Shortly after Leta Blake posted her plea—Authors, Tell Me How Much Editing Hurts—I was walking on a long empty beach with a friend who spent the last thirty years as a literary editor, parallel to my thirty years in technical communications.
On our walk, with the Pacific Ocean crashing at our feet, we discussed how to help new writers get the most out of the writer/editor engagement. I’m sharing here our mutual thoughts about “first edit” experience for fiction writers preparing a manuscript for publication.
What Your Editor Does—and Why It Might Hurt
If you participate in a critique group (live or online) or have beta readers you rely on, you’re used to receiving reader feedback. You get compliments, ideas for clarifying your story, a sense of what your readers perceive as your strengths, what’s strong about your writing—and likely much more.
The Editor’s View. A professional editor, however, works with your text in ways different from a critique group. Your editor has your entire manuscript in hand—not just a chapter or scene for a critique session—and focuses in deeper ways than critique partners typically can. For example, your editor considers these factors:
1. Diction and usage—beyond “correct grammar”
- Consistent diction—differentiating diction for the narrative viewpoint and for each character in dialog.
- Word choice—suggesting what context and tone require, beyond your initial choice.
- Rhythm and shape of sentences—highlighting your pet phrases, wordiness, flabby verbs.
- Clarity—identifying when a reader might misread an otherwise grammatical sentence.
- Events occur and are known to characters in relation to calendar and clock time.
- Characters’ ability to know details from any scene where they aren’t present.
- Logic and sequence of physical action.
(I once had a character mount his horse three times within the same scene. My editor’s comment: “Perhaps you want to choose just one instance.”)
3. Character development
…even if you write in a genre that doesn’t emphasize character-driven story arcs
- Does each character behave in each scene in ways that are true to that character?
- Does the emotional or psychological development of the character make logical sense over the course of the story?
What Can Go Wrong?
If you are new to having your work edited by a professional, the first edit pass can be shocking, even painful. You find yourself somewhere on the grief continuum described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, mourning the assault on your manuscript.
If you come away from the experience feeling wounded, here are some hints in relation to the list above for how to look at the editor’s comments with less trauma.
- You hear the characters’ voices so clearly. Your descriptions are lyrical and vivid.
In your head. In your mind’s eye.
- The editor reads only the words on paper (or on the screen). Your voice is not available to emphasize syllables and set the rhythm.
- If your editor misread and so mistakenly corrected your punctuation or word choice, you still have a problem to fix, even if you don’t accept the suggested edits.
- An interested reader will also get lost or miss your actual meaning.
An unconvinced reader will likely give up.
What to do?
Look for patterns in what the editor has identified.
Sentences too long? Too many gerunds? Adjectives?
For any common issue, make separate passes through the manuscript and fix the specific issue. You’ll become more familiar with your faulty patterns—and know how to fix them in your next manuscript before the editor sees the draft.
These issues and gaps typically occur in these cases:
- Long manuscript written over a long time, with many pauses.
- Multiple rewrites and restructuring.
- Working without an outline and established timeline.
What to do?
Fix these problems in a single work session, when the issues are all at the top of your mind and are your only focus.
However, these issues can also reveal logic issues in your plot. Spend a few days pondering the plot issues, and fix them all in one revision session.
Character Development Problems
OK, here’s where your first edit pass can result in hurt feelings and frustration:
- You know these characters—they come from deep inside you or are modeled on people you know. How can the editor criticize you and your personal experience?
- You know the events: “That’s what happened [in real life].” How can the editor criticize the story logic?
- You need backstory to explain why the characters do what they do. How can the editor criticize the pacing and say there’s too much backstory?
What to do?
The problems your editor identifies in relation to character development and related plot or story structure are literary gaps and errors, not your personal faults.
If your story is derived from personal experience, with characters based on people you know, then my recommendations might seem as brutal as your editor’s markup:
1) You are too close personally to the story to tell it in ways that satisfy readers. You haven’t yet learned and applied tools of the writer’s craft—and it’s very difficult for a novice writer to apply the craft of fiction to personal material.
2) Put this story aside (perhaps for a year or more) and write stories that aren’t personal, so you can freely practice the craft of fiction for story logic, character development, and pacing.
Working with an Editor in Your Fiction Career
If you were undertaking a career as a singer-songwriter, you’d be reading How to Form Calluses from a Guitar:
“The finger pain associated with fretting guitar strings is enough to discourage some people from ever learning the instrument.”
You intend to become a professional writer?
You want your work published so that readers will pay to read it?
Time to work on those calluses. You have a long apprenticeship to reach journeyman’s status.
- Your grades on college essays don’t count.
- Any writing in your job—law, commerce, technology—contributes to grammar skills but doesn’t advance the craft of fiction.
Be fearless: look where it hurts most, and work on those areas.
Next topic: But what if the editor is just wrong?
Nice piece! While not much of a consumer of fiction–although I do read the news which seems closely related–this blog had me thinking back to years ago when I made about a fourth of my income writing techie pieces for a journal. The first few times I received a piece back from the editor, I sometimes thought the editor was being ‘picky’, but would remind myself what I used to tell new fighter pilots in debriefs: “We’re not picking on you; we want you to be successful because you’re on our team.” Later, I also approached company auditors with the same thoughts: they are trying to help us.
I miss having a professional editor when I write piece related to science and wildlife that I plan to send to legislators. Friends are too prone to say “Great job,” which is not the reason I asked them to ‘critique’. I believe you have laid out clear reasons why editors are needed for fiction, and I see them applicable to any other serious writing.
So [typically used as a start to a story], an author on his way home is stopped at the mouth of his cul de sac and told by the police that he can’t continue. He’s told that some editor went berserk, killed a family and set its house on fire. The author looks, and sees that it is his house that’s smoldering. “I can’t believe it! Is it true? My editor came to my house? He really came to see me at my house? That is such an honor!”
In my tech job, we referred to writing/publishing without an editor as ‘flying without a net.’
Bob, your work with legislation to protect wildlife is so important, call me if you need a proofreader/editor. I might even come to your house.
[…] the summer of 2015. She has many excellent resources for writers on her web site, including “Is That Blood on My Manuscript?” an article for fiction writers working with an editor for the first time and “A […]