You Can Lead a Horse to Water …

I’ve been having some wry conversations with an acquisitions editor I do some work for about the resistance some writers have to editorial direction. So I was interested when a friend brought this Writer Unboxed article to my attention the morning it published.

In it, author Katharine Britton discusses just exactly how much editorial suggestion she got on her first novel (a lot).

The story unfolded in shifting time frames, with chapters alternating between the 1940s when the sisters were young, and present day. An editor liked the story and was interested in buying the manuscript, with one or two changes: She suggested I make both sisters younger and the older sister nicer.

Britton made her characters a dozen-plus years younger, softened the elder, and set their childhood in the 1960s. This wasn’t an insignificant amount of work. But when the manuscript was resubmitted, it sold to the editor who’d made the suggestions.

Sometimes that’s all it takes, you know? And by that I mean a willingness to simply give it a try. (It’s not like Britton had to burn a stack of painstakingly typed pages and never look back, for heaven’s sake; Bill Gates et al have made it very easy to keep a copy of the old version in case a little editorial experiment doesn’t work out.) There is no humiliation in receiving a suggestion and following up on it.

I’ve written about this subject from the viewpoint of the developmental editor—I generally work on manuscripts that have already been acquired. Yes: after you’ve made some changes to satisfy the acquisitions editor, he or she’s going to turn it over to someone like me, where no doubt more tweaks will be suggested.

How you react to that will determine the course of your writing career. Not, I hasten to add, because you might be branded difficult (although that could happen), but because an unwillingness to try new things (to learn) is the mark of a person who is not moving forward. Who has a closed mind. Who is not improving. Who may never reach a personal best. Did you happen to read the comments on the Writer Unboxed piece? There were a couple folks who seemed pretty resistant to the idea of being edited.

Oh, sure, it’s a hard pill to swallow. I recently looked over a short story for a friend of mine—he’s an experienced writer but new to fiction—who told me later the experience of being professionally edited “was an interesting and not completely pleasant experience,” which made me laugh. But what a lovely humility to admit that, no?

Yet note that Katharine Britton says the editorial comments she’s received have helped her grow as a writer.

Each time I go back into a “finished” manuscript and start to ask questions, I discover new facets to my characters. … Each time I’ve followed my editor’s advice and revised a manuscript under her guidance I’ve grown as a writer. And sold the manuscript.

Do I think Little Island worked the way I originally wrote it? Yes. Does it work better this way? Very possibly.

It’s a fine line between humility and humiliation, I think. Britton’s figured it out. Have you?

Tweet: How you react to editorial direction will determine the course of your writing career.
Tweet: Some writers have trouble accepting editorial direction. Why?

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.”

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One Comment

  1. April Line says:

    As always, Jamie, an excellent post.

    I love this one especially because, well, you know why.

    But I am sincerely flummoxed as to why, especially for the private citizen who hires people like us (with a view to self-publishing), a writer would balk at suggestions for which they are paying.

    I suppose I have too much faith in capitalism. Haha. It’s been a lifelong struggle.


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