Can You Handle the Edit?

There’s a lot about being a freelance editor that’s fun. But some things that just…aren’t. Like telling a writer that his manuscript isn’t ready to be edited. This happens most often before an editor agrees to do an edit, when they read the sample of the manuscript. There are times, though, when those first pages are pretty good, so the editor takes the project on. And then, when he’s deep in the fabric of the manuscript—alarms go off and the hard truth hits: the manuscript isn’t ready to be edited. That’s never a fun call to make. For the editor or the writer.

Writers react with hurt, frustration, even anger:

“What do you mean it’s not ready for editing? Are you crazy?”

“It has to be ready! I’ve been working on it for five (or ten…or twenty) years!”

“My critique partners love it. The problem isn’t my manuscript, it’s you.”

“Isn’t that your job? To fix the problems?”

And the editors sit there, criticized, yelled at, or feeling lousy for making a writer cry. Nope, not a happy situation for anyone. In fact, this can become a situation where the author decides the editor is the bad guy. But friends, when you hire an editor you’re asking them to tell you the hard truths. To speak to the weaknesses in your writing and to help you overcome said weaknesses. And when you send your manuscript to an editor, asking for an edit, you’re asking her to speak to whether or not your manuscript is ready for an edit. That’s her job. It’s what you’ve asked her to do for you.

So here’s what I’m going to do for you writers and for my fellow editors. I’m going to plant my tongue firmly in my cheek and let a scene from the movie A Few Good Men speak the hard words editors sometimes need to say. Writers, take it for what it’s worth (which, admittedly, you may think is zilch). Editors, feel free to pass it on when you need it.

Picture it with me. Jack Nicholson, decked out in a Marine officer’s uniform, lip curled into a snarl, leaning forward and pointing at you with the red pen clutched in his gloved hand, while that signature voice grinds out:

“You want the edit? You want the edit?? You can’t handle the edit!

“Kid, we live in a publishing world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded. Who’s gonna do it? You? Your mama? Your critique team? Editors have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for your darlings and you curse the edit. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that my turning down this edit, while tragic, probably saves you hours of wasted time. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, serves your needs as a writer!

“You don’t want the edit yet, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at launch parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like ‘POV,’ ‘Show verse Tell,’ ‘Unique Voice.’ We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending quality in literature. You use them as buzz words in conference ice-breakers. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a writer who writes and revises under the blanket of the very quality that I help him find within himself, and then questions the manner in which I help him! I would rather you just said ‘thank you’, and went on to top the best-seller list. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a red pen, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a flying fig how good you think your manuscript is! Sure, this story needs to be told–but you can do better!”


40 Responses to Can You Handle the Edit?

  1. Wendy Mitchell January 27, 2016 at 5:54 am #

    How does an author know beforehand that the manuscript isn’t ready so this situation can be avoided? Or is it just you have to take a chance?

    • Karen Ball January 27, 2016 at 7:41 pm #

      As it happens, I’m going to do a blog on exactly that topic. So stay tuned!

  2. Pamela Black January 27, 2016 at 6:59 am #

    BEST. POST. EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I’m still laughing! And, yes, I agree. Had it not been for the hard truths from my editor if be trying to pitch you a story with some serious holes and intrinsic deficits that I wouldn’t even know existed.
    Now I will forever see Jack Nicholson in my head when I read my edits!!!!!
    I may have to watch that scene now.
    Editors everywhere are cheering for you Karen!!!! Hahaha!!!!!

  3. Liz Tolsma January 27, 2016 at 8:32 am #

    LOL!!! Too funny, and too true! Trust me, an editor HATES coming to you and telling you how much work there is to be done on your manuscript as much as you hate hearing it. And I love being known as a defender of quality in literature. Perfect!!! Thanks, Karen.

    • Karen Ball January 27, 2016 at 7:41 pm #

      You’re most welcome!

  4. Roseanna White January 27, 2016 at 8:51 am #

    Preach it, sister! =D

  5. Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild January 27, 2016 at 9:01 am #

    Dear Karen: All great advice. I am sure you could write a novel about editing horrors and mis-advetnures! Thank you for all your thoughts. Editors are our friends and make us better writers.
    Warm regards,
    Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild
    Her Majesty’s English Tea Room

    author: Estate of Mind

    • Karen Ball January 27, 2016 at 7:42 pm #

      “Editors are our friends and make us better writers.”

