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.]

39 Responses to The Stages of Editorial Grief

  1. Avatar
    fabian January 20, 2020 at 5:38 am #

    Reminds me of the query “does my bum look good in this?”. Do you really want to go out knowing you aren’t presenting the best possible impression?
    Sometimes it depends on how you are feeling when the question is asked. When you are at your most vulnerable is probably not the best time. So the best way to approach edits-suggestions could be to do some rationalisations and pep talks with yourself first. [Well … that’s what I am planning to do 🙂 ]

  2. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott January 20, 2020 at 6:34 am #

    I used to have a sign in my office, “If it can be misunderstood, it will be misunderstood.” I don’t have an editor yet, but I do have a critique group. When a colleague misunderstands, it is time for a rewrite, not an argument.

    • Avatar
      Sharon K Connell January 20, 2020 at 8:27 am #

      Well said, Shirlee. I wish I had that sign, but I have plenty of others. One of mine says, “No enemy would ever bomb this place and end all this confusion.” LOL

      Signs can be very beneficial when your eyes land on one just when you need the reminder. I just may make one like yours for myself. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Paula Geister January 20, 2020 at 3:24 pm #

      Shirlee, you’ve touched on something I can relate to. I have a list of questions I ask my critique group to consider when they look at my work. One of them is “Does it make sense?” Sometimes the way I write in my own voice is confusing and I know that.

      Another question I want them to answer is “Does it stay focused?” Rather than making a long story short, I become a person who can make a long story longer.

      Both of these mistakes on my part can be dreadful for a reader. Thanks for chiming in here.

  3. Avatar
    Jeff Adams January 20, 2020 at 6:45 am #

    More than once i quit writing, but I couldn’t stop. During a yearlong mentorship by a NY Times bestselling author, I received a particularly brutal critique. “That’s it. I’m done!” But I wasn’t. At a subsequent intense weekend session in which we exchanged edits and rewrites, he returned a document with no comments. “You didn’t edit this.” He smiled. “I didn’t need to.” It’s easy to give up, but it ought to be nearly impossible to stop writing.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 20, 2020 at 11:46 am #

      Jeff, This is the perfect description of a writer growing into their editors expectations.

      Often a writer’s first experience with a new editor is full of “negotiation”. In subsequent books the writer will say in their head, “I need to fix this because if I don’t it will get flagged by Charlie.”

  4. Avatar
    Terri Robinson January 20, 2020 at 6:49 am #

    This was very helpful. Thanks!

  5. Avatar
    Ronie January 20, 2020 at 7:31 am #

    I never thought my own agent would out me publicly. Haha. Just kidding! I tell everyone that I *hate edits and love the first-draft phase. New story smell is my favorite. Content edits have me sobbing in my coffee. I’m now used to two very tough, experienced editors who have amazing skill at story/character-building, whom I’ve learned so much from. I now only cry for two hours instead of two days. LOL In all seriousness, I’m grateful for their challenge and teaching me how to deepen my craft. But maybe I shouldn’t post this right before I’m about to turn in another book … 😛

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 20, 2020 at 11:51 am #

      Ronie, LOL!

      Ronie makes a good point to the rest of us. “You are not alone. What you experience is normal.”

      Once had an author (not Ronie) call me about their edit letter…which was 16 pages long, single spaced. The author exclaimed, “I’ve written over 35 published books. Who does this editor think they are?”

      I asked, “Is everything in the letter completely useless?”

      “Well…no. Actually about 80% is very insightful.”

      I replied, “Then call the editor and explain why you are going to reject 20% of the suggestions and maybe keep the rest.”

      The reason for this author’s explosion is that they had never received such an extensive editorial critique letter in their long career. I explained that this particular editor was known for their intense scrutiny, which is why they are considered one of the best editors in the industry.

  6. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 20, 2020 at 7:33 am #

    I’m hanging by my fingers
    from the cliff above the pit,
    but while my life still lingers
    I do not want to quit.
    Denial’s quite impossible
    for now my voice is gone,
    and anger, just a carnival
    and that show must not go on.
    There’s nothing to negotiate,
    and sorrow is temptation
    that will merely regulate
    a bland self-immolation.
    But I’ll bloody not accept my death
    while I still draw shaking breath.

    • Avatar
      Sharon K Connell January 20, 2020 at 8:01 am #

      Love this, Andrew.

    • Avatar
      Judith Robl January 20, 2020 at 11:20 am #

      I am always pleased to see your sonnets here. It means I haven’t lost you. You’ve become very precious to me in the months I’ve been praying for you. Hang in there, Andrew. You are an inspiration to us all.

  7. Avatar
    Damon J. Gray January 20, 2020 at 7:40 am #

    The very first time I got a manuscript back from an editor, from my perspective it was bleeding red, but his response was something along the lines of, “No, this is actually pretty good.”

