Nice Work—Just Change Everything

I’d been waiting for my editor’s call since roughly three seconds after I turned in my latest book manuscript. The following Thursday, I got out of the shower and noticed my answering machine light blinking. My heart went into spasms.

“It’s terrific! Even better than I expected,” her voice crooned over the machine. I squealed with glee, then convinced myself that I knew all along she was going to love it. The woman went on for a full two minutes about how wonderful this book was and how she couldn’t wait to work with me again.

“Of course, I have some suggestions,” she mentioned at the end, “but it shouldn’t take you long to make the revisions. I’ll e-mail it back to you soon.”

A few days later, I opened the marked-up and highlighted file and wondered when my editor had turned into a compulsive liar. If it was so terrific, why was every other sentence highlighted? Why did she cut my best lines? Why did she decorate this glorious manuscript with words like “redundant” and “awkward phrasing” and “this part isn’t working for me”?

Even after 10 books, I still manage to summon the same shock and frustration I had when I was a newbie. By now, I know full well to expect my book manuscript to come back decorated with several dozen notes, questions and complaints … but it never lessens the horror I feel at the sight of that marked-up first page.

Today, though, I’m better equipped to deal with my feelings about the editing process, for both my books and the freelance articles I write for magazines. I take steps to keep myself grounded when the inevitable revision notes come flying at me. I hope these steps will help you, too.

Find a Fume Friend
When I get my edited manuscript back, I scan through it and read all the comments quickly. Then I fume. Usually to my husband or my mom.

“This editor is crazy!” I’ll proclaim with hands thrown in the air. “Why didn’t she tell me she hates the word ‘juxtapose’? And she cut four pages in Chapter 3. Four pages! Nothing makes sense without those pages! And can you believe she said my ending was clichéd?”

My husband and my mom, being the world’s best husband and mom, will back me up unconditionally and tell me my editor must be so awed by my inherent writing genius that she’s trying to sabotage my book so it doesn’t overshadow all other books for eternity.

If you don’t have a fume friend, you can always join a writing group (online or in person) and trade supportive shoulders with someone who will understand.

Back Away From the Manuscript
After I’m done ranting, I put down the manuscript for 24 hours and let myself cool off. I eat things that are no good for me, watch brainless movies and paint my toenails.

When I return to the book, the comments never seem as bad as they did earlier. For some reason, upon first read, edits usually feel like personal attacks. Upon second or third read, they begin to feel more like constructive suggestions. If you can take two or three days off before returning to the book, all the better.

Know That Red Ink Means She Cares
Then it’s time to work on my attitude.

It’s likely that my editor wasn’t lying. She probably does think my book is terrific. That can be hard to believe when I’m staring at 215 comments and strike-throughs. But I make myself remember that if she didn’t care about this book or believe it was worthwhile, she wouldn’t have put so much time into trying to make it its very best. And don’t forget: It’s the editor’s job to scrutinize a manuscript like the pickiest critic imaginable and find every niggling detail anyone could complain about. That doesn’t mean she dislikes the work or the writer.

Not all editors have a great bedside manner, either. Some deliver their medicine with a spoonful of sugar while others deliver it with a mouthful of thumbtacks. Worse, we often “hear” text as insulting when it’s not meant to be. A rushed editor’s comments may seem snippy because his editing time needed to be spent focusing on the negatives, not lauding the positives. He may have had a thousand compliments in mind while he was working, but he assumes I know the work is good and don’t need to hear it over and over. Think of every untouched sentence as a compliment.

Start Simple
Get through the easy stuff first. There are probably many simple suggestions in the manuscript—places where the editor wants clarification or a small change in wording. Letting go of these small changes isn’t painful, and I know that once I handle them, the volume of the work left seems like much less.

Prioritize Your Arguments
When I get to editing remarks I disagree with, I try to look at them through my editor’s eyes. Why did she want this change? Is there another way for me to fix the problem? If not, I keep notes according to how strongly I feel.

It’s OK to question changes; just choose your battles. Don’t get into a war over a comma placement or a sentence she wants cut and don’t talk to your editor while you’re still feeling stung. Make sure you’ve had a day or two to digest the comments, then decide which changes you feel will significantly hurt the work. Now make a list in priority order: Which edits can you not bear to make? Which ones will bother you to make? Which are annoying but not agonizing?

Be prepared to explain why.

In a perfect world, you and your editor will be in agreement on every edit. In reality, there will probably be some back-and-forth debate.

Some writers shield their work like mother hens, ready to peck the editor’s hand off if he so much as questions one syllable. But just as mothers have to ease up and let their children find their way in the world, so do writers have to loosen their grip on their precious words once a publisher has bought them.

The priority list you made earlier can be a bargaining chip. You can give in on lower priority edits if the editor will agree to ease up on the “not on your life” edits. Keep in mind that the editor isn’t your enemy or your buddy; he’s your teammate. Work together to benefit from each other’s strengths.

Keep a Happy File
Either on your computer or printed out (and possibly wallpapered all over the room), keep a running list of the greatest compliments you’ve received as a writer. This may include positive comments from editors, fellow writers, teachers, family and friends, as well as readers of your work. If you’re feeling down about the criticisms of your current work, refer to this file often. You might even read it aloud into a tape recorder and play it back for yourself as you write.

If you haven’t yet accumulated a pile of compliments, your happy file might include inspiring quotations, love notes, funny photographs or anything else that might lift your spirits.

Picture the Rainbow
The harder you work on something, the more satisfying the result. Even though the editing process can be emotionally grueling, it has rewards. Each time you work with an editor, you advance as a writer. Ideally, your craft will improve from the editor’s insights, but even if it doesn’t, you’ve learned more about this editor’s tastes (making it easier to work with her next time), worked on your revising skills and received the benefit of feedback before the work is published. The editor may have saved you from criticisms of reviewers or readers.

Most important, remember that there will be a rainbow after the storm. Your work, with your byline, is going to be in your hands soon. And with any luck, the pot of gold will follow.

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