Author Steve Laube

The Stages of Editorial Grief

Nearly every writer will tell you they have experienced the proverbial red-pen treatment from their editor. The reactions to this experience can follow the well-known stages of grief popularized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Skip Denial, I’m Angry!

The official five stages of grief start with denial. For an author receiving their edited manuscript, they usually skip denial and go right into anger.

There is no denying that the edits have arrived. And for the author who was not expecting a hard-nosed edit, they can transition from shocked-angry to furious-angry to rage.

And then they call their agent.

“This is ridiculous!”
“I’ve written 35 books and have never had an editor like this!”
“Who do they think they are?”
“No one treats me like this!”

And for those without an agent, they call the editor and say the same thing. (See my post about burning bridges.) I was the recipient of a number of these explosions while an editor at Bethany House Publishers.

It is okay to be angry. You have permission.

Just be careful how you express it. In a misuse of the Scripture, let me quote, “Be angry and sin not” (Ephesians 4:26, KJV).

It doesn’t feel good to be told your writing needs help. Red pen on printed page or a blur of red track-changes onscreen is very unpleasant.

It is quite possible the editor held their breath before they clicked the send button. They might have even said a quick prayer asking that the author be receptive to the edits.

Depression: I’m a Terrible Writer

Here are some other common reactions:

“I knew I wasn’t a very good writer. I knew it.”
“I worked so hard and look at this mess.”
“I loathe myself. I’m just a hack.”
“Why bother? I’ll just click ‘accept all changes’; I don’t care anymore.”
“My agent hates me too.”

Sound familiar?

That ol’ demon of self-doubt has wormed its way into your creative soul.

It is okay to feel depressed. You have permission.

But only for an hour.

Then get back to work and tell that ol’ demon he has no place in your life.

One mark of the professional writer is to have thick skin and a teachable spirit.

Negotiation: What if We Did This?

This is the most critical stage in the editorial process. Talk to your editor using an inside voice. Calm and respectful.

All editing is a negotiation, not a dictation. Unless you are completely wrong with something, it is merely a matter of how your thoughts were understood by the editor. It is how they heard it in their head. And if they understood it one way and you meant it another, then maybe it needs to be rewritten.

Regarding a theological work I was editing, the author called me and said, “We need to go in my backyard and wrestle two-out-of-three falls on this editing job. There are 17 places where I completely disagree with what you wrote in the margin.” So we had a long conversation. You know what? I, the editor, was wrong in 12 of the places where I had made a notation. I had misunderstood something or was speed reading and missed a nuance. But I had to ask that if I missed it, could a reader do the same? But in 5 of those 17 places, the author realized he had written the sentence or paragraph poorly. So we fixed all 17 spots to where we were both pleased. That is called “negotiation.”

Also note that there are times where you need to stand your ground. I’ve seen editors decide they didn’t like a main character’s name and did a global search and replace! There are cases where a crucial plot point was deleted and messed up the entire story’s timeline. I’ve run into situations where the editor and the author are on completely opposite sides of a nonfiction topic, and there isn’t a compromise position. (Once it meant the publisher actually cancelled the contract!) That can be dicey. But it is also extremely rare.

You will find that most editors are on your side. They are trying to make your book the best it can be. That is their job. Granted, some editors have a heavy hand, but is that always a bad thing? I found I learned more from the hardest teachers in school because they pushed me toward excellence. But at the same time, a light hand doesn’t mean it is a weak edit. It could mean that your writing was exactly suited for this story or topic. There is no one-size-fits-all in the editing process.

Sometimes while editing I can read for dozens of pages without making a mark because I can become so engrossed in the story I forget to edit. That is instructive in and of itself.

Acceptance: Time to Write Another One

When you are finally over your angry-face and have stopped wallowing in your negative self-talk and you have communicated with your agent and your editor, it is time to accept that there is no more tinkering or fixing to be done on your manuscript.

And, yes, there are times when you might still like your original more than the final edited version; but accept that it may actually be better because of the editing process.

I find it somewhat ironic with regard to today’s stages-of-grief analogy that a book contract usually has payment attached to the “acceptance” of a manuscript. Once it is considered acceptable by the publisher, after all the edits are done, the author receives payment. Therefore, “acceptance” is a good place to arrive at,.especially if you want to get paid.

Acceptance is the best place for a writer to be. To be done and the project on its way to your readers. Many authors say, “I hate to write but I love to have written.”

Your Turn

Have you ever been mad about an edit you have received?

How often do you let critical comments about your writing make you depressed?


[An earlier version of this post ran in 2012.]

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