My Editor Made Me Look Fat!

by Steve Laube

You just received a 15 page single spaced editorial letter from your publisher. They want you to rewrite most of the book. But you disagree with the letter and are spitting mad. What do you do?

Or your agent took a look at your manuscript and told you to cut it in half to make it sellable. What do you do?

Both examples are true stories and illustrate the universal challenge of refining your manuscript to make it the best it can be.

In the first example there was great “gnashing of teeth” but eventually my client, the long time veteran author, and the long time veteran editor saw eye-to-eye and made the book great.

In the second example my client Peyton Jones said, “Okay, let’s see what I can do.” He did the necessary work and we sold it to David C. Cook. The revised manuscript is being published in April under the title of Church Zero: Raising 1st Century Churches out of the Ashes of the 21st Century Church.

Calvin Miller once told me that he appreciated a firm editorial hand. He described it as flint striking a rock. Only when they clash is a spark created. I think he was right.

So the next time you get a revision letter from your editor that makes your blood boil consider these ideas:

  1. Relax. This is normal.
  2. Keep anger to yourself. (See the article about “Burning Bridges.”)
  3. Remember the editor is doing the best job they know how. And often they have a lot of experience with manuscripts like yours.
  4. Remember this is a negotiation, not a dictation. Ultimately it is your book and the editor is providing suggestions…not orders. (I’ve addressed this before in “The Stages of Editorial Grief.”
  5. Remember that those suggestions you disagree with may actually be valid.
  6. Communicate your frustration to your agent. We deal with this all the time and can help you understand whether or not the edit is unreasonable. Most of the time the editorial suggestions are good ones. But some authors see them as criticism, not as helpful.
  7. Communicate with your editor. Be respectful but firm if you disagree. You’ll find that editors have their job because they know what they are doing.
  8. BUT if the edits are out of line, unreasonable, or outrageous, then you have every right to object. One author was told to add a completely new subplot into a 30,000 word novella…which was already 28,000 words long. Another author had their main character’s name changed throughout the manuscript, without consulting the author. I could go on, but they are memorable because they are the exception.
  9. Decide which hills you will die on. A word here, a sentence there, a paragraph cut are not the place for the pitched battle.
  10. Every editor is different, just like every writer is different. If you’ve have the opportunity to work with different editors you find out quickly their pet peeves and predilections. But realize that the editor has the same experience with you!

Ultimately the editor isn’t trying to make you look fat…or thin…or anything except “just right.”

Your Turn:

Do you have any editorial letter horror stories to tell? (Please, no names or publishers)

Do you want to take the opportunity here to praise your favorite editor (Please use names.)

28 Responses to My Editor Made Me Look Fat!

  1. Avatar
    Diana Harkness October 22, 2012 at 3:59 am #

    I think editors must be widely hated. I edited the first novel of a talented member of my writing group and met with her to discuss it. There were no major problems and it was a good story. I told her so and suggested some directions she might take to make it stronger. I haven’t seen her since. I hired someone to edit my novel and other writings. Some of her suggestions were not helpful, but she did an excellent job cleaning up my ubiquitous commas. I think it all comes down to trust. Do you trust the editor to be working in your best interest? The same holds true for agents. You told me to rewrite my entire novel as historical fiction. It was immediately crushing, but I specifically picked you for feedback at the conference because of your long track record; I trusted you. And you were right. I’ve had one publisher interested in it and am currently waiting to hear from an agent.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube October 22, 2012 at 8:59 am #

      Not hated. It is more of a love-hate relationship. Sort of like with you mom while growing up, especially in the teen years. You heard advice that you really didn’t want to hear but knew, deep down, that it was meant for your own good. As you got older you could dispense similar advice because you knew it was right all along.

      Okay, the comparison breaks down quickly (afterall I hope your editor is not your mom!). But you get the point.

  2. Avatar
    Lisa October 22, 2012 at 5:27 am #

    I’m experiencing critique for the first time on my manuscript, it’s terribly painful.

    But, it already reads stronger. I agree fully, Diana, it’s about trust.

  3. Avatar
    Johnnie Alexander Donley October 22, 2012 at 5:38 am #

    I recently went through the edits for my debut novel, and had a lot of fun doing so. My editor encouraged me to dig a little deeper in a few places, and the story is stronger because of her input. And she cut a few of my poetically desriptive, lovingly chosen, amazingly brilliant adverbs. (A good thing.)

