Editing — Not for the Faint of Heart

editing-can-be-grisly-angle-88524_960_720So you’ve poured your life’s blood onto the paper and you’ve got a book you think is good. What’s your next step? Most likely, finding an editor. Lucky for you, IU has an extensive list of steps you could take and ways you can find the help and support you need. But giving your “child” over to an editor is a scary prospect. What if they don’t like it? What if they say you’re no good? I know; been there, done that. You’ve put your heart and soul into this and now you’re going to hand it over to someone who might well tear it to shreds. It’s frightening. But necessary.  Here are a few things to remember that might make it a little easier for you.

Writing, like all art, is subjective. There is no one right way to do it, no one wrong way. Sure, we have rules and guidelines, but those are usually “big picture” issues like story arc and pacing, or “small stuff,” like commas and semi-colons. In between there’s a lot of latitude. Not only that, but you are allowed to break the rules if you know how and why, and if the story demands it. And, because it’s so subjective, what one person loves another may hate. Tattoo that to your forehead so you can keep it firmly in mind.

Now, that said, it is the editor’s job to hunt down and root out anything and everything that might be “wrong” with your manuscript. When I am editing for a client, I am looking for anything that might pop me out of the story, whether it’s typos or unrealistic dialog or bad pacing or an undeveloped story line. And I am going to tell you what I’ve found and why it’s bad and what would be better. Occasionally, I may highlight a line or a paragraph and say it’s really good, but that’s rare. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m focusing on the bad things, because those are the things that need to be fixed, that can be fixed.

Some find this crushing. I’m hurting their feelings. You know what? Sorry, but my job is not to stroke your ego; that’s your mother’s job. My job is to help make your book the best that it can be. My job is to find all those things that might annoy or confuse readers before the readers see it. Just think of it this way: would you rather I find the errors before you publish, when I can let you know about them in a private e-mail, or would you rather the readers find them after you publish, when they can post horrible reviews for the entire world to see? Yeah, I thought so. And just in case you’re thinking, well, that’s fine for you, but what about the poor author? Guess what? I am an author, and when I send out a new book to beta readers, I fully expect them to respond the exact same way. I tell them to do their worst, give me every bit of bad news they’ve got. I don’t care how small a nit-pick it is, I want to hear it. I want to know what turns them off. I want to know what pops them out of the story. And I want to know before I publish.

Also, if you’re wondering, I’m not immune to having my feelings hurt. Once, ages ago, I sent off a hard copy manuscript (this was back in the dark ages) to a publisher, which they read and returned to me, thanks but no thanks. Okay, fine, but as I was thumbing through the ms, I found a page of notes apparently left there by the reader. Those notes very bluntly but very thoroughly eviscerated my book. It was like having a knife stuck into my heart, then twisted just for good measure. I was devastated.

What did I do? Well, I curled up into a fetal position and felt sorry for myself for about three days, then came back to it to figure out what to do. And I did figure it out. The funny thing is, now I don’t even remember which book that was, I don’t remember what the reader’s notes said, and I don’t remember twisting myself into knots to accommodate the opinions therein.  All I know is I’ve published every book I’ve ever written, happily so, and I’ve grown a fairly thick skin in the process.

You will, too.

So what is my advice to you? Here it is in a nutshell:

Got negative feedback? First thing is to distance yourself. Put it away for a few days, try not to obsess over it (I know, easier said than done), and just let it sit. When you’re gripped by the talons of raw emotions, you’re likely to do one of two things: (1) angrily reject every suggestion made by the editor; after all, s/he doesn’t know you, doesn’t know your book, your characters. This reader person doesn’t know Jack and you’re not going to do anything they say you should. Or, conversely, (2) in the throes of shredded self-confidence, you decide you know nothing and this editor knows all and you agree to make every change they suggest, even when doing so feels like you’re dying inside.  Don’t. Allow yourself to go through all the rollercoaster emotions that the feedback has induced but, for now, don’t decide anything.

Done? Okay, good. Now, and only now, go back to the feedback and consider it all seriously. When I say consider it, I don’t mean accept it or reject it unreservedly. I mean just that: consider it. Take the suggestions and lay it over your story like a map of translucent oilskin. Does it fit? Does it match up with your characters? Does it align with your vision? If so, think about making changes. If not, don’t.

Always remember: you are the final authority. Only you know what story you are telling and how you want to tell it. Only you know your characters, how they feel, how they think, how they act. If you’re going to write with authenticity, everything — and I mean everything — must serve the story. And only you can determine that.

Don’t forget that the process of editing is for your benefit. It’s the grindstone that grinds down the burrs of your story, that flakes away the flaws, and reveals the beauty underneath. It’s the polishing that will bring your story to a bright, sparkling shine. Yes, it can be painful, but once you’ve got the book you really want, the book you meant to write, it’s all worth it.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

28 thoughts on “Editing — Not for the Faint of Heart”

  1. And please, oh please, find an editor who knows what they’re doing. A professional, with actual experience. You’re paying them not just to do a job, but to do a GOOD job, and to hold your work to professional standards. I have had WAY too many clients pay well-meaning amateurs and English majors to correct commas, grammar and spelling, only to find out the job wasn’t done when it came to things like syntax, point of view, plot holes and so forth. A good editor knows that god is not just in the details; it’s in the bigger picture, too.

    1. People should be very clear about what they expect from an editor, since there are so many aspects to it. Some just want the proofreading (commas, spelling, etc.) while some want the whole package. Always a good idea to have a good conversation before the work begins. Thanks for adding that, Teresa.

