Editing is far more than just pointing out grammatical mistakes and correcting typos. Editing, done right, takes a lot of time and consideration on the part of the editor. Comments are not made casually, phrases are not inverted without good reason, and questions are not asked for the fun of tweaking the author’s nose.
I’m barely getting started on being a freelance editor, and I can already tell you one big, important truth: if the editor says something isn’t working, it really isn’t working. If the editor tells you that lovely paragraph of description, the one that you’re sooooo proud of and worked soooo hard on, needs to go–that means that your lovely paragraph of description is, in your editor’s opinion, a bloody mess from start to finish.*
In that moment, you may well want to pick up a dull spoon and dig the editor’s heart out of his or her chest.
You have three choices when you run into a flat-out “you’re out of your mind” moment of disagreement on both sides–and it will happen. With every single editor, with every single book, it will happen. Before I tell you those choices, I’m going to back up and explain a little bit more about what editing is and is not, for the author.
Editing is not about the author merely agreeing or disagreeing with proposed changes. Editing, on the author’s side, involves sitting back and actually thinking about the suggestions and comments. (Whoah, harsh, right?) The author has to take the time to really consider what’s been said, and whether, in some aspect, it’s “right” for this particular story–and if not, why not.
The author is in charge–at least when I edit–to a certain point; style rules for publishing houses vary, of course, and some changes must be made. But if an editor says something doesn’t make sense or doesn’t work, that’s usually not a statement of the editor’s incompetency–it means the author hasn’t presented the moment clearly. Fixing that requires thought, and slowing down to sort out what’s missing and how to show it more clearly in the author’s–not the editor’s–”voice”.
Whether you’ve sold a story or are just working with a freelance editor to improve it for future sales, it’s still your story. Inevitably, an editor will point out a flaw that you don’t think is a flaw at all–and you’ll think that editor is an idiot who couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag. That’s normal. That’s ego, defending you against the hurt of being wrong. Every single writer goes through that at some point. The trick is managing that resistance in a professional and useful manner. The trick is in being assertive without being rude.
Perhaps the deadliest reaction is to explain youself. Just as in a writing group–more so, in fact, than with a writing group–never, ever try to explain to an editor. It is entirely possible that the editor was wrong or missed/forgot something. Any truly competent editor will admit that right up front. You can have discussions about contentious points without falling into the explaining trap.
Discussion: “I want to paint a very clear picture of what the character is wearing here. Which details, exactly, do you think are excessive?” — “I think you can safely cut, x, y, and z, and still present a clear image of the character’s essential style” — “Oh, I see! *rearranges and rewords a bit* How’s this?” — “PERFECT. Brilliant. Moving right along…”
Explaining: “No, see, the reason I go into detail on every item of clothing the character is wearing is because she’s very style conscious and I worked really hard on that description and my readers really like that stuff” — “So what? Six paragraphs about what one person is wearing–in the middle of a chase scene, while things are blowing up all around them–is too much detail in the wrong place.” — “But I want to keep it! It’s important that the reader knows that the character dresses well! It took me hours and hours to write that description! It’s part of my writing voice! You just don’t appreciate my style!” — *sound of the editor’s head hitting the desk repeatedly*
On the other hand, I recently had a client point out that a phrase I’d cut was, in his eyes, an essential clue to something important; that opened up a discussion of what, exactly, the secret fact was, and how he could insert hints in other spots to clue the reader in; the discussion improved the book immeasurably, we’re both happy with the result–and he’s a better writer, and I’m a better editor, for the time taken to hash it out.
So your three options, as an author, on receiving editorial feedback: One, treat it as an insult and an intrusion, argue over every comma change, and constantly complain that the editor “doesn’t get it”, is changing your “voice”, is trampling your style, and is an utter, incompetent hack that couldn’t be trusted to edit cereal box copy.
