Not Until They Pry My Cold, Dead Fingers … (How to Let Go)

The final copyedit is not the time for you to do a rewrite, sugar. And this is the third so-called final. Stop it. You should have done all this rethinking before now! Your Editor is losing her patience.

It’s time for us to talk about how to let go. And why you should. So let’s go over the steps in this writing-to-published dance.

1 Work in progress: Write as many drafts as it takesI don’t want to see any of them.
2 Final manuscript: Send this one to your publisher (or to me).
3 Developmental (content) edit: Rewrite and/or make revisions based on editorial notes.
4 Copyedit: Fix any writing awkwardness and make the manuscript consistent with U.S. publishing standards.
5 Typesetting: A designer makes it look like a book.
6 Proof: Checking for errors introduced by the typesetting process.
7 Print: Book’s done!

That’s the short version.

One of my experienced authors wrote to say she was reviewing her final manuscript. “I’ll send it to you in the morning,” she said. “I must un-pry my fingers from it.” I find this reassuring. It’s perfectly healthy to acknowledge that you want this to be your very best effort. I’ll wait as long as you need to feel good about it. Setting a deadline for yourself is smart, though. And then … you let it go.

Another author who is readying her final manuscript for the developmental stage—her first time to work with an editor—sent me this email:

I looked back over the rewrite, and now I want to rewrite the rewrite. I realize this is good, because it’s a reflection of improvement in my writing. But where does this end? No doubt I would rewrite the rewrite and then want to rewrite the rewrite of the rewrite and so on ad infinitum. What should I do?

Oh, I do understand! (If you only knew how many times I’ve rewritten this post …) Try not to get caught up in this endless loop of uncertainty. But how?

Generally I tell people to set it aside. (This happens, of course, when you send it to me—you have to stop because there can only be one official manuscript, and it’s either in your court or in mine.) But you should definitely set it aside after you’ve finished an entire rewrite. Work on something else. Start sketching notes for the next novel, or whatever. Something that will make your mind let go of this one. Then you can go back to it days or weeks later and read it with refreshed eyes.

If you’ve read this article about the creative process (or this one), you’ll see that the work-in-progress phase is what we call preparation and setting it aside would be incubation. Notice the suggestion to focus on other things. In our daily lives, of course, we’re forced to set our hearts’ projects aside all the time: dinner has to be cooked, kids have to be bathed. Sometimes that’s enough for incubation. I think the most important thing is to not fret about it. I do want you to be at peace when you send me your final draft for the content edit. Work through it, and then let it go.

When we’re working on a content edit, the first pass will be the most work (for both of us). After that we may hand the manuscript back and forth a few times (depending on what I’ve been hired to do), but on each pass the amount of change to the manuscript should diminish. At the end, we have a final, author- and editor-approved manuscript for the publisher’s copyeditor. (Whether the publisher is you or a traditional publishing house.)

Last year I sent what I thought might have been the final pass back to the author, but she tinkered with it a little more—a word here, a line there. “I think one more pass should do it,” she wrote. “Mostly everything’s ready, I just need a little more time standing at the edge of the high dive.”

I love that. Let’s do take a moment and appreciate this good work we’ve done together. I’ve learned so much by watching your process. (For real.) So by all means, take a deep breath. And then … take the plunge. Let it go. Your Editor’s happy with this one.

Notice, then, that copyediting follows developmental editing. You’ve had plenty of time to tweak and tweak again during the content edit (because, remember, the manuscript has already been through several of your own passes). So when you see the manuscript again in the copyedit phase, remember that you’ve already approved the content and the way it’s presented. So your job, at this point, is to trust the copyeditor. (There are exceptions.) If you see a word or phrase or even a sentence that’s wrong, by all means, change it. But this should be a rare thing, not an every-other-page thing. And you should definitely not be adding new material. (There are always exceptions, yes. But it should be an extraordinary circumstance that requires new material in the copyedit phase.)

I’ve seen authors change a line and then change it back in the next pass. When you get to this point, you need to tell yourself to let go. Don’t be one of “those authors” who are never, ever done. How will you ever move on to the next project if you can’t let go of this one?

This goes double for the proofing stage. When you get your advance copy, celebrate! Read it over, yes. Look for those things the proofers will be looking for, and if you see something you and the copyeditor missed, definitely point it out. Everyone involved in this process wants this book to be great. And if you’ve done your work in the other phases of the process, it will be. Let it go!

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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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  1. By Editor Fear on 20 February, 2017 at 11:46 am

    […] I never heard from the husband, though his wife brings it up when she sees me. He’s going through it one more time, she says. And I tell her I understand. […]