    As I worked through the suggested edits, and questions in the margin, I’d estimate that 95% or better were tremendously insightful and demonstrated where something that was unmistakably obvious to me was really not clear at all to the end reader.

    I LOVE good editors!

  8. Avatar
    Sami Abrams January 20, 2020 at 8:14 am #

    I don’t have an editor yet, but I did receive a request for a significant change from my agent. Thankfully, we handled the discussion with a phone call. She explained the issues and at first, I balked. But being the amazing person she is, she allowed me to think out loud while she interjects bits of wisdom. In the end, I discovered a way to fix the problem and be happy with the results.

  9. Avatar
    Sharon K Connell January 20, 2020 at 8:21 am #

    Good article, as always, Steve. Fortunately, I have a great editor who understands my writing and doesn’t try to change my style, but helps to improve it. She does a lot of marking errors, both grammar and spelling, for which I’m very grateful. She also checks all the other areas of my writing for flow, contradictions, etc. with her new set of eyes on the story.

    When I receive my ms. back from my editor, I take every correction and suggestion under consideration. Most of the time I agree, but there are times I don’t, and then we discuss it from both sides.

    My work goes through critiquers before it ever gets to my editor, so she has a pretty good copy by that time. When I get my submission back from a critiquer, I wouldn’t say I ever get “mad” or “depressed” about the critique, but I have felt a bit disappointed at times, mostly at myself that I didn’t see what was wrong before I submitted it. The times I do get annoyed is when someone tries to change something in the story without giving a good reason.

    When I first started to write, I did get upset, annoyed, depressed, etc. at comments made by my first Beta-reader who literally tore my story apart. She didn’t like this and didn’t like that, but gave no constructive criticism on much of anything. Once I joined the ACFW Scribes critique group, learned a little about critiquing, and learned how to critique myself, my entire attitude toward corrections changed. The critiquers gave good reasons for their proposed changes. It makes a world of difference.

    Now, I appreciate every “red mark” I find from my editor on my story, because I know she’s trying to make my work shine.

  10. Avatar
    Kay DiBianca January 20, 2020 at 8:33 am #

    I did a lot of research to hire my first freelance editor. She was accomplished and experienced. When she read the first few chapters of my book, she said she loved my style, adored my voice.
    But when I received the edited copy of my full ms from her, I was in shock. It was more red than black! I didn’t exactly rage. Let’s say I vented — to my husband. After patiently listening to my exclamations (!), he reminded me that I was the novice and my editor was the expert. “Maybe you should call her and talk over the changes.”
    Good advice. Several versions later, the finished ms was *much* better, and I began to understand the value of the revision process. It was only then that I felt that sense of accomplishment that comes from endurance.

  11. Avatar
    Sherry Stacy January 20, 2020 at 9:03 am #

    Recently a fellow writer complained that no one gave feedback on their writing. So in the writing group we are in, several folks gave feedback on the piece he submitted. The person immediately denounced each piece of thoughtful feedback. There is a reason we don’t get thoughtful edits of pieces we need to have edited. Teachability, is that a word? It should be. And there is a reason I always read your blog, you are a practical writing mentor to the many of us who profit from your wisdom. A home run again. Blessed day.

  12. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka January 20, 2020 at 9:05 am #

    I like how you use the 5 stages of grief with the editing process. As I read near the end of your post about a publisher’s acceptance of a manuscript, it reminded me of a literature class I took in college. I had one idea about the angle from which to write my paper. My professor had an almost opposite idea. I wrote it from his angle and I got a near-perfect score on it. It may not have been my original idea, but I wrote to what he thought would work and it paid off.

    I guess the same is true with our stories. Sometimes we, the writer, have to give some and be willing to make changes to meet our contract. And we have to trust that, most of the time, editors see things we cannot see in our stories and in the market.

  13. Avatar
    J.D. Wininger January 20, 2020 at 9:22 am #

    Great post Mr. Steve. Something I’ve learned, and may have to re-learn a few hundred more times, is that not all editors are right, but not all editors are wrong either. Loved your point about writing/editing is a negotiation. The editor’s job, as I understand it, is to make our writing even better. In all aspects of life, especially writing, the principles of DABDA apply. In writing, I’ve learned to always go back to one basic truth; writers and editors are members of the same team. We both want to put out the best product possible. Thanks for this great reminder sir.

    • Avatar
      Judith Robl January 20, 2020 at 11:27 am #

      J.D., I’m hopeless with acronyms. Please elucidate DABDA. Thank you.

      • Avatar
        Steve Laube January 20, 2020 at 11:44 am #

        DABDA – the five stages of grief:

        Denial
        Anger
        Bargaining
        Depression
        Acceptance

  14. Avatar
    Judith Robl January 20, 2020 at 11:24 am #

    While editing for a lot of beginning/aspiring writers, I try to use comments more than track changes because I want to be more specific as to why I’m recommending a change.

    Almost without exception, the responses have been positive. That’s because they know I’m on their side from the beginning.