      Every editor I know hopes their authors feel this way about them. Thanks, Jacqueline

  6. Linda January 27, 2016 at 9:01 am #

    Love it!! Maybe it’s just me, but I would rather hear from a pro what is wrong with my story before it gets published than to face the jeers of the reader.

  7. Ane Mulligan January 27, 2016 at 9:16 am #

    I’m different. I LOVE the edit, although I’ve been blessed so far that mine haven’t been too hard. But I’ve got tough critique partners who don’t hesitate to tell me when things don’t work. I’ve given them names, they’re so tough: Genghis Griep, Ludwig von Frankenpen, Attila the Holmes, just to give you an idea. My skin is thick, and the editors always make us better! That last sentence deserves 10 exclamation points, but my editor slaps my hand when I do that. lol

  8. Anna L. Russell January 27, 2016 at 9:29 am #

    Right on! You give me courage to do what I need to: tell the writer she is too verbose, scrambled, does not have enough white space, etc. And, she will never talk to me again — cut your word count in half!

  9. Robin Patchen January 27, 2016 at 9:48 am #

    Laughing, nodding, laughing some more. I’m totally sharing this one. Thanks!

  10. Jeanne Takenaka January 27, 2016 at 9:56 am #

    Loved this, Karen. Thanks for sayin’ it straight . . . through an edit of Jack Nicholson’s words. 😉

  11. Carol Ashby January 27, 2016 at 10:04 am #

    Great way to make the point, Karen, but I do have a question. Unless they are from an editor at the publishing house where you are under contract, edits are really suggestions rather than commands to make changes. A person would be a fool not to consider all the suggestions and accept those that truly improve the manuscript. The question is how an author can identify an independent editor who actually has the skill to improve the manuscript instead of simply change it. Obviously an agent can recommend a good editor. However, if authors hire editors before even querying to get an agent, they are shooting blind. How can an author be certain an editor is someone worth paying for advice that is worth taking?

    • Carol January 27, 2016 at 10:22 am #

      I mean a particular editor, not an editor in general.

      • Karen Ball January 27, 2016 at 7:47 pm #

        Hey, Carol. Even if an editor is from a publishing house with which you’re contracted, edits are still suggestions. Unless they’re about conforming to house style or inaccuracies in grammar and writing. But always remember, they are suggestions from someone who has studied the craft and market, and is using that knowledge and skill to help you refine your story and craft.

        How do you know the editor is qualified? Like you do with any other professional: ask for references.

    • Kathy Ide January 27, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

      The Christian Editor Connection has established, professional freelance editors who have been carefully screened and tested. So you can be assured that you’re getting someone who knows how to edit well. If you go to and fill out the form for authors seeking editors, you will be connected with editors who fit your specific requirements in your specific genre. Then you choose the one who seems like the right one for you.

      • Carol Ashby January 27, 2016 at 2:01 pm #

        Thanks, Kathy! This is a great link to have.

      • rochellino January 27, 2016 at 4:23 pm #

        Kathy, I went to the link you suggested (, for my individual style, I found the premise disappointing. I do APPRECIATE your genuine and sincere effort to assist authors seeking an editor, thank you!

        My feedback is that my most favored option would be to review an on line text or, preferably, video posting (presentations, if you will) of available editors, their skills, genre, experience, past books edited, references, testimonials and so on. I will at the very least get a sample representation of their creative ability by the way they present themselves.

        Listing my name and waiting to see who shows up, possibly claiming to be everything I am looking for, seems like a faulty way to even attempt to select or perform due diligence in choosing an editor. It gives me visions of hearing from whomever needs to make a car payment or something.

        To put it perhaps a better way. I would choose an editor with the care and discernment of choosing a wife. I would put all the effort, time, patience and everything else that goes with such an important choice into the consideration with the goal of, hopefully, never having to choose a “replacement” editor for the rest of my life. On the other hand, I know plenty of guys (and women) that have chosen a spouse with the attitude that if things “don’t work out” they will just cast them aside and get another one. Whew, that’s way too much risk than I am willing to assume.

        I will go the Christian PEN next and check it out.

        In any event, THANKS AGAIN, I truly am grateful for your effort.

