In the art world they say a work is open for interpretation by each person who views it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that.
And so it is in the editorial world. If you give a manuscript to five different editors, you’ll get five different sets of notes. But that doesn’t mean one of the five is right and the rest are wrong. (You’ll probably see a lot of similarities, with, perhaps, differing emphases and opinions on how to remedy.)
I’ve worked on a lot of “first books”—manuscripts that were the authors’ first book deal. But reading a set of editorial notes isn’t ever easy, even for experienced authors. I’ve seen the reactions, both subtle and (ahem) less so. I’ve received my share of tart e-mails.
But here’s the thing. If you get a set of notes you don’t like, you shouldn’t assume Your Editor is wrong. Remember, I am your first reader—and an experienced one. No, what you should assume, first, is that I am coming from a place of goodwill. Seriously.
Main Entry: good·will
1 a : a kindly feeling of approval and support : benevolent interest or concern
2 a : cheerful consent b : willing effort
© 2013 Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition
In a column about professionalism written for the July 2012 issue of Christian Fiction Online Magazine,* author/editor Ramona Richards said, “Editors and agents don’t make changes or suggest changes for personal reasons. We know this is your baby. But our minds are on the readers and the book buyers, and are based on years of work with other manuscripts. Editorial suggestions are not made because we dislike your work; instead, our goal is to make it the best it can be.”
That’s it exactly, kids. So if your editorial notes just arrived in your in-box, here’s what you should do.
1. Expect to be surprised and perhaps a little dismayed.
It’s OK; everyone reacts that way. But remember that goodwill thing. Once we get started, I promise we’re going to have some fun, because I love what I do.
2. Read the notes with an open mind and open heart.
Don’t get all defensive. In his post called My Editor Wants Me to Change What?, author Richard Mabry confesses his first thought was, “Aren’t I the writer here? Isn’t my name on the book?” Oh, yes, it is. And I want you to be proud of this one.
3. Walk away from the computer and just consider the suggestions. Take as long as you need.
Don’t immediately start writing a rebuttal. You can do that later, once your blood pressure has returned to normal. If you need to vent, it’s probably best to do it with someone who loves you (a spouse, perhaps). Facebook isn’t a good choice of venue for this.
4. Don’t pout and don’t dig in.
I’ve had authors go through and undo my corrections to spelling errors, so sure were they of their own rightness (and, it follows, my wrongness). But you know how I feel about my dictionary, right? That’s an argument you cannot win. Bottom line: this is business. You should be professional.
5. Wade in. See what happens.
Mabry says, “I started rewriting, and amazingly enough, it was all coming together. By the time I’d reached chapter 5, I’d thought of some ways to put the editor’s suggestions into practice.”
6. Ask questions; I always expect pushback.
Still just don’t get it? Let’s talk about it. I can be persuaded. I can do (and have done) the “cheerful consent.” Literary agent Chip MacGregor says, “You might want to assume that even good people can disagree.” If they listen to each other, though, they can generally find common ground.
7. Don’t pretend this never happened.
The worst thing you can do is ignore the suggestions; I’m just going to bring them up again if you do. I’m also going to seek guidance from the managing editor at the publishing house (the person who gave me this job and you a publishing deal). Richards says, “When an author ignores a change, especially a major one, without feedback, the editor begins to think the author has no interest in improving. This bespeaks an ego and stubbornness that can show up in other areas of the relationship.” She also reminds authors that editors and agents talk to each other. A lot. Be mindful of your reputation.
Who started that old canard about writers and their editors having an adversarial relationship? That’s not what I have in mind at all. Again, remember the goodwill thing. Goodwill trumps everything.
* It’s new each month, with no archives, so I can’t provide a link other than this.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”