them as you can. I go through the whole document, and look for those errors or comments that keep coming up. That way, I know what my editor thinks I need to fix throughout the document before I even get started. Yes, this will take a day or two or several, depending in the length of the manuscript.

When I’m ready to begin the editing process, I then go to Accept All in Word, and accept all changes. If I’ve followed the Chicago Manual of Style and my publisher’s guidelines, and I know whether they use the Oxford comma or not, there won’t be too many grammatical mistakes that aren’t typos on my part. Many houses will send you their guidelines or post them on the web. My first bit of advice: follow them. Your life will be easier.

Because I have read the guidelines and done my darndest to adhere to them, I can usually accept all changes and not feel bad about it. Because I’ve read the entire document–complete with comments–all the way through, I already know which changes I don’t agree with, and have already commented on and rejected those.

The next thing is the hard part. Going through all the comments.

See, editors are not like critique partners. They won’t offer “Hey, I really like this line” in the comments. The comments will feel so… so negative.

This is a good thing, trust me.

You want your editor to point out your flaws, plot holes, over used words or literary devices. You want him to point out areas where it feels like you’ve used deus ex machina again. You want him to point out that what you’ve done with this character has made her intensely unlikeable. Because if you don’t change those things, you will lose your readers. Better that your editor hates your document than your reviewer, right?

I won’t lie: it will hurt.

“But I love this!” you will whine. “This is the heart of my story! And you’re killing it!”

No, my friend, he is not.

Your editor is rescuing the heart of your story from the cesspool of mediocrity. Your editor is not your friend, nor your critique partner. Your editor is there to edit.

The story is yours, of course. You don’t have to make suggested changes, but you will have to communicate that with your editor. Expect whatever your say to go up the food chain to the line editor. Expect to get some resistance from your editor, too. And if you’re snotty with your editor when you tell him why you’re not making those changes, that will also go up to the heads of the house. If you go for the melodrama, and tell your editor that you hope a flaming ball of shit falls from the sky and destroys his house, I’m sorry, but you’re probably not making any friends.

And if you think, “Oh, people don’t really do that,” just trust me on this one: they do. Keep the flaming ball of shit in your head, and leave it there. Use it in a short story maybe. Base your next villain on your editor. Do whatever you need to do, just don’t say it to your editor.

Communication is your friend, it really is. But keep it professional. Do not send an email while you are angry. Like with any important document (including, hopefully, this manuscript you’ve submitted), write at least two or three drafts, outlining why you would prefer to not make the suggested changes, and asking your editor for her opinion. No, seriously. Ask. Don’t make demands on your editor. They’re busy people, too.

After you’ve gone through your manuscript, and made all the changes you are planning on making (this can take a few days or several weeks, depending on the number and intensity of the necessary changes), read your document one more time before sending it on. Make sure you’ve stepped away from it for a few days, if you have the time, so that you will be more able to see any new errors you may have made. We all have our crutches. For me, it’s the em dash. If I’ve had to rewrite a scene, trust me, I’ve used too many em dashes in that first round. I always need to go back and take them out. You’ll have something else you’ll do.

Your ego has no place in the editing. In this business, we have to have thick skins. Once that manuscript is off to the editor, try not to think of it as yours. It’s not your heart, it’s not your soul. You would continue to exist even if your masterpiece never saw the light of day, if it burned into ash, if a dinosaur ate it and crapped it back out. So, when you see all that red, and think of all the changes you need to make, think of it as improving someone else’s work. Kind of like the screenwriter who has to take someone else’s screenplay and punch it up.

If you can think of it as not yours, maybe you’ll see some merit in what your editor has to say. Maybe you’ll see things you need to change, scenes you need to cut, characters who need to go, or be merged with other characters.

Listen to your editor, even if you think he’s a jerk. He’s not here to be your friend. He’s here to make a buck off of what you wrote.

And he just might, if you let him.

–M

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12 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday: How to Work WITH Your Editor”

  1. Meggan, I’m in the second round of edits with my first book. It’s been a challenging yet wonderful experience in that my editor gets my book. She’s great. I’ve had to get rid of some of my favorite lines. Oh, well. Boohoo. Her changes only make the ms stronger. I loved your post!

  2. On the positive side, if you are a melodramatic twit to your editor, he or she will have lots of dinner party material. So there’s that.

    “What do you do for a living?”

    “Oh, I suck the souls out of novels.”

  3. Love this post. Great suggestion [em dash] to change the red ink to blue. I’m also an em dash abuser and I’ve picked up a passion for dot dot dot in my FB, Twitter and email posts…

  4. Great post and great advice. It is so hard to not take the editing of your manuscript as personal. Like you said, you put your heart in your story and your editor takes it out.
    I’ll have to try changing the color of my edits and see if that makes me feel any better.

    1. Ha! Yes, it worked for me. Blue is much more soothing.

      I have a scene I’m afraid my editor will take out. I love this scene. So, so much. I see the point in removing it, but, I love it (my only consolation is that it’s short, barely 750 words, and it moves the plot forward–really).

      So I will turn the edits to blue, take a deep breath, and, if it comes to that, get over my bad self! (And no complaining to said editor. Nope. Not ever)

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