The Stages of Editorial Grief

by Steve Laube

Nearly every writer will tell you they have experienced the proverbial “red pen” treatment from their editor. The reactions to this experience can follow the well-known stages of grief popularized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Skip Denial, I’m Angry!

There is no denying that the edits have arrived. And for the author who was not expecting a hard-nosed edit, they can transition from “shocked-angry” to “furious-angry” to “rage.”

And then they call their agent.

“This is ridiculous!”
“I’ve written 35 books and have never had an editor like this!”
“Who do they think they are?”
“No one treats me like this!”

And for those without an agent…they call the editor and say the same thing. (see my post about burning bridges) I was the recipient of a number of these explosions while an editor at Bethany House Publishers.

It is okay to be angry. I give you permission.

Just be careful how you express it. In a misuse of the scripture let me quote “Be angry and sin not.” (Ephesians 4:26 KJV)

It doesn’t feel good to be told your writing needs help. And red pen on page or a blur of red onscreen is very unpleasant.

It is quite possible the editor held their breath before they clicked the send button. They might have even said a quick prayer asking that the author be receptive to the edits.

Depression: I’m a Terrible Writer

“I knew I wasn’t a very good writer. I knew it.”
“I worked so hard and look at this mess.”
“I loathe myself. I’m just a hack.”
“Why bother? I’ll just click ‘accept all changes’, I don’t care anymore.”
“My agent hates me too.”

Sound familiar?

That ol’ demon of self-doubt has wormed its way into your creative soul.

It is okay to feel depressed. I give you permission.

But only for an hour.

Then get back to work and tell that ol’ demon he has no place in your life.

One mark of the professional writer is to have thick skin and a teachable spirit.

Negotiation: What if We Did This?

This is the most critical stage in the editorial process. Talk to your editor using an “inside voice.” Calm and respectful.

All editing is a negotiation, not a dictation. Unless you are completely wrong with something, it is merely a matter of how your thoughts were understood by the editor. It is how they heard it. And if they heard it one way and you meant it another…then maybe it needs to be restated.

I once had an author who called and said, “We need to go in my backyard and wrestle two-out-of-three falls on this editing job. There are 17 places where I completely disagree with what you wrote in the margin.” So we had a long conversation. You know what? I, the editor, was wrong in 12 of the places where I had made a notation. I had misunderstood something or was speed reading and missed a nuance. But I had to ask that if I missed it, could a reader do the same? But in 5 of those 17 places, the author realized he had written the sentence or paragraph poorly. So we fixed all 17 spots to where we were both pleased. That is called “negotiation.”

You will find that most editors are on your side. They are trying to make your book the best it can be. That is their job. Granted, some editors have a heavy hand, but is that always a bad thing? I found I learned more from the hardest teachers in school because they pushed me toward excellence. But at the same time, a light hand doesn’t mean it is a weak edit. It could mean that your writing was exactly suited for this story or topic. There is no one-size-fits-all in the editing process.

Sometimes while editing I can read for dozens of pages without making a mark because I can become so engrossed by the story I forget to edit. That is instructive in and of itself.

Acceptance: Time to Write Another One

When you are finally over your angry snit and have stopped wallowing in your negative self-talk and you have communicated with your agent and your editor…it is time to accept that there is no more tinkering or fixing to be done on your manuscript.

And yes, there are times where you might still like your original more than the final edited version, but accept that it may actually be better because of the editing process.

That is the best place for a writer to be. To be done and the project on its way to your readers. One author loves to say “I hate to write but I love to have written.”

Your turn

Have you ever been mad about an edit you have received?

How often do you let critical comments about your writing make you depressed?

24 Responses to The Stages of Editorial Grief

  1. Amy Boucher Pye February 13, 2012 at 3:30 am #

    Brilliant post! One to bookmark and share.

    I’ve been an editor for more years than I care to admit and many times I’ve been the one breathing the prayer before hitting send (or in one case leaving the country!). Your description is spot on about the process writers go through, and when I’ve been heavily edited as a writer, I’m certainly not immune, even though I’ve also been on the other end of employing the red pen. ‘Who do they think they are’ is an initial reaction often. I have schooled myself to read through the editor’s changes and then set them aside, trying not to stew too much. When I come back with fresh eyes I can see where I didn’t express myself well or was convuluted in my thought.

    From an editor’s point of view, the best books I worked on were those where the author responded to my queries/changes and lifted the prose to another level. One of my favorite authors to work with told me how when his wife would read some of his stuff and point to a passage and say, ‘That’s so you,’ he’d respond with, ‘well, that’s where Amy and I had a few tussles.’ I was hugely pleased by that (chuffed, in Brit speak) because it said that at least there I had done my job to help the author express their unique voice.

