Wednesday, July 3, 2013

When It's Done

It's Wordy Wednesday, and that means...
time for some reflections from the editor's desk!

Today we'll talk about the editing process and how it differs from revision.

Every writer knows about editing. It's that thing that happens after you're finished toiling over your prose, getting it all to hold together. Sometimes, it's ninety percent of the work. If you're unpublished, then you might go over your manuscript time and time and time again, perfecting it before submission.

But that's not editing.

After getting published, an author is disabused of many fallacies about the book production process, and this is one of them. All that time you spent obsessing over your work? Well, it has a different name: revision.

As a writer, you don't do any editing. Now, granted, you can pretend to edit, but you're going to miss all sorts of things. I am an editor and an author, and while I catch many things I can anticipate my editor might, I'm still missing a key ingredient - the thing that differentiates editing from revision - namely, the objectivity only a third party professional can add.

Editing is done by the editor, the author responds to his or her editor's suggestions, and the editing process becomes a partnership between the two. That's the goal. Sometimes it takes a few bumps to discover this ideal, though.

If you've had one or more books published, you might be able relate to this common first experience. It's been six months since you signed the contract. You waited and waited, built your platform; you've probably moved onto a new manuscript. Then, you get your manuscript back, full of red font - in line changes, comments, questions, suggestions for revision. It's hard to look at that and switch out of "writer mode". After all, you will be doing some rewriting, per your editor's requests. But then you start swimming in all those comments, and never mind responding to them - your eye catches an unmarked paragraph and suddenly you're sweating.

"What was I thinking?" Geesh! Let's do this editor a favor and revise the whole thing!

You get through it all, adding in monologues, touching up dialogue tags, tweaking some descriptive paragraphs that somehow your editor missed. That scene you never felt belonged? Well, you finally took it out, and now everything flows wonderfully. You're proud of your work, and feel like this book is up to your standard, and you expect your editor will be impressed.

What authors might not realize, though, is that this "fix-it syndrome" is every editor's worst nightmare. When we go over your manuscript, line by line, we weigh everything that needs editorial consideration, then send you the manuscript so you can respond accordingly. That paragraph we left unmarked? It was because it didn't need changing. But, since you have changed it, this means we have to edit yet new material, which is simply not fair. When you submit your manuscript, we assess it based on what's there, not based on what could be there. Granted, things will niggle, and it is totally fine to change them - after a friendly email to your editor for some consultation, of course!

To modify Da Vinci's famous saying, "A story is never finished - it is abandoned." You, the author, must decide when it's time to let your story go, but that time comes before you submit it to your publisher. Revise, revise, revise, then accept that what you're sending out is finished. When it comes time to edit, trust your editor, respond to his or her changes, doing your best as a writer to take your manuscript to that new edge.

As an author, I can sympathize - it's hard restraining that urge to fix all the things you want to, after your manuscript has been sitting for months in the production queue. You've moved on to other projects, discovered new techniques, and might feel like you're looking at an older version of yourself. But that's okay! Readers love to see growth and development in writers. Put that energy into your new project - it will show. Trust that, at the time you submitted your previous manuscript, you made it the best you could.

Happy writing
Happy revising,
and happy editing!

Graeme Brown
Junior editor
Twitter: @GraemeBrownWpg


  1. Great post, Graeme. That objectivity thing? HUGE. I love editing and believe I have a knack for it. But I can't see the forest for the trees in my own work. :) It's also great advice to not make huge changes once a story has gone through editing. As authors, I think we all second-guess ourselves.

  2. Fascinating post, Graeme. You're right; we all need an objective eye. Sometimes, we work with our manuscripts for such a long time, we stopped seeing what's there. We just see what we think is supposed to be there.
    But I want to throw a 'but.' What about when a writer not under contract hires a freelance editor? She pays the editor. She employs him. And he's supposed to be objective... Seems a bit like an oxymoron. Can an editor be totally objective in such a situation, when he knows that his employer wants to be praised, not thrashed?
    Olga Godim

    1. Olga, I do freelance editing, so your comment hits me at home. It's a delicate balance to give enough praise while still providing honest, objective critiques. In my opinion, my first loyalty is to the book, not to the author. What I mean is that I'm trying to make the book the best it can be, and sometimes that means telling the author to cut a beloved scene or avoid headhopping or whatever.
      As a freelance editor, I don't have the option of insisting on changes to suit a house style. So I usually couch my critiques as suggestions and add references to "most publishers." I.e., "this scene adds nothing to the book although it's beautifully written, and most publishers would insist on deleting it."

  3. A good point, Olga!

    It is the mark of a good editor when he or she understands the book production process and sets appropriate professional boundaries - namely, work is defined by contract and the client (author) understands that part of the service rendered involves critical feedback that is based in the editor's expertise.

    An appropriately qualified editor understands the book market and the expectations of readers. And, of course, professional authors who understand that the book production process is about creating something readers will buy and enjoy, will do their part to trust the individual who has been hired - whether by them, or their publisher.

  4. Huh. When I get editorial notes from my editor at Tor, they are not embedded into the document. She sends a letter with suggestions about structural issues--add more tension to this chapter, think about adding a new scene with character X here, etc. She never does line edits at this stage. That comes later during the copyedit.

    And oddly enough, when I do edit more than the bare minimum, my editor always thanks me. She says it's the mark of a thorough author. :)

  5. Hi Beth,

    Thanks for providing some insight into how Tor's editorial process works. (I had a peek at your website, and must say I really enjoyed your essay on alpha and beta readers!)

    Your comment adds good perspective to the editor-author relationship, in that different houses have different styles. Our editors provide similar suggestions prior to content and line editing. I especially like your closing remark - it is quite true. A good author, no matter where he or she is published, knows how to make the large scale changes that will make a quality book, wherever they are required.