I’ll tell you from experience just what happens the moment you even look like you’re going to set foot on that road: you get the bare minimum of edits so that the editor can get that project the hell off his massively overcrowded desk and move on to projects that won’t be an ongoing migraine. You just screwed yourself out of what could have been a great learning experience, and that editor will never work with you again.**
Second option: Meekly accept everything the editor says, because they are the Voice of God; only raise your voice in a whispering protest when you’re really, terribly outraged over something they want to change, and let them trample you at every turn. As a subset of this option, you can nurse your wounds and never allow an editor to touch your work ever again (i.e., self-publish), or you can complain to all of your friends and allies about what a terrible editor this person was.
Problem with that option being, editors aren’t gods, and we miss stuff like anyone else. If you don’t stand up for your manuscript, for your vision, who the hell else will? It’s not the editor’s job to do so. It’s your job to protect your manuscript. And if you complain too much in back rooms, unless you can prove that your prose was indeed award-winning material before the editor mangled it, all you’re doing is earning yourself a reputation as a difficult author to work with; reference option one about how that winds up eventually.
I won’t say anything about the self-publishing option, because that’s a firestorm I’m just not opening up, pro or con. I’m making a point about editing here.
Option three is to see your editor as a partner; someone who genuinely wants what’s best for you and your manuscript, but who may not entirely understand your vision just yet (rumors to the contrary, we’re not actually psychic). This option allows you to have a discussion, as noted above; allows both sides to argue back and forth, and dig their heels in, and yell at one another if they feel the need–and in the next instant, crack jokes, reverse their positions without warning, and come up with screwball, out-of-left-field fixes for plot holes that wind up meshing in perfectly. That approach is where editing gets fun. And that approach is where editors and authors alike get to learn and grow.
I’ve been blessed with a great editor. I’ve had my work hacked apart by bad ones. Years ago, I made one web site pull my name from every article I ever wrote for them, because they’d completely changed my work and put an unacceptable bias into some carefully objective pieces. I’m extremely fierce about protecting my words.
But when they’re the wrong words, they’re the wrong words. And, folks? At the end of the day–however hard you sweated over them and searched through dictionaries and thesauri and great works of poetry and the works of your favoritest ever writers–they’re just words. If a phrase or description or gimmick or trick you just loooooved runs into a stone wall of editorial disapproval and you just can’t find a compromise position anywhere–let it go. Set it aside to use in another book. Maybe it’ll fit better there. Maybe you’ll learn where the flaw is and how to fix it.
Seriously. Words are important, sure, they inspire, they hurt, they carry a massive impact throughout our entire lives. But when it comes to writing a book–and especially when it comes to responding to editorial comments–remember–it’s all just words.
Don’t get too attached to them. There’s lots more where those came from***….
*After-thoughts: I was perhaps too harsh in using the term “bloody mess”. I personally, on further reflection, don’t always think something I tell a client is “not working” is really that bad–but I also think that the strong language used in the post conveys the point better than waffling around about “sometimes” situations. As I think I’ve said at some prior point, I’m not going to be able to make everyone happy–and waffling statements don’t convey the point nearly as well as strong, definite language. I’d rather be too harsh than stay safely in the grey, non-offensive area…
**After-thoughts: This is of course not true of every editor. Some are bloody-minded enough to shove through the client’s resistance and persuade them of the changes. I do my best to do so; I want every client’s book to be the absolute best it can be. I have found, though, that the more time I need to spend explaining why I’m suggesting a given change, and defending it against multiple rounds of “but that’s just my style!”, the less time I have to spend on actual editing–and the less patience I have for explaining myself further. Extrapolating from my experience to that of the big house editors, who are doubtlessly far more overworked and overstressed than myself, and I begin to understand the crappy editing jobs that seem so prevalent these days. The miracle may be that any really good editing ever gets done, actually….
***After-thoughts: One of the most frequent complaints I’ve had about my editing is that I often wind up cutting huge chunks of unnecessary, repetitive material from the manuscript (between five and ten thousand words, on average). This loss of excess wordage causes most authors intense distress, understandably enough. The irony here is that each of my own books somehow grew longer in editorial…and I’d expected to (and prepared myself to) see them shrink considerably. Go figure….