A little while ago I tweeted a bit about working with an editor and taking and using constructive criticism to make your book better. The initial tweet in my thread gained quite a bit of traction, and even as I was tweeting I knew this was a topic deserving of its own blog post, where I could lay out my thoughts in greater detail. Well, here is that blog post!
As a sort of disclaimer, I want to make it clear that what I’ll be talking about here is working with an editor at a publishing house who has acquired your novel. I do not personally have experience in working with freelance editors, etc., so I can’t speak to what that process is like specifically, nor do I know how the editing process goes for nonfiction. But I think the general spirit of what I’m saying here can apply to working with anyone providing edits/constructive criticism, be it your agent, your editor, a freelance editor, etc.
The absolute key thing to know about the author-editor relationship is that it is, it should be, a partnership. I think that often this isn’t something that is generally understood by aspiring authors and even debut authors when their book is first acquired. Which isn’t surprising; if you’ve never had a book published and never worked with a professional editor before, you wouldn’t know! But, again, that relationship is meant to be a partnership. An editor is not there to rewrite your book; to demand that you remove certain scenes or plot points or characters; to tell you how to change your book. No, what you and your editor should have is a collaborative relationship, an ongoing conversation on how to make your book better. They are helping you make your book better. Isn’t that what we all want?
I’ve heard, many times, aspiring authors react with dread and even anger to the idea of an editor “changing” their book. I cannot stress enough that this is the wrong attitude to have. A little tough love here: your book is not perfect. (Okay, technically no book is perfect, published or not, but you get my point). Your book can absolutely be made better. Especially in their earlier stages, books can ALWAYS be made better. And here’s the thing: there is only so much the person writing the book can do to improve it. I have seen this time and time again in my own work, and in feedback I get from critique partners, agents, and of course, my editor. When you’ve been working on something for so long, you lack an objective view; you’re so entrenched in the plot and characters and the world that you can’t see it as clearly as an outside reader would. This where your outside eyes (critique partner, agent, editor) come in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten feedback/notes on one of my manuscripts with a suggestion that will so greatly improve the book that I slap my forehead and say, “Why didn’t I think of that??” These things oftentimes seem so obvious once someone points them out. But that’s the key: once someone points them out. My books have been improved so much by the ideas and feedback of others that I would never in a million years have thought of or seen myself. Because I’m too close to the work, I can no longer see it as clearly as it needs to be seen to be improved.
So, personally, I look forward to getting my edit letters. I look forward to hearing what thoughts my editor has on how to improve my books. It’s exciting to me, to know that there are ways and ways to improve the book that I haven’t thought of. I mean that sincerely.
Now, certainly, the editorial process can be scary and anxiety-inducing the first time you go through it, as a debut author. That’s normal! You’ve never done this before, and no amount of blog posts/articles/interviews with authors can prepare you for all the feelings you’ll go through when it’s YOUR BOOK going through edits. But! We can certainly talk about what that process looks like. Of course, every editor is different, but the standard process – based on my experience and that of the other traditionally published authors I know – looks something like this:
1. Once your book is acquired/turned in, your editor will go through to do his/her first edit. This results in them sending you, the author, what’s called an edit letter. The length of these can vary widely based on a lot of factors, but basically in it the editor gives you his/her thoughts on the book overall: what’s working well, what isn’t, what needs to be addressed in the next draft. They will then give you thoughts on specific scenes/plot points/character arcs/etc., as well as specific suggestions on how to fix what they feel isn’t working well, or what they feel needs to fleshed out/cut down/given more detail. These suggestions are meant to guide you as you revise. Maybe some of them work for you and you do exactly what the editor suggested; maybe some don’t, but they prompt you to think of a different way to address that same issue.
What an edit letter is NOT is a list of things your editor is DEMANDING that you change about the book. It is about areas that they want you to address, and as I said, they usually give suggestions on how you can do that, but how you address those things is entirely up to you. Again, we’ve acknowledged that your book is not perfect; you know there are ways it can be made better. And remember, editors are publishing professionals; this is their job, to make books better. They know what makes a book successful, both in connecting with readers and commercially. If you are publishing traditionally, the market is always going to be a consideration. That’s just the reality. So it’s very possible that your editor’s notes and suggestions may be geared towards making sure your book adheres more closely to certain expectations of a genre.
2. Once you get this edit letter, your best bet is to read through it a few times and sit with it for at least a few days. There may well be suggestions in it you don’t like, or you may disagree with your editor as to where the problem areas are. Trust me, take some time to digest their feedback. I have absolutely gotten certain suggestions that made me say “No way!” Yet after thinking about it for a bit, I’ve realized that they are exactly right, and that character can in fact have a much reduced role, or the book can do without this chapter entirely, or what have you.
You may also, after sitting with the edit letter for a few days, want to hop on the phone with your editor and talk things through. You can go over how you plan to address the problem areas/rough spots in your manuscript, get your editor’s take on how you’re thinking of putting his/her feedback into play, and brainstorm together if you’re feeling stuck. It can be super helpful to just bounce ideas off of each other. Remember, your editor loves and is excited about this book too; that’s why they bought it! And editors are generally very happy to jump on a call to talk things through at any point in the editing process – again, this is their job. That’s what they’re there for. Especially if you ever feel that you are your editor are not seeing eye to eye on something, a phone call will be the best way to work through that. Perhaps they did not initially understand why you made a certain choice, and if you can explain it they may then rethink their original feedback; this might then be a point in the story that can be made clearer but not necessarily majorly reworked.