        • Kathy Ide January 27, 2016 at 6:51 pm #

          Perhaps the website doesn’t explain what we do well enough. When you go to and fill out the form, you explain to us what you’re looking for in an editor. Then we personally match you with the editors in our database whom we believe would be a good fit for you. (Definitely NOT the ones who “just need to make a car payment.”) Those editors who are interested and available will contact you. Then you can check them all out–which we absolutely encourage you to do! Go to their websites and check out their skills, genre, experience, past books edited, references, testimonials, etc. Ask for a sample edit. Exchange e-mails. Then choose the editor you believe is best for you.

          The reason we do not put our editors’ names and bios on the website is that if we did, authors would simply look those editors up on the Internet and contact them directly, which would bypass our referral system.

          Hope this helps!

  12. Mike Kilian January 27, 2016 at 10:05 am #

    Hey Karen,

    Help me out, I’m a bit lost here. First, you set up a story about a writer seeking help with a manuscript. Then you tell them it can’t be edited and immediately jump to an In-defense-of-editors column. And that’s fine, the retelling of the general’s soliloquy was entertaining, and I agree one hundred percent.

    But you left the plot hanging way back at the beginning. The fundamental question not only wasn’t answered, it was never asked.

    Why is my manuscript not ready for editing?

    The absence of the question is what makes the story implausible. I always ask why first, before I fly into an unreasonable rage about editors.

    • Karen Ball January 27, 2016 at 7:38 pm #

      Hey, Mike, if you go back and take another read, you’ll see I’m focusing on the editor’s side of things in this blog. And from the editor’s side of things, this situation–of having to tell someone their manuscript isn’t ready to be edited–is no fun.

      And I’m hoping you don’t fly into an unreasonable rage about anyone…seeing as it’s unreasonable.

      But I am planning a future blog about tips to help you know if your manuscript is ready for an edit. So stay tuned.

  13. Janet Ann Collins January 27, 2016 at 10:34 am #

    As a minor edit, don’t you mean versus instead of verse? Even editors can make mistakes (with a little help from spell check.)

  14. Linda Riggs Mayfield January 27, 2016 at 11:25 am #

    Oh, Karen–great post! I’ve been doing paid editing for others for years, and indeed, per your dramatic illustration, was confronted by one individual who “couldn’t handle the truth.” She actually took to social media to rage about what an under-qualified, overpaid, cruel and useless idiot she thought I was. Mercy.

    Surviving that, and actually benefiting from the backlash, you’d think I’d be a cheerleader for any kind of editing. But when one invitation to submit a book proposal to a publisher came, it included the suggestion–maybe even generically always part of such invitations, that I have an editor review my manuscript before I send it. I was instantly offended–I’M an editor! Then I was immediately shocked and embarrassed at that defensive response. For a moment, I had been the one who couldn’t handle it. Good grief! If we dish it out, we ought to be ready to take it–and handle it well. ;-D

  15. Kelly Criste Goshorn January 27, 2016 at 11:35 am #

    Karen, that was as hilarious as it was truthful! I just received my first round of edits this week from my editor and do you know what I did? I prayed before I opened them reminding myself before God that all comments were meant to help me improve as a writer and to put out the best product possible! That’s what I want my name on and that’s what I pray my editor will do for me! So keep standing on that wall!

  16. Pegg Thomas January 27, 2016 at 11:54 am #

    Oh. My. This is so timely …

  17. Christine Henderson January 27, 2016 at 12:15 pm #

    I have done seminars and reviews with editors and am always willing to take their suggestions. However, I have learned that editors are not perfect. In a few instances they have made changes that cause issues with continuity and basic script structure. As a result, I don’t take their changes without question. I review in detail to make sure something isn’t deleted that should be kept in place.

    • Karen Ball January 27, 2016 at 7:34 pm #

      Christine, I don’t think I’ve ever even suggested editors are perfect. Of course not. And, as I HAVE said a number of time in my blogs, the author has the final say. No one knows the book as well as the writer. The editor’s job is to serve the writer by pointing out what their editorial experience/expertise tell them are weaknesses, whether in the story or the craft, and recommend fixes.

  18. Kathy Ide January 27, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

    LOVE this post, Karen! You always “tell it like it is” and with a heaping dose of fun humor.

  19. Kathy Ide January 27, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

    I’m going to forward the link to this post to the discussion loop on The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network. They’ll love it! Or better yet, I might see if some of the people who are going to attend our editor convention, PENCON, can get together and put this on as a skit. What a hoot that would be! (Do I have your permission? We’d give you credit!)

