Editing Etiquette

Growing frustration

Writers and editors have a love-hate relationship. Okay, sometimes it can feel like a hate-hate relationship. Writers all know they need to be edited, but getting the manuscript back with those edits can be more painful than passing a kidney stone. And editors know they need to respect the author’s voice and style, but seriously? They want to use an em dash where? Generally speaking, though, we work things out. We talk it through, wrestle our disagreements to the ground, and come out pretty much unscathed. And the manuscript is the better for it.

But what happens when the writer disagrees with the edit? When, in fact, the writer feels the edit has changed his voice, or that the editor has so “corrected” things like grammar, phrasing, and punctuation that it’s no longer her book. Trust me, I’ve been there.

I still remember receiving one of my novels, opening it with great anticipation–and reading a sentence that was written in a way that I’d been teaching writers for years NOT to write. I went back to my version of the edited, author-approved manuscript, and the sentence was NOT written as it ended up in the book. I was on the phone in a matter of seconds, having a heated conversation with the in-house editor, who explained that a new copyeditor had worked on it and they’d discovered too late that this person had “corrected” a number of novels in ways that angered a number of writers. Happily, those things were corrected in the next printing. Unhappily, there are books out there that make it seem like I was saying, “Do what I say, not what I do.” Argh!

Thank heaven those kinds of circumstances are rare. But lately, I’ve heard a number of writers talking about how they wish an editor hadn’t made this change or that change. And that got me to thinking. Are we who have been involved in editing a long time preparing authors well for the editing process? So here, for your perusal, are some tips for getting through the editing process with grace—and being happy with the final version of your book.

  1. Before the editing starts, ask your editor for a conversation. Use this time to help the editor know why you wrote the book, what’s important to you about it, and what you feel are your specific “quirks” as a writer. What makes or breaks your voice. And remember, a good editor is there to help and serve you, to draw out your best and truest voice and story. Say it with me, now: “My editor is my ally.”
  2. Put together a style sheet to send the author with your unedited manuscript. Basically, you’d list any style notes (e.g., author prefers deity pronouns capped or Author detests using semicolons. Please do not insert them. Or Because this is a work of fiction, grammatical errors abound in the dialogue. That’s intentional on the author’s part for authentic speech patterns. Please do not fix them. ) That will give the editor clear direction right up front.
  3. Go into the process with a teachable spirit. The collaboration that takes place during the editing process can make you a stronger writer, either by refining your craft or by helping you better understand your own voice as a writer. Did I mention your editor is your ally?
  4. If you get your edited manuscript back, and you see edits you don’t agree with, you are the final call. It’s your book. Just realize two things:
    1. Make sure you understand why the editor was suggesting the change. It may be that you don’t like their solution, but the problem does need to be addressed. If that’s the case, go ahead and find a solution that works for you.
    2. Realize that some edits may be made because of the publishing house style or guidelines. If those are some of the edits you can’t live with, you can still say no. But realize if you do so the publisher may say they won’t publish the book without the changes. That’s an extreme situation, but it can happen. So you have to decide if it’s a hill to die on, and if it’s important enough for you to walk away.
  5. Be sure you deal with any issues during the edit. Don’t wait until you get galley proofs to say, “You know, that edited paragraph has been bugging me since it was first changed. I’d like to strike it entirely.” That’s the kind of thing that can make people in house crazy. (And it can end up costing you money to make those kinds of changes that late in the process.) Be honest with your editor. Respectful, but honest. (One more time now, your editor is your…?)
  6. Understand that editors are humans (Now stop that! Yes, they are!), and they come to the editing process with their own preferences and agendas. I’m not saying they purpose to do things that will make you grind your teeth, but sometimes we’re put together with an editor who isn’t the best match, such as someone who prefers a more academic tone to your casual, conversational writing style. Don’t be afraid to stand firm for your voice, your story, your characters, whatever. Be ready and willing to discuss, even debate, to get your point across. But do so with kindness and patience.
  7. Make sure you put your requests for changes in writing. And keep copies of those emails, manuscripts, whatever. There may come a time when you realize a change wasn’t made, or that one was made after you approved the manuscript, and documentation can give you a much better chance of getting things changed back to what you feel is best—and what you asked for in the first place.

Anyway, those are some tips to help during the editing process.

How about you? Any thoughts or tips that have made being edited easier?

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What About Medium Stuff?

Today I stand in support of medium stuff. There is no argument that big important things deserve our undivided attention. There seems to be some disagreement over small stuff…do we sweat it or not? According to the Stan Jantz and Bruce Bickel’s book, God is in the Small Stuff, we …

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Book Proposals I’d Love to See

By God’s will and pleasure, during my career as a literary agent I have been successful in representing authors writing Christian romance, Christian and general market trade book fiction, and Christian nonfiction. My interests have changed very little since my first blog post for The Steve Laube Agency, “Happy to Be …

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Chapters: How Long is Too Long?