    If you can see an editor as your strongest ally for getting published, your stages of grief should be less intense. At least that’s my theory.

    Your posts, Steve, are always insightful and helpful, no matter which niche of the writing/publishing community one lives in. Thank you!

  15. Avatar
    Debby Lee January 20, 2020 at 12:24 pm #

    Great article, I have felt all of these things a time or two. So grateful for my fantastic editor.

  16. Avatar
    Claire O'Sullivan January 20, 2020 at 12:58 pm #

    There is nothing more incredible in the world (except Jesus) than to write that ‘outside’ voice to send to one’s BFF for assitance in chilling out, and accidentally hit send and there it goes… to the agent/editor…

    Did I do this?

    You betcha.

    Mortified, I hoped the agent didn’t read it after I sent ‘Do Not Read, delete immediately!’

    After a rejection (well 2 more after that) and getting a Very Nice Contract after combing through your market guide, I saw this relatively early email. Figuring once again another rejection I prayed before I even read it. Being reactionary never helps.

    Instead of a rejection, I was offered a contract. On the shelf in SIX months! My editor bled all over it, and I accepted about 95% of the edits (as well as the previous agent whom I rather um, perhaps, upset).

    Passed Out. Then read it with a fine-tooth comb perhaps a 100 times.

    Anyone want to be on my launch team? 🙂 shameless begging.

    BUT never, ever yell at your editor/agent. Accept the bleed-out. It is for your own good and who is the author to argue? And make sure you remove the agent/editor’s name before you hit send.

  17. Avatar
    Sarah Neisen January 20, 2020 at 6:24 pm #

    I’m very thankful my editor is a kind, loving, encouraging woman. I’m also very ashamed to say I didn’t handle her first edit well. She suggested a complete change-up in the flow of my first chapter. Knowing me well enough she told me to go pray and call her back in a few weeks. Well, you know how that went. I bashfully returned her call and apologized profusely. Her suggestion made perfect sense for the overall structure of the book. In the last year, her efforts have honed my writing and curbed my propensity to wander down paths better left alone. It still smarts a bit when I get pages back though. She does love making it red.

    • Avatar
      Linda Riggs Mayfield January 21, 2020 at 6:32 pm #

      Being an editor myself has definitely given me a tough skin for receiving critiques. That tough skin means that I have the courage to choose beta readers I can trust to be highly objective and brutally honest when needed. As usual, I learned something from pondering your post that my editor brain hadn’t grasped before: sometimes receiving few criticisms in a critique means the draft really IS good enough to be considered DONE, not that the reader wasn’t sufficiently critical! 😉 Thanks!

  18. Avatar
    Angela Enos January 21, 2020 at 4:53 am #

    Great article. I have a book proposal and writing sample that I am preparing for the eyes of my editor. I hope this isn’t God’s way of telling me something? Just kidding. I consider myself ready to represent the character of Christ, no matter how the red pen lands on my pages.

  19. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks January 21, 2020 at 9:46 am #

    Ha ha! I’m definitely going through this right now. Starting to think that I might just need to open a blank document and try a completely different version of chapter one. Is that acceptance? Not sure, I guess we shall see if the new try is better, then I’ll know!

  20. Avatar
    Carol Ashby January 21, 2020 at 12:41 pm #

    As an indie, I pay out of my own pocket for edits to get my work to the highest quality I can. Wouldn’t it be foolish of me not to willingly consider every editorial suggestion and adopt any that make the book better? What’s the point in getting angry or depressed about a process that is only meant to help me get better? It’s like I used to tell my kinds: if something is hard, work harder at it. Editorial feedback just turns that harder work into smarter work that will pay off.

    I made my living in scientific research. It’s called re-search for a good reason. No one gets the total right answer the first time. I like having suggestions for improving my work. I weigh every comment. Then I incorporate what improves the work and ignore what doesn’t. To what extent do traditionally published authors have that option?

  21. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield January 21, 2020 at 8:03 pm #

    Being an editor myself has definitely given me a tough skin for receiving critiques. That tough skin means that I have the courage to choose beta readers I can trust to be highly objective and brutally honest when needed. As usual, I learned something from pondering your post that my editor brain hadn’t grasped before: sometimes receiving few criticisms in a critique means the draft really IS good enough to be considered DONE, not that the reader wasn’t sufficiently critical! 😉 Thanks!

  22. Avatar
    Karen Procopio January 22, 2020 at 7:35 am #

    Another inspirational post. Thanks, Steve!

  23. Avatar
    Ann Fryer January 22, 2020 at 1:03 pm #

    I’m weird, I love a good, hard edit. I don’t see an editor as pointing out wrongs, but refining words instead. And that’s exciting!

  24. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D January 22, 2020 at 2:20 pm #

    I had an editor once who missed the entire point of the book. She skipped over some important plot twists so I had to go back to her and explain….Frustrating, but she did have quite a few very good points.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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