The Stages of Editorial Grief

by Steve Laube


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!

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. I give you 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. And red pen on page or a blur of red 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

“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. I give you 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. And if they heard it one way and you meant it another…then maybe it needs to be restated.

I once had an author who called 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.”

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 by 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 snit 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 where 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.

That is the best place for a writer to be. To be done and the project on its way to your readers. One author loves to 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?

Leave a Comment

Modern Speech

A couple weeks ago we discussed local flavor in expressions. It got me to thinking that I grew up in an era where no one thought anything of saying, “He should be shot,” or “My father is going to kill me,” for minor infractions. One of my friends noted that if a teenager said that today about her father, someone would call Social Services. After the Columbine tragedy that left so many dead or maimed at the hands of gunmen, I decided not to use any reference to shooting or killing in a cavalier manner. I believe my speech is gentler for the change.

I’m not sure every alteration has been for the better, though. The term “waitstaff” throws me. I can’t help but visualize a shepherd’s crook leaning against a corner wall, waiting for its owner to retrieve it. On the other hand, I don’t mind “flight attendant” as a substitute for “stewardess.” Have you noticed that media calls both male and female stars “actors” rather than “actresses” and “actors.” This change seems unnecessary to me.

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Let Creativity Flow (Part Five)

As promised last week, when all else fails to spark your creativity, give one of these a try. They almost always work!

1. Do something relaxing. Take a pad and pencil or a mini-recorder along to capture ideas when they spark. Some relaxation ideas:

A nice, long bath Play with your pet. If you don’t have one, go to the dog park and borrow one! Go to a movie Cook something you love garden look through old family photo albums take a nap
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News You Can Use – Feb. 7, 2012

Author Says McGraw-Hill Cheats on Royalties – Details of a pending lawsuit.

What is Pinterest? –  The latest craze in Social Media Networks. AuthorMedia shows you the simple steps to sign up and tips on how to use it in the next article below.

Three Ways an Author Can Use Pinterest – Last week an editor told me how she was following a couple of her authors on Pinterest and how much she liked it.

5 Ways to Break Out of the Social Media Doldrums – Well said by Aubre Andrus.

10 Ways to Ensure No One Will Read Your Blog Post – Ali Luke give great insight

How Hard Can it Be to Write a Kids Book? – Sally Lloyd-Jones helps dispel a common myth.

A very cool six minute video envisioning a future technology. Imagine computing being done on glass walls, desks, and even National Parks. From Corning. By the way, Corning makes the “Gorilla Glass” that you find on the iPad2.

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The Editorial Process

It is important to understand the process through which a book takes under the umbrella called “The Edit.” I meet many first timers who think it is just a one-time pass over their words and that is all that will ever happen. And many who self-publish think that hiring a high school English teacher to check for grammar is enough of an edit.

There are four major stages to the Editorial Process. Unfortunately they are called by various names depending on which publisher you are working with, which can create confusion. I will try to list the various terms but keep them under the four categories.

Rewrites / Revisions/Substantive Edit

These can happen multiple times. You could get input from your agent or an editor who suggests you rewrite or revise those sample chapters of the full manuscript. Last year I suggest that one of my non-fiction clients cut the book in half and change its focus. We sold this first time author. But the writer had to do a lot of work to get it ready for the proposal stage.

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Fresh Formulas

Some have a hard time appreciating the talent involved in writing genre fiction. By genre fiction, I mean novels that fall into a defined category such as contemporary romance, historical romance, romantic suspense, or cozy mystery. Many of these novels are published by mass market publishers (like Harlequin) and fit in lines they have formed for the sole purpose of selling the genre.

These are distinguished from Trade fiction where there isn’t necessarily a specific line that has been formed to sell a genre, although there are exceptions to that “rule” like the “Love Finds You” series from Summerside Press. In publisher’s lingo “trade” means a 5 1/2″ by 8 1/2″ trim size and is probably between 80,000 and 100,000 words in length. “Genre” or “category” fiction can mean the 4″ by 6″ trim size (also known as mass market) and between 50,000 words and 70,000 words.

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Let Creativity Flow (Part Four)

Great discussions on creativity, everyone. Just reading your comments is sparking my creativity! So here are the last of my thoughts on what you can do when that well of ideas seems to have run dry:

Take a Time Out. Remember how that works? Time outs? When you were a kid and got a little out of control, Mom sent you to the Time Out chair to cool off. Well, this is a similar principle. Too often we try too hard, which only makes creativity that much harder to find. So take a time-out. Give yourself time to play, to move, to get out of the house, away from your everyday life. Get out in nature. The woods, the ocean, a local park. Go to the library. Go to a museum and let the beauty of other people’s creativity wash over you. Go to the gun range and, as my hubby calls it, “plink.” Take a break from being an adult. Getting away from “it all,” at least once in a while, is restorative.

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News You Can Use – Jan. 31, 2012

Amazon’s Hit Man – The is a very good article about Larry Kirshbaum the new head of Amazon’s Trade Publishing division. Every serious writer should read this article. Take the time, it is only 3,400 words. Source is Blomberg’s Business Week magazine.

Is There Hope for Barnes & Noble? – an interesting take by Rich Adin.

Why Are We Obsessed with What’s New? – Maria Popova reviews a book that explored this sociological phenomenon. Oh, by the way, the book is new… 🙂

How to Read a Book – Chad Hall explores the various ways to read. I do a lot of #4.

Will Non-Fiction E-books Achieve the Same Success as Fiction? – Laurel Marshfield explores why e-book fiction outsells e-book non-fiction and whether that will ever change.

Do You Sit at the Computer All Day? – Then read this life-saving article from LifeHacker.

This is a very creative short film (15 minutes), watch it with your kids! It is also an incredible interactive iPad app. Check it out.

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