    Thank you, Sarah Mason!

  4. Avatar
    Nancy B. Kennedy October 22, 2012 at 5:40 am #

    In an article for Salon titled “Let Us Now Praise Editors,” Gary Kamiya characterizes editors as “craftsmen, ghosts, psychiatrists, bullies, sparring partners, experts, enablers, ignoramuses, translators, writers, goalies, friends, foremen, wimps, ditch diggers, mind readers, coaches, bomb throwers, muses, and spittoons.” Spoken like a true writer!

    I LOVE the editor-writer relationship! And the agent-writer relationship. Editors and agents know what readers want and writers can make it happen. It’s win-win all around, even though it may not feel like it when you are looking down the long road to publication. Every doubt expressed, every change requested makes your manuscript better. Even when you don’t fully agree, you can figure out a compromise or come up with alternatives agreeable to everyone. A writer can’t take anything as criticism. It’s all editorial direction.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube October 22, 2012 at 9:00 am #

      Excellent description!

      • Avatar
        Nancy B. Kennedy October 22, 2012 at 9:41 am #

        Mine have all been craftsmen and women. I think writers are the bomb throwers!

  5. Avatar
    Lindsay Harrel October 22, 2012 at 5:46 am #

    All great things to keep in mind whenever I need to work with an editor!

  6. Avatar
    Robin Bayne October 22, 2012 at 5:48 am #

    I’ve not had any horrorible experiences, but I do know an author whose editor changed a secondary character into a raccoon without asking her.

    • Avatar
      V.V. Denman October 22, 2012 at 8:35 am #

      That one made me laugh out loud. Thanks for sharing it, Robin.

  7. Avatar
    Liz Tolsma October 22, 2012 at 6:15 am #

    I’m eyeball deep in edits for my debut full-length novel. When I first got the editorial letters, I started hyperventilating at the number of suggested changes. After all, my novel was brilliant enough for them to buy 😉 However, as I’m working through their suggestions, I do realize they are right. By following their advice, my novel will be that much better and that much stronger. Thank you, Julee Swartzburg and Natalie Haneman (Thomas Nelson)!

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube October 22, 2012 at 9:01 am #

      Liz, you are truly blessed to have these two editors working with you. Julee was named fiction editor of the year TWICE this year. Once at the AWSA Golden Scroll banquet and again at the ACFW awards banquet.

  8. Avatar
    Rick Barry October 22, 2012 at 6:26 am #

    I once worked as an editor/project manager for a publisher of textbooks. Usually I worked with great authors who understood that I was there to help them look great. Once, though, an author took her galleys and crossed out EVERY edit and reinserted all of her original wording and incorrect punctuation. Not fun.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube October 22, 2012 at 9:04 am #

      Nearly 13 years ago I helped an author self-publish her work. I spent hours reworking her historical non-fiction book into chronological order so that it read like a history. She made me put everything back the way she wrote it…as a stream of consciousness meandering.

      She had hopes of it being used as a text-book. No one bought it.

  9. Avatar
    Robin Patchen October 22, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    I enjoy working with an editor, because I know only with an excellent editor will my work shine. As the writer, I can only see so much. When I write a sentence, I hear the inflection in my head, and I know what I meant to say, so if it’s unclear, I can’t see it. That’s why it’s safe to say that all great literature has not only a great writer, but also a great editor behind it.

  10. Avatar
    Deb Elkink October 22, 2012 at 6:54 am #

    A few years ago, I signed with an agent who then immediately instructed me to add 40,000 words to my 60K debut novel manuscript. Ouch! But his direction produced a much more readable book that was published and went on this year to win a substantial award I’d never dreamed would be mine. Critique stings, but now–as I work away at my second novel–I don’t feel as lost as the first time through because I trust the process will include the wonderful insight and direction of others who care to help me write a better story.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube October 22, 2012 at 9:05 am #

      Kudos to you for listening to your agent’s advice!

  11. Avatar
    Jill Kemerer October 22, 2012 at 6:57 am #

    Your number one is so important! So many writers don’t realize that lengthy revision letters are normal. Great list!!

