Can You Handle the Edit?

There’s a lot about being a freelance editor that’s fun. But some things that just…aren’t. Like telling a writer that his manuscript isn’t ready to be edited. This happens most often before an editor agrees to do an edit, when they read the sample of the manuscript. There are times, though, when those first pages are pretty good, so the editor takes the project on. And then, when he’s deep in the fabric of the manuscript—alarms go off and the hard truth hits: the manuscript isn’t ready to be edited. That’s never a fun call to make. For the editor or the writer.

Writers react with hurt, frustration, even anger:

“What do you mean it’s not ready for editing? Are you crazy?”

“It has to be ready! I’ve been working on it for five (or ten…or twenty) years!”

“My critique partners love it. The problem isn’t my manuscript, it’s you.”

“Isn’t that your job? To fix the problems?”

And the editors sit there, criticized, yelled at, or feeling lousy for making a writer cry. Nope, not a happy situation for anyone. In fact, this can become a situation where the author decides the editor is the bad guy. But friends, when you hire an editor you’re asking them to tell you the hard truths. To speak to the weaknesses in your writing and to help you overcome said weaknesses. And when you send your manuscript to an editor, asking for an edit, you’re asking her to speak to whether or not your manuscript is ready for an edit. That’s her job. It’s what you’ve asked her to do for you.

So here’s what I’m going to do for you writers and for my fellow editors. I’m going to plant my tongue firmly in my cheek and let a scene from the movie A Few Good Men speak the hard words editors sometimes need to say. Writers, take it for what it’s worth (which, admittedly, you may think is zilch). Editors, feel free to pass it on when you need it.

Picture it with me. Jack Nicholson, decked out in a Marine officer’s uniform, lip curled into a snarl, leaning forward and pointing at you with the red pen clutched in his gloved hand, while that signature voice grinds out:

“You want the edit? You want the edit?? You can’t handle the edit!

“Kid, we live in a publishing world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded. Who’s gonna do it? You? Your mama? Your critique team? Editors have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for your darlings and you curse the edit. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that my turning down this edit, while tragic, probably saves you hours of wasted time. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, serves your needs as a writer!

“You don’t want the edit yet, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at launch parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like ‘POV,’ ‘Show verse Tell,’ ‘Unique Voice.’ We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending quality in literature. You use them as buzz words in conference ice-breakers. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a writer who writes and revises under the blanket of the very quality that I help him find within himself, and then questions the manner in which I help him! I would rather you just said ‘thank you’, and went on to top the best-seller list. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a red pen, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a flying fig how good you think your manuscript is! Sure, this story needs to be told–but you can do better!”


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