    Oops; didn’t mean to write so much!

  2. DLE February 13, 2012 at 5:16 am #

    One word: humility.

    People hate humility. Question someone’s humility and the knives come out, especially in Christian circles, sadly. Pride ranks right up there in most people’s minds as one of the worst sins.

    But let’s face it, writers (as a group) are not a humble crowd, and receiving a bloodied manuscript amplifies that reality.

    Two words: Lighten up.

    Too much red should elicit no other response than a professional one. And that begins and ends with humility. Learn it. Breathe it. Live it. There’s not an aspect of life that a little humility won’t improve.

    We all think too highly of ourselves. Stop.

  3. Julie Jarnagin February 13, 2012 at 5:20 am #

    When I get a substantial edit, I’ve learned to start with some of the easy changes first. It eases me into the process, and I don’t get as overwhelmed and frustrated.

  4. Robin Patchen February 13, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    Very rarely am I angry when I receive a negative critique. Usually I look the edits over, make the changes I want to make, and discover that the manuscript is better for it. Of course the difference is that I get to make the changes I want to make, whereas if I were working with an editor, I wouldn’t have the leeway to reject the edits I disagree with. I’m looking forward to someday discovering how that process is different.

  5. Jean Bloom February 13, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    I’ve often wondered why an editor who is editing an author for the first time doesn’t begin with a couple of chapters (depending on the type of material) so the two of them can try to settle into an agreeable give and take before the rest of the project is edited. The time spent early on can save time later as well as reduce the level of possible anger or dismay. This process has worked for me a few times, but is it a bad idea in some cases? If so, why?

  6. Donna Pyle February 13, 2012 at 8:09 am #

    The bottom line is that the editor knows what they’re doing. They’re professionals who know writing, the market, and how to craft a story. I may be the odd bird, but I look forward to the red pen stage to see how I can learn and grow. Since I write Bible studies, as well, I also look forward to the theological review process. Simply because when I’m writing about Scripture, it’s not my opinion that counts, but accurate translation of the truth through the lense God’s given me. Thanks for this great post!

  7. D.C. Spell February 13, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    I got a horrible critique on a chapter in my manuscript from my writing group recently. I mean, I got slammed from all but one person. The first thing I did was feel like a failure that so many people misunderstood the chapter, so I stopped writing in the story for over 3 Weeks! It was hard to take that negative critique after glowing reviews for the 4 chapters before, but I had to get over it. Character building comes with the territory of being a writer – and I dont just mean characters in the story! Good post.

  8. Lindsay Harrel February 13, 2012 at 8:19 am #

    Wow, Steve…we’re on the same page today! I wrote about rejection in my blog today too.

    I’m an editor myself and know how difficult it can be to dish out good, constructive criticism. Sometimes, you hurt a writer’s feelings without meaning to. All you can do is pray the person has, as you said, a teachable spirit.

    So, being on that side of the coin helps me when receiving criticism on my own writing. I try to think, “This is not a personal attack. This person is trying to help.” It can still be difficult to swallow, but moving past that to improvement is the only way we’ll really succeed in this business.

  9. Deborah Raney February 13, 2012 at 8:25 am #

    Great post! Like Amy, I try to make time so I can read my editorial letter and set it aside for a few days. But before I set it aside, I open up an email and write (in my own red “ink”) a rebuttal to my editor. I go point by point and tell him/her how utterly ridiculous his comments and ideas were. How he must not have read the same book I turned in because my writing was pure brilliance and only a dunce wouldn’t recognize that, etc. etc. Note: do NOT put your editor’s name on this e-mail lest you accidentally hit send! This document is for you alone, because if you’re anything like me, when you read through your edits the second and third time, your editor will suddenly start making sense. In fact he might even start looking brilliant. By the end of an edit, I’ve probably taken 80-85% of the suggestions my editor makes. Pretty amazing considering on the first read-through I thought 99% of them were just plain stupid. ; )

  10. Patrick Craig February 13, 2012 at 8:49 am #

    Great post! Very helpful. As someone who has both edited and been on a production staff under an editor, I have applied the “dreaded red pen” and been stabbed by it. One thing I try to remember is that if the publisher didn’t like the story I wouldn’t have gotten far enough to even be in the editing process. I admit that I often tend to look at another person’s editing of my work as a personal attack, but I learned to temper that by giving my first drafts to my wife who is an excellent proof-reader and editor. Since I know she loves me and wishes nothing for the best for me I can swallow my pride and take an objective look at what she is saying. I’m getting better at receiving. It was not always so …

  11. Allison Pittman February 13, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    I’ve always thought that a good edit is like a good girdle. It’s still all me under there, but smoother!!