  12. Avatar
    Stephen Myers October 22, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    There must be something wrong with me because I’d welcome such a letter if the point is to make me a better selling writer. I’ve spent a month rewriting the first five pages to become so perfect I’m stuck on the same dog walk as George Jetson and getting nowhere fast (humor).

    My first novel was my ‘baby’ so to speak though even with it (in several rewrites since) I’m ready for some guidance how to turn good into ‘great,’ and cannot wait to have both the Agent and Editor relationship to make that happen.

    At the ACFW Conference in an appointment with my editor of choice I handed a previous draft of my chapter (requested) edited in long hand of what I thought should ‘go.’ She was very complimentary stating ‘oh I think its fine. Shows you are not married to every word.’ That’s when I savored my first ounce of hope I might have a future at writing.

    Its ironic that as a prepublished writer my first novel manuscript has to be so perfect (and I agonizing how that is defined) when what I most look forward to are letters from agents and editors what should be cut, added, or rearranged to turn good into great.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube October 22, 2012 at 9:09 am #

      You nailed the conundrum on the head.

      At the initial stage (getting the agent’s attention) it does have to be really great. And at the next stage (getting the editor’s attention) it has to be really greater. Or at least good enough to get past the editors, the marketers, the sales people, and the executives.

      Then it gets edited to make it great enough to garner the attention of buyers and eventually readers.

      And THEN about 10 years later you’ll pick up your first published novel and wish you could edit it again and re-release it because you could write it so much better!

  13. Avatar
    Larry Shallenberger October 22, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    I received the long list of edits once working with an unnamed traditional publisher. Yes, I went through the full range of emotions. Looking back, 85% of the suggested revisions were spot on. My editor addressed me with a phone call. I had the sense of mind to promise to listen today and respond tomorrow. That served me well.

  14. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan October 22, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    This is hardly a horror story, but in my first article the publisher deleted my concluding paragraph, replacing it with one of his own — and which I did not understand. I didn’t know this until I saw it in print.

    Some of my friends and associates didn’t understand this new paragraph either and it was a bit embarrassing that I couldn’t explain it to them.

  15. Avatar
    Loree Huebner October 22, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    Love this post. Great tips to remember.

    I think number one (relax) and communication are the important points to keep in mind.

  16. Avatar
    Judith Robl October 22, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    No horror story here, just the perspective of a newbie. When I got the galleys of my devotional gift book back from Harvest House, I sat down with my original manuscript and went line by line to see what they had changed. After about half a dozen pages, I decided to simply read the galleys. If it sounded as if I could have written it, I didn’t niggle on a changed word or compounding two sentences, or other minor snippets.

    There were two places where the edit changed the intent, which I called to HH’s attention and which were changed to my satisfaction.

    It was a huge adjustment for my possessive, nit-picking self. But it was well worth it. I learned two things.

    1) My words are NOT sacred.
    2) My editor wanted the same outcome I did – a professional, marketable book that would bring the word of God to the reader.


  17. Avatar
    Lianne Simon October 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    Ooh! I love my editors! When Tanja Cilia contacted me, I explained that, between manuscript submission and signed contract, I’d rewritten about ten percent of my book. Including cutting the first three chapters. Fortunately, she loved most of the changes I’d made. Her obvious love for my novel made her suggestions painless. And, like an aunt watching over a wayward niece, she protected me and nudged me in the right direction. I couldn’t have asked for better.

    • Avatar
      Patti Townley-Covert October 24, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

      I loved my editors, too! Paul Brinkerhoff at Baker Books and Rachelle Gardner at NavPress. That was a few years ago and they never failed to make the books I’d worked on better. This year I co-authored a book that was self-published, and I was the final pair of eyes. Oh how I missed all those at the publisher, who had the ability to make me look good.

    • Avatar
      Tanja Cilia November 29, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

      This just came up on the Google Alerts for my name. I am humbled. It was an honour for me to edit such a touching, sensitive, beautiful book.


  1. MY EDITOR MADE ME LOOK PHAT | New Breed Church Planting - October 29, 2012

    […] following blog is a guest post from my Literary Agent, Steve Laube.  The original post is called “My Editor Made Me Look Fat”.  Steve championed the […]

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