I’ve had a number of people ask me lately how long their chapters should be. My answer has been: “As long as they need to be.” Now, it would be nice if I could give folks the “industry-standard” answer: “Chapters should be no less than xx and no longer than …

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Still Wanted: Writing that Sings!

Anyone who has jumped into the waters of agenting knows they’ll be asked one question, over and over and over:  “What are you looking for?” Well, now that I’ve got a couple of years of this amazing work under my belt, let me build on what I said when I started. Back then, I said I was looking, first and foremost, for books that glorify God, then for writing that sings, that speaks to the heart and spirit, that uplifts and challenges. Well, that’s all the same! But there are a few clarifications I want to make.  First, here’s the not so good news:

What I’m Not Looking For

Children’s & Middle Grade Books: As much as I enjoy reading these books (that’s one of the only perks to never having had children—I get all the kid’s books!), I am not representing them. It’s not that I don’t see the need. It’s simply that I’m not experienced with these kinds of books. My work lo, these many years in publishing, has been with adult books. Now, I have worked with Young Adult fiction and nonfiction, but I already have some great clients in that category and am not, at present, looking for more.

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When Editorial Errors Matter

by Steve Laube

Writers make mistakes. It happens. Often an editor’s job is to be the safety net and catch those tidbits that find their way into an early draft of a manuscript for any number of reasons.

The simplicity of “cut & paste” has created more opportunity for error than ever before. I’ve seen half sentences left in their original place because the writer failed to cut and paste accurately. Many books evolve over time with additional research or new thoughts. Errors can creep in this way. I’ve seen an author actually contradict himself between chapters. There are too many details to keep straight so the writer overlooks the inconsequential trusting the editor to fix things. I remember talking to a Bethany House editor who revealed that an author accidently brought a character back to life, forgetting that the character had died earlier in the story.

None of the above examples ever found their way into the final edition of the book and the public never knew the error was made. An editor caught it and fixed it. That is why errors found in a finished and published book are so jarring.

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Ancient Wisdom from an Ancient Editor

by Steve Laube

I came across a remarkable section in a book written around 124 B.C. The editor of the book wrote the following preface to help the reader understand his methodology and purpose. It shows the concern a good editor has for the ultimate reader. His job was to abridge a massive five volume work into an abbreviated 16,00 word document. Can anyone tell me where this comes from and the name of the editor? (Without googling the text!) I’ll reveal the answer in the comments later in the day.

The number of details and the bulk of material can be overwhelming for anyone who wants to read an account of the events. But I have attempted to simplify it for all readers; those who read for sheer pleasure will find enjoyment and those who want to memorize the facts will not find it difficult.

Writing such a summary is a difficult task, demanding hard work and sleepless nights. It is as difficult as preparing a banquet that people of different tastes will enjoy. But I am happy to undergo this hardship in order to please my readers. I will leave the matter of details to the original author and attempt to give only a summary of the events.

I am not the builder of a new house who is concerned with every detail of the structure, but simply a painter whose only concern is to make the house look attractive. The historian must master his subject, examine every detail, and then explain it carefully, but whoever is merely writing a summary should be permitted to give a brief account without going into a detailed discussion. So then, without any further comment, I will begin my story. It would be foolish to write such a long introduction that the story itself would have to be cut short.

Note a few pearls of eternal wisdom from this ancient editor:

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The Writer as Editor

As we saw in my post last week, there are any number of ways a manuscript can go wrong. Hard enough to write a novel, but then to have to dig in and edit it yourself? That’s especially tough. So here are some tips to help you be the best editor you can be.

Don’t let the editor out to play too soon

Writing and editing are very different functions for the brain. Writing is a creative process; editing, logical and detail-oriented. When writing, we need to let ourselves forget the rules and coax the story to life. When editing, we must embrace the rules as a solid foundation to help us strengthen what’s landed on the page. I’ve seen so many writers almost drive themselves crazy by trying to edit as they write, which ends up making them second-guess everything. And freezes the story in its tracks.

Puts me in mind of one of my favorite pens (pictured below). It’s a two-tip pen—black ink at one end, red at the other. The body of the pen is made of two colors of wood, one with black tones, one with red. One end for writing, the other for editing. The pen works great—so long as I only use one end at a time! Trying to edit and write at the same time would be like grabbing the pen at both ends: totally ineffectual.

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Editing 101 – Your Turn

I’ve had a number of writers ask me if I can show an edited page from a manuscript, so they can learn from it. So that seems a fun way to start out the New Year. But what I want to do is let YOU take a turn as an editor first. So here, for your editing pleasure, is something I wrote just for this occasion. Print this out, put on your editing hat, and go for it. I’ll post the edited text next week, so we can compare and discuss!


Sammy said it was a long time since he seen Rufus. Said the ol’ dawg shoulda been home long time ago. Said somethin’ musta happent to the mutt and said it was my fault fer bein’ sew stupid and not tyin’ him up wh’n I shoulda. “Gilly, you no good” he says to me. Like he’s so good and special.

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