  12. Andra M. February 13, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    When I first started writing, critiques were knives in the back. It was more than difficult to not take them personally.

    Now, however, I look forward to them. As others have noted, it’s the best way to improve a story, and learn what mistakes to not make the next time around.

  13. Diana February 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Way back when I worked as an engineer we had a technical editor go over our letters and reports before they were sent on to our client. She was not allowed to use a red pen to mark up our work; she had to use a green or a blue pen. The color red evokes memories of graded papers in school and really upsets adults. Editors might be able to spare themselves some of the explosive responses if they switched colors.

  14. DLE February 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    I use a blue pen with an ultra-fine tip. No one complains or suffers a PTSD incident. ;-)

    @ Jean Bloom – When working with a first-timer, I ask for five pages to give potential clients a basis for fees. Since I adjust my rates according to the amount of editing necessary, I’ve seen plenty of first-timers go screaming into the night when their five pages come back loaded with corrections. Fact is, most first-timers don’t want a sample correction done. As a result, I’m changing my approach.

  15. Amy Boucher Pye February 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    @Allison Pittman, that is brilliant.

    @Jean Bloom (hello!), I’ve had the most success when the author and I have been able to plot out the book before they start in on the writing, so we are in a way passing back a chapter or two and they are seeing what sorts of changes I’d make in an edit. I’ve tried the editing of three chapters as you sugest a time or two previously but it seemed to take even more time, which in a commercial setting wasn’t viable.

  16. Ruth Douthitt February 13, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    Oh yes! I work with an editor who is VERY critical…but also constructive, too.

    He doesn’t just tell me when something isn’t working, he offers a solution that, more often than not, is a stronger idea!

    The sting wears off. If you have confidence that your story is strong, then your editor’s comments won’t cause you strife. They will only help you write good scenes that move the story along.

  17. Paula Moldenhauer February 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    My second big free-lance job with David C Cook, my editor was pretty tough on me. I am SO glad. Not only did I learn what Cook was looking for in the project, I also learned to dig deeper and write with more depth and spirit. The pushback was overwhelming on occasion, but I wanted to grow and to please her. (Maybe free-lance is a little easier since it’s a work-for-hire, not your own book, but the emotions are similar.)

    I later asked this editor what she primarily looks for in hiring freelancers. Her answer? Teachable. I’m so glad I dug in and learned from here instead of pushing back too much. It has resulted in many more jobs over the last few years from her and other editors in that house.

  18. Deb Kinnard February 13, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    I get teachable…once I get past the AAAARGGGHHH! moment. I thank God daily for my crit partner, who’s a pro editor and knows all my bad habits. She understands that the aaarrgh has to take place, though, or I won’t hear what she’s saying. All things to their season.

    Sometimes she even sends chocolate. A real 24 karat blessing.

  19. Peter DeHaan February 13, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    In the midst of completely my dissertation I was assigned to a different professor. She instructed me to undo many of the changes the prior professor had insisted I make. Had I used the negotiation approach with the first professor, I think I would have saved myself a lot of wasted time and effort — both in originally making the changes and then later in correcting them.

  20. Pete Missing February 14, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    I have experienced artistic people in many aspects of life and believe they have one thing in common – their identity lies in their work. That is what drives them and gives them meaning. You need to understand that as an editor, especially as your identity relates more to your role. That said, both parties would do well to manage mutual expectations and they must also keep the end in mind. Its a journey of mutual adjustment and negotiation, which if executed effectively can lead to trust, a long term partnership and superior outcomes.

  21. Lenore Buth February 14, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    Great post. I won’t forget your line that professional writers need “a thick skin and a teachable spirit.”

    It would help ease the pain if editors remembered to at least once in awhile point out something they liked, even just a sentence here or there.

  22. Fred Barnett July 15, 2013 at 5:39 pm #

    I killed myself after my red pen edit. Two nights later, I emerged from the grave to seek sweet revenge. While climbing out I caught a glimpse of my own headstone and was shocked to discover that I had misspelled my own name when ordering the stone. I quietly slipped back into the grave, pulled in the dirt and accepted my fate.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    [...] Trying to absorb the contents of a revision letter? Agent Steve Laube walks us through the stages:  anger, depression, negotiation, and acceptance.   [...]

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    […] Steve Laube pointed out the other day in his post “The Stages of Editorial Grief” receiving a tough edit can make a writer feel off-kilter, angry, unworthy, and summon other […]

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