Six impossible things

Being edited

“So how can you stand being edited?” is a question that’s been coming up at conventions lately. The subtext usually assumes that all editors are a) idiots and/or b) out to ruin everyone’s brilliant manuscripts, and that they must therefore be fought off with every bit of a writer’s strength and energy.

This happens not to be the case. There are, in fact, so many misconceptions inherent in this attitude that I’m not even going to try to correct them one at a time; just throw the whole notion overboard, and let’s start with how the process really works.

For starters, at most major publishing houses, there isn’t one event that is clearly identifiably as “being edited.” There are at least two, often three, and they all occur at different times and deal with different levels.

The first editorial pass is known as “revision requests.” It occurs a month or two after the author has turned in a completed draft. The editor has had time to go over it and identify things that he/she wants changed: this scene is too important to happen offstage, these two characters are an awful lot alike and could be combined to the benefit of the story, the pacing drags in the middle, etc. The editor does not, in my experience, demand any of these changes; the editor presents them to the author, there’s a discussion about which ones are or aren’t objectionable (see #5 and #6 below), and the editor and author come to some reasonable compromise (rarely does either editor or author “win” the discussion, i.e. persuade/insist on doing everything their way, no exceptions).

The author takes these comments away and produces a revised draft, which then undergoes the second editorial pass known as a line edit. This is where the editor goes through the microwriting and complains that this sentence is awkward, that the phrase “she said icily” has been used three times in two pages, that the viewpoint is floating, that this paragraph would make more sense if it came before that one instead of after, and so on.

The third round of editorial comment is the copy-edit, in which the copy-editor does three very specific things: 1) double checks factual information like dates, names of historical figures and places, etc. (this can be hell on a copy-editor who is working with an alternate history manuscript); 2) checks grammar, syntax, and punctuation as appropriate; and 3) marks things like em-dashes and en-dashes, space breaks, and other typographical stuff for the typesetter. #3 has changed from marking the changes to actually making the changes in most publishers that are using electronic typesetting, but the typographical stuff is the only thing a copy-editor is supposed to actually change. Everything else, even the incorrect grammar, they’re only supposed to query. Very occasionally, one of them gets carried away, but that’s what “stet” stamps and “reject change” buttons are for.

Depending on the experience of the editor and author and how clean the final submission manuscript is, some editors combine the revision requests and the line edit; others wait and combine the line edit and the copy edit. In all cases, the author gets to review any queries or proposed changes and approve or disapprove them.

Which brings me to the sorts of things that come up in the course of editorial revisions, line editing, and copyediting. In my experience, these fall into six loosely-defined categories.

  1. The obvious mistakes – the places where I called the character Lewis in Chapter 4 and Louis in Chapter 8, or accidentally doubled a word, or phrased a sentence so that it can easily mean the exact opposite of what I meant. These are the no-brainers, and I change them immediately and hope that the editor won’t actually remember that I did that.
  2. The arguable things – the places where I have seventeen semi-colons on one page, or have twelve places where people do the same bit of body language (roll their eyes, blink, shrug), or echo the same phrase too close together. Most of the time, these are mistakes, and I treat them the same as #1 – change immediately and try to forget I ever did something so stupid. Every once in a while, though, I want the echo of that same word, or the parallel body language, or whatever. I leave those and flag them for review as the last thing I check before I send the ms. back to the editor. Usually, I end up keeping a few the way I wrote them, but going ahead and changing most of the ones I initially flagged.
  3. The things that make the book better – the scene the editor wants added (I’ve had five to ten thousand words added to each of the last two books as a result of the editor saying “I really want to see the bit where…”); the bit the editor wants moved, or cut, or combined for the sake of clarity or tension or drama;
  4. The changes that don’t matter much to me – places where the editor wants to change “there was a difference” to “there were differences” or “tomorrow” to “Monday,” or add or delete a phrase to make a sentence clearer. These are things that usually don’t mess with the story I want to tell, so I’ll let them go (unless they noticeably mess up the rhythm of the sentence/paragraph, in which case I’ll try to come up with an alternative that does what the editor wants without messing up the rhythm).
  5. Things I’ll argue about, but I can be persuaded if the editor feels strongly. Usually, these turn out to be places where the editor was trying to fix a problem by making a specific suggestion (“Change the scene so that it looks like they’re going to kill the girl if things go wrong”). The specific suggestion gives me hives, but when I discuss it with the editor, I find out what the problem was (“There wasn’t enough tension in that scene; a death threat would up the stakes”) and I can fix it quite satisfactorily some other way, without doing violence to my story. So the editor’s happy, and I’m happy. Every so often, I lose one of these arguments; it is a measure of how right my editors are that I cannot remember any of the specific incidents that I changed. (Or possibly it’s a measure of how much I hate losing, so I wipe them from my memory…)
  6. Things I absolutely refuse to change. There haven’t been many of these, because I’ve always had editors who are willing to talk about the whys and wherefores, and usually when they’ve given me the reason they had for suggesting a change, and I’ve given them my reason for wanting to keep it, we can come up with something that works for both of us.

