You just received a 15-page, single-spaced editorial letter from your editor. 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 salable. 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 longtime veteran author, and the longtime veteran editor saw eye-to-eye and made the book great.
In the second example, my client, at the time an unpublished author, said, “Okay, let’s see what I can do.” The writer did the necessary work, and we sold it to a major publisher. This author recently released their fourth nonfiction book.
Calvin Miller once told me 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.
Sure, some editors have a heavy hand. But then your work may need it! At the very least, respect their editorial craft even if you disagree.
The next time you get a revision letter from your editor that makes your blood boil consider these ideas:
- Relax. This is normal.
- Keep anger to yourself. (See the article about “Burning Bridges.”)
- Hear today. Respond tomorrow. If you react emotionally, the outcome is unlikely to be beneficial.
- Remember the editor is doing the best job they know how. And often they have a lot of experience with manuscripts like yours.
- Remember this is a negotiation, not a dictation. Ultimately, it is your book; and the editor is providing suggestions, not requirements. (I’ve addressed this before in “The Stages of Editorial Grief.”)
- Remember that the suggestions with which you disagree may actually be valid.
- 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. I’ll often ask a client to write their “angry letter” but send it only to me. This action helps defuse the ticking explosion but also articulates the specifics—without the shouting.
- Communicate with your editor. Be respectful but firm if you disagree. You’ll find that editors have their jobs because they know what they are doing.
- 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 novella with a contracted limit of 30,000 words; it was already 28,000 words long. Another author had the main character’s name changed throughout the manuscript, without consulting the author. I could go on, but they are memorable because they are the exceptions.
- Decide which hills you will die on. A word here, a sentence there, a paragraph cut are not the place for the pitched battle.
- 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 as you when receiving criticism!
Ultimately, the editor isn’t trying to make you look bad, only “just right.”
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.)
Do you recall the painter
of his mother’s portrait fame?
Our land produced few greater,
and Whistler was his name.
Mark Twain came one calling
to the atelier;
what happened was appalling,
but brings a smile today.
The writer said, “This cloud should go,”
and leaned in to rub it out.
Whistler was aghast, “Oh, no!
The paint’s still wet!” his plaintive shout.
Twain replied with mot quite bon,
“That’s all right, my gloves are on.”
Damon J. Gray
No horror stories.
The first time I submitted a full manuscript to an editor, I had no idea what to expect. When it came back, it was, from my perspective, “bleeding red.” The editor, sensing my reaction to that said, “This is actually pretty good.”
As I plowed through the document, I recall thinking how each of his edits was on-target, bringing clarity and ease of reading.
I love a good editor! The editors are our friends.
I was seeking an agent and she replied, telling me to cut the point of view characters from 4 to 1 and change the profession of one of the characters. She said she’d be willing to look at it again when I made the changes and to take my time.
Removing three points of view and focusing on one involved a rewrite of the entire novel. But in the end, it turned out to be a much better book. The horror story angle, though, is when I contacted her again a year later she was no longer an agent. And so the search continues.
I loved having Kimberly Shumate edit my manuscript! It was wonderful to see the ideas and message of my book become sharp and polished!
I believe God often prefers to use a team of people to bring His plans forward. How dangerous and prideful to think it’s me alone who can carry this little piece of His message to the world!
A good editor always make a manuscript better. And I’ve learned to take the edits/suggestions and make them my own.
I do have a horror story. My first novel got picked up by a small publishing house many years ago. My agent and I were delighted.
Then I got the edits. The editor was downright MEAN. They called my main character stupid and a liar. They made fun of other characters. They questioned my Christianity. And in 492 pages of manuscript, they only said two positive things.
I was devastated. My agent agreed, but urged me to go with it.
I tried. I really did. But when I got to the end of the manuscript, I was still feeling devastated. I had accepted about 90% of the editor’s suggestions but they were still adamant over some things, and again, just plain mean about it. I had worked with an editor before. I know how it should go.
So we did a conference call and I asked if there were any way we could find a way to compromise. They shrieked (yep, it was a shriek), “Absolutely NOT!!!!”
Whew! I utilized the clause in my contract to terminate and paid the fee.
When the editor sent an email informing me they had received the money order, I thanked them and said I was sorry we couldn’t find a way to work together. And that I wished them all the best. I never heard back. Didn’t expect to.
I had kept everything to myself for 2 months before telling my crit group, and they were the ones who told me to get away from that publishing house. And my mentor, who is a long-time, best selling novelist, agreed. I cried so hard my husband said if I didn’t calm down he was calling 911.
I am worth being treated with kindness.
Don’t keep this kind of thing to myself.
Even when I’m treated badly, be kind. But don’t allow it to continue.
I had a great experience with a developmental editor. We did an overview call when she sent the letter and that helped set the tone for reading her comments.
I did have a few contest comments that stung, more in their phrasing than in content, but that’s part of the process.
Great article. I adore my editor. She’s on the opposite coast however carries a bullwhip and looking for a fire whip to reach the West coast. She red pens my manuscripts to death. Funny how she always say, not at all bad, a few things – which turn out to be a few things each paragraph. On rare occasions there are a few hills to die on but that is quite rare.
I thankfully don’t have any editor horror stories yet, but I’m new to the game (past year mostly). I have had great help with a critique on a novel and adore the editing of Jessica at Havok who handles Fantasy Fridays. These experiences are helping improve my writing.
I don’t mind a lot of bleeding on my stories when the editor explains their thoughts. If they just want to make it the way they want with no care of the writer that is just as bad as the writer who wants to fight tooth and nail over every red mark slapped on their baby manuscript by a well meaning editor.
Kristen Joy Wilks
My editors have been very helpful. It is hard to change things that are correct for your region, but are not necessarily grammatically correct. I discovered several things. Using drug instead of dragged (she drug the body toward the trunk) is not correct and while tons of people in WA use it, my editor did not approve. Also, using the singular as plural is only correct for wild herd animals (deer, elk, moose) and not for bear or cougar. I mean, bears or cougars (argh!!! I can’t even type this!!!) no matter how many times you’ve heard your grandparents speak this way.
At one point, my contemporary-lit novel was given to a romance writer to edit. She insisted that, if there was a love interest in the book, the characters needed to meet in chapter 1.
I protested to the editor who’d acquired my manuscript and demonstrated that in my genre, love interests rarely met in the first third of the book.
I was given a new editor.
Pamela Desmond wright
Thankfully I have a great editor at Harlequin who is willing to go the extra mile to get my manuscripts into shape. I couldn’t imagine not having her work on my books with Love Inspired.
She red pens my manuscripts to death. Funny how she always say, not at all bad, a few things – which turn out to be a few things each paragraph. On rare occasions there are a few hills to die on but that is quite rare.