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?

12 Responses to Editing Etiquette

  1. Chris May 28, 2014 at 5:12 am #

    Wow, Karen. That must have been hard work. You have obviously been there for us. I appreciate setting the record straight. I haven’t been here with an editor yet and that was the part that scared me the most. You have given me the ammunition I need to defray those fears. Again. Thank you.

  2. Susan M. Baganz May 28, 2014 at 5:43 am #

    Awesome article. As an editor it can be hard work trying to repspect an author’s voice and yet follow guidelines set for me. Yet so much can also be subjective and if an author pushes back I will listen. I try to remind them that I am on their side. I want their book to sparkle and shine and I’m their partner in the process. As a writer myself I try to do it all with respect and have at times had an author call and we’ve talked. That’s been so awesome for each of us to interact as humans. So much is done via email now that the personal touch can be hard to feel and communicate.

  3. Debra L. Butterfield May 28, 2014 at 6:17 am #

    As a freelance editor, I work mostly with new authors who are still searching for their voice. So it isn’t that easy for me to find it in their writing. Creating a style sheet as you mentioned in #2 is one of the most helpful tools I use. Besides what you mentioned, I ask for details on characters (e.g. full name, physical characteristics, etc.) and setting, because quite often names are spelled more than one way in the manuscript or on pg 5 her eyes were green and on page 50 they’re now blue. Thanks for making the process smoother for authors and editors.

  4. Jaime Wright May 28, 2014 at 6:19 am #

    One of THE Most helpful blogs I’ve read lately. LOVED THIS list of editor etiquette’s. I’ve always wondered about this and you nailed it!

    • Sally Bradley May 28, 2014 at 11:07 am #

      Agreed! I’m saving this, especially since I’m sending my manuscript to my editor soon. Thank you, Karen.

  5. Nancy B. Kennedy May 28, 2014 at 7:04 am #

    I generally go through an edited manuscript twice… the second time around, I tone down the comments I made about the changes the first time through! If I don’t agree with a change and want to revert to an earlier version, or reword in a new way, I explain why. Also, I sprinkle in some encouraging words — good catch, love this change — so that the editor knows I’ve noted his/her changes and appreciate them. The more eyes on a manuscript the better!

  6. Joseph Bentz May 28, 2014 at 9:02 am #

    This is a very helpful post. I like how you emphasize how collaborative this process should be. As a writer, I am tempted to jump too quickly to defensiveness or confrontation when I see some things an editor has done that bother me. You give good advice on how to avoid that.

  7. Sondra Kraak May 28, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

    Karen, this is excellent. Thank you.

  8. Susan Faw May 28, 2014 at 8:26 pm #

    Great advice, thanks

  9. Peter DeHaan June 5, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

    I try to factor prayer into the editing/feedback equation!

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