Editors work similarly – that is, they have changes they think are absolutely needed, and things they suggest but are OK with the writer not doing. Interestingly, I’ve not yet run into something that each of us felt was a 6 – where the editor absolutely thought it was needed, and I absolutely wasn’t going to give.

12 Comments
  1. “The editor is the person who keeps you from embarrassing yourself in front of the readers, not a murderer of one’s precious prose.”

    —Ursula vernon

  2. I for one can’t wait for an editor to take a stab at my book. They’re professionals, and it’s always nice to get an outside opinion.

  3. I have to admit to sensitivity to my work being edited. I am concerned that the editor be professional, but given the situation that Patricia described, I would not have much trouble.

    I did have a case at work where some documentation that I had carefully put together was gutted without reference to me. I did not have a backup copy and the person who edited did not keep the original. It did not occur to me that she was going to edit it, and she did not tell me that she was going to. I was quite steamed. The editor’s cavalier attitude was extremely offensive to me.

    As I recall, several pages of documentation got turned into a one- or two-page cheatsheet. A lot of what I wrote was simply tossed, and it was not already documented elsewhere. Had I been asked for a cheatsheet version, I would have extracted that and had two forms of the documentation.

  4. Speaking as an editor … I have noticed, as have my colleagues, that the better the writer, the easier the edit. She or he will usually see the problem and either take the editor’s suggestion, or come up with a fix that is even better. It is the bad writers who defend every precious word with dogged tenacity.

  5. This is what an editorial relationship should be. If you’re not getting this kind of support, then you need to think about whether this is the right editor or house for you.

    I love my editor. Everything she’s asked for has caused light bulbs to go off in my head, because as soon as she made her requests, I could see exactly what she was talking about. And I’m grateful for her insight, because I’m too close to the story to see these things. Now I know I won’t be embarrassed when it comes out this summer.

  6. #6s are the kind of edit issues that get writer venting posts. I am embarrassed by how much of #1 and #2 I’ve had. I have yet to have that level of issue on anything, but I have very little published or in the pipeline for publishing so far. I aspire to more edits in the future.

    I do wonder where self publishers find the outside eyes that good structural, line, and copy editors provide. Perhaps they leverage committed beta readers for that, or maybe they find a good fellow writer to exchange edits with?

  7. JP, I expect that some writers draw too many lines in the sand regarding their writing and collect #6s. Then, they have to justify and we get rants. Not that there are not ever legitimate ones, but I think that a lot of writers just move on so we do not hear of those ones so often.

    I have a strong sense of ownership of my writing, but feedback is important. Someone actually changing my words, I find offensive. Someone stating, say, “I do not follow this paragraph. Some of the terminology is beyond me. Could you please clarify it?” is good feedback and I will be on it.

    JP, maybe they could hire someone like me. I was a technical reviewer for a book on SQL Server 2012. I had a great time. I got just over $2000 for my work and a photo in the book. I was not expecting the latter, and it was a pleasant surprise.

    Recently, I wrote to Ilona Andrews about apparent errors in the timing of some events in _Fate’s Edge_. She allowed as that I was correct but too late. It was still a good book.

  8. A writer needs to be like a snail: acutely sensitive some places, impervious in others.

    Hard to keep them in the right places, though.

  9. Mary, you nailed it.

  10. JP: the answer is, pretty much, “Beta-readers.” Authors who’ve got the cash can also *hire* freelance editors, which can be highly recommended for those who don’t have some nitpicky betas. (At the least, a line-edit/copy-edit is often a really good idea, if one doesn’t have beta-readers who’ll perform that function, and/or a *really* good Process for switching from author mode to editor mode.)

    Self-publishers do have a slightly different balancing act, when hiring editors or listening to their beta-readers, though — 2,3,5, and 6 are all places were a cocky self-publisher can go overboard on the “My book, my way!” idealism. Or that a nervous one can be too willing to *bend* about points, especially with an opinionated editor/beta (especially one **who doesn’t actually know what they’re doing**) and wind up with a muddle instead of an unpolished but entertaining yarn.

    It’s like what Mary said, regarding snails. Or maybe Hermit Crabs… >_> *snapsnap*

  11. I’ll confess I’m not looking forward at all to being edited, partly because I’ve had such bad experiences with non-professionals, and partly because I just plain hate making changes. But that’s my issue, and I already have plans to suck it up and deal when the time comes. And having someone who actually knows what they’re doing work to make the book I’ve written more like the book I wanted to write does have a certain appeal.

    Gene, I’m totally with you on feedback versus unilateral changes. Don’t rewrite my stuff; just tell me what doesn’t work (and why) and turn me loose.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003, gc@cbltd.com

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