  2. Thanks for this – excellent advice and summary of the process. I had to laugh when I saw the title with the pic of a grinder. It set my teeth on edge, which is the perfect analogy for dealing with editors’ notes. It might be painful, but applying the proverbial nose-to-the-grindstone and just getting to work is the way to a better story, always.

  3. I find that one of the most useful things a writer can do is get over the “precious darling” attitude toward one’s writing as rapidly as humanly possible.

    Don’t get me wrong – it’s normal to feel things like you’ve “poured your heart and soul” into a book the first time. Sadly, it’s possible to still feel that the first FEW times.

    Get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

    If you’re going to have a writing career, you’ll produce dozens of the things. If you’re going to have a successful writing career you’ll likely produce scores of them – maybe even hundreds.

    A slow-typing writer working just one hour a day produces 3-8 novels a year. Over a thirty year career that’s 90-240 books.

    They are not our children. We’ll feel the joy of writing them as we pen the words – and then it’s time to let them go and find a place in the world. And get to work on the next one. 🙂

    When it goes to the editor, it’s a product. The editor is helping make the product more salable. Period. They are not beating up the child of your heart and soul. They are taking your product and helping you make it more marketable. It’s not personal, it’s business.

    1. That’s a tough one to work through, Kevin, but it can be done. We’ve all been there, done that. One thing I have seen, though, is a writer sending me their work for editing, but then bristle at the first suggestion of a change. It seemed obvious that what they were really looking for was for me to ooh and aw over their work, not suggest changes. It’s a bitter pill sometimes, but I think we all have to realize at some point that we’re not born Hemingways.

  4. You’ve hit the nail on the head. I gave editing a go a couple of times but gave it up when I found the reactions from authors too emotionally charged. My hat goes off to those with the fortitude to keep at it.

    1. That can certainly happen, Yvonne. I’ve definitely run into that a few times. Luckily most of my clients realize I’m trying to help, and we can meet in the middle and have good discussions. I guess editing isn’t for the faint of heart in either direction! And obviously it’s not for everyone.

  5. Nice article Melissa and, just as there are writers and writers, there are editors and then there are editors (with different ideas of what exactly editing is), get the right one for you.

  6. Hi Melissa, great post! Shared widely with this message: Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona – and guess what – she was a big help to me when I was working on an early draft of Krishna’s Counsel, my second novel in the Moksha Trilogy; her comments actually led me to change genre, which is a critical thing. I live off grid and don’t do things the conventional author does – I use beta readers to read my drafts, good ones, with an appreciation of fine writing, story, plot and not afraid to speak their minds – and then I re-work and re-work until I am satisfied. In the end, as Melissa says in this excellent article, the writer is the ultimate authority. What’s more, everyone is bound to have differing opinions so we have to keep that in mind when we get negative reactions to our work. For instance, the word “tantra” is so distorted that many I knew reacted adversely to the fact that I was writing a novel of tantra set in ancient India (this was Whip of the Wild God, my first novel) – when in fact my novel was inspired by my passionate desire to bring out the authentic roots and power of Tantra. If you are a writer, definitely check out this post!

    1. Aw, Mira, you’re making me blush. But you know the process–and the result–of editing. I’m glad I was able to help with Krishna. I know you’ll go on to bigger and better novels in your career. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Excellent post, Melissa. I’m echoing a couple of other commenters when I recommend authors have a conversation with their prospective editors about expectations. I ask authors early on what type of editing they would like, and if it seems like they’re not sure, I’ll lay out what each level entails. It can be awkward and frustrating on both sides if you start working with what you think is just a proofread and find major developmental issues. And as far as taking in an editor’s notes, especially if you’re fairly new to getting feedback, your comment about distance is spot-on. YOU are not THE WORK. When I was a new writer and got my first hard edit, my first instinct was to get my back up. But as I took a few deep breaths and gave it some distance, I started realizing that the purpose was to make the story better.

    1. Thanks, Laurie. I think both those points are crucial: make sure you’re on the same page to start–literally and figuratively–and take a step back. Editing is not easy for any author, but still oh so necessary.

  8. Melissa: This post resonates with me more than many you have written. Like you, I’ve sold every book I’ve written and now that I’m indie, twice over. But the back list has to be revised, edited, proofed and edited again. Although, I have never considered my feelings hurt when I got a revision letter. My view is an editor who sees and works on hundreds of books to my one, knows what she’s talking about. Which is not to say there were no issues to negotiate. I had one editor who saves forests and did not like a character who cut down trees. Another was an avid birdwatcher and vegetarian…cringed if a character served fried chicken.

    I agree with another poster who treats the book as a product. Once written and into the hands of an editor, that is exactly what it is. There is in our indie universe, many who tout themselves as editors and are not. That is the author’s look out. What most writer’s don’t get: The question is not ‘can I write?’ But ‘can I tell a story?’ That is what I want help with–the story.

    In thirty years I have never asked an editor if he/she liked my book. At my first writer’s conference I overheard a writer pitching her book. She said to the editor: “You will love it!” The editor said: “Not my job to love a book. My job is to edit the thing.” Kept my lips zipped since. If I write a story that resonates with my audience, I’ve got a book. If don’t, I’m moving onto the next and hope I get it right. Anyway, great post telling it true. Indie authors who listen will be successful.

    1. Jackie, you’re dead on there. I have edited many books that I didn’t care for–not my cup of tea and/or not my style of writing, that those things don’t matter. All I can do is give the author my suggestions, let them mull them over and use them or not as they like; the rest is beyond me. I try very hard to NOT suggest they rewrite in my style or to please me. It’s all a dance, you know, a little give here, a little nudge there. If the work was objective, there would be less latitude, but it’s all very subjective, so lots of wriggle room. Thanks for commenting.

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