3. You’ll usually be given a deadline to have your revised manuscript back to your editor, and so once you’ve turned in this first edit, things vary depending on the book and how strenuous a revision was needed. Your editor will read it over again and see how you addressed the identified problem areas. They may come back with more suggestions for another round of revisions, which doesn’t necessarily mean that you did anything wrong or that the book is “bad”. Some books are more difficult to get right than others; some have lots going on and lots of layers and so it’s easier to address different areas one at a time. Again, this process will vary based on the editor, the author, and the book. So, you may go back for another round of revisions. I know for myself, when making my edits to The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, there were some scenes that I reworked per my editor’s notes, but I wasn’t sure how well I had pulled it off. Your editor will review and let you know, and you can go back and rework again if you want. But once that’s done…
4. Once all bigger picture things with the manuscript have been addressed, it’s time for line edits. This is when your editor goes through the manuscript thoroughly and, using some kind of tracked changes, will indicate where things on the sentence level should be cut, added, and reworded. This, for me, is usually when my word count comes down. There are often lots of things on the sentence level that can be cut; extraneous words and even whole sentences that just aren’t necessary. For example, “I walked up and knocked upon the door” can simply become “I knocked on the door.” That’s a very general example; a lot of this will depend on your writing style and your editor’s editing style. But you get the idea. This is also where your editor will catch things like word repetition, someone standing in one sentence that’s sitting the next with no mention of them moving, phrases you use 500 times in the manuscript, and the list goes on.
Again, as with the edit letter, just because your editor indicates a change doesn’t mean you HAVE to make it. This is why you go over these edits very carefully and thoroughly. There have been times where my editor indicated I should cut a line or even a word that I really liked, and so I just left it. That is totally fine. These are suggestions; you are not obligated to take every single one (though if you’re like me and use the phrase “in truth” practically every time a character speaks, yeah, you’re gonna want to get rid of some of those). But it bears repeating that editors know what they’re doing, and line edits are meant to make the book, overall, much cleaner (and sometimes shorter, which, if length is an issue, will be something you and your editor have talked about). And, again, if there’s anything going on in line edits that you’re really unsure or perplexed about, hop on the phone with your editor and talk it through.
And, of course, at any point in this process you can still be tweaking and reworking things that you’ve thought of that you’d like to change. It’s always a good idea to give your editor a heads up when making any major changes if you haven’t previously discussed them, though. Remember, you want to both be on the same page.
5. You’ll probably have multiple rounds of line edits – I usually have one big one, then a second and maybe a third just to clean up any last little things – and after that, the book goes to copyedits. Copyedits are not done by your editor; this is done by a member of the publisher’s copyediting team in house. You will need to review these edits as well, but what is being addressed here is grammar, typos, any word repetition that remains, consistency, etc. I actually had my copyeditor for Most Beautiful point out some words and phrases that weren’t in use yet in that time period – for instance, at one point Simonetta had used the phrase “in one fell swoop”, and the copyeditor pointed out that that phrase originated in a Shakespeare play, which obviously hadn’t been written yet in 1472 (or whatever year that exact scene took place, I forget, haha). I would never have imagined that – and the vast majority of readers would never have noticed either – but it was still a cool thing to know and be able to fix. Copyeditors are truly publishing’s unsung heroes, ya’ll.
This, as I said, is generally how the process goes. Your editor loves your book – they have to, to have acquired and read it all the many times they will read it through the process above – and wants it to be the best it can be. As I mentioned several times, this is all stuff you and your editor can talk about and hash out. It’s not a list of demands with which you must comply for your book to be published. You DO have to work with your editor in good faith and consider their suggestions, and your editor DOES have to think about what you are trying to achieve with the story, and not steer it in a direction you did not mean for it to go. Miscommunications and misunderstandings can arise, certainly. But, as in any collaborative partnership, you talk and work through those together.
For myself, as I am drafting and revising on my own before turning in the book to my editor, I’ll lean on her in the sense that: maybe I know a scene needs something but I’m just not sure what – that’s something she can take a look at for me. In book 4, which I just turned in, I left notes for my editor aaaaallll throughout the manuscript for specific things I want her take on. I know she’ll address all those and find other areas for improvement that I hadn’t even thought about. And I seriously can’t wait to see what those are.
I’m sure there are horror stories of editors who have tried to rewrite an author’s book or been completely inflexible about changes, but I have certainly not experienced that personally, nor have any authors I know. That is definitely not the norm. The author-editor relationship is one that is mutually beneficial and should be creatively exciting for both parties. You are working on this book TOGETHER. Your editor wants your book to be the best it can be, and so do you. You’re a team. You’re on the same side. Your editor is your partner, not your adversary. It’s okay to ask questions, to be a little nervous. But ultimately, other than your agent, your editor is your book’s best and strongest advocate and biggest fan.