    You rock, Karen!

    • Karen Ball January 27, 2016 at 7:29 pm #

      Sure, have at it.

  20. rochellino January 27, 2016 at 2:25 pm #

    All humor aside, refreshing and entertaining as it is, editing is indeed a very serious business. I feel in my heart that a good editor truly WANTS you to succeed. The real question comes down to competency which is usually a blended compilation of their experience, intellect, vision and, among other things, their work ethic and practices. Being totally immersed in the writing arts and its many nuances and factions can be of immense value as well. THIS IS WHAT I AM LOOKING TO BUY FROM AN EDITOR.

    Months ago I emailed an editor listed on the Steve Laube Agency website. Their experience and resume was “pretty near” exactly what I was looking for. I never even received a courtesy response telling me they weren’t interested and “where I can go to”. I don’t know why someone would list themselves on the SLA website and then not respond. Giving the benefit of the doubt (they could be suffering illness or something) I chose not to “chase”. As a result my novel remains “professionally” unedited. I am not viewing this in a fatalistic fashion at all but rather that my Father has a better plan for me and this novel at some time in the future. Perhaps His plan for this novel includes gifts for the editor as well and they haven’t been positioned yet.

    When the time comes for me to sign an editing contract with the right editor I plan to tell them “Make sure you really want to do this because, for better or for worse, I plan to give you a very
    prominent “credit” right up front in my novel.” EVERYONE will know they edited it.

    Secondly, perhaps an editor offering a reasonable fee “assessment” of the entire manuscript might give each party a “no commitment” look at each other. It would give the editor a good idea of how much work will be required and whether or not they can work with the other person (I call this the aggravation factor) while being compensated for their time. I use this practice routinely when I hire attorneys for project assignments (with the exception that most don’t charge a fee for the initial consultation, they want the business).

    In any event, GREAT POST Karen!

  21. Martha Rogers January 27, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

    Great post. I love the editing and revision part. Of course I whine and pout for a day or two then dig in and see what needs to be changed and rewritten to make for a better, stronger story. If the editor makes suggestions, I sometimes wonder why I didn’t think of her idea first.

    Yeah, I’ll think of Jack whenever I’m editing now.

  22. Melodie January 27, 2016 at 4:11 pm #

    I loved this post because of its truth. I’m speaking as a writer first and an English teacher second. I’m unpublished and learning about the publishing world. Have so much to learn. I can relate to this as a teacher too because students who leave elementary school and end up with an English major as their teacher for language arts, often cry, “But I always got As! What’s going on?”

  23. Peter DeHaan January 27, 2016 at 4:46 pm #

    I love your imagined Jack Nicholson quote. That’s the best thing I’ve read in a long time. You made my day. Thanks

  24. Jenelle M. January 27, 2016 at 5:11 pm #

    Oh my gosh, I was yelling those paragraphs in my head (like Jack would) as I was reading them wondering how long it took you to write them. I bet you rewetted that court room scene multiple times. Way to go for speaking the truth!

  25. chemistken January 28, 2016 at 7:13 am #

    Very entertaining. How easy was it to rewrite that scene? Did you have to work hard on it or did it all flow so naturally you almost couldn’t type quickly enough to keep up with the muse?

  26. Susan Mary Malone January 28, 2016 at 7:55 am #

    You know, I would play contrarian just a bit here. I’ve been a free-lance book editor for nearly 25 years, and have had nearly 50 of my authors’ books traditionally published (many to huge success). And the thing is, I help writers greatly at whatever stage of the game they find themselves. I’m a developmental editor, so of course a big part of my job is as coach and mentor, and it’s all very hands-on.
    I’ve worked with folks with enormous talent, well along the path, who weren’t willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears to truly learn this craft, fashion a great book, and never published.
    On the other hand, I’ve worked with many novice writers, who kept diving in and learning and writing and went on to publish very well.
    SO much of this is in the hands of the writer, and it’s often hard to predict who will take the bit in her mouth and run.
    Just another perspective!

  27. Jennifer Rose February 18, 2019 at 1:56 pm #

    Came here looking for process tips on how to work through my editor’s feedback… and instead stumbled upon one of the best things on the internet.

    Thank you for that great laugh!!

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