How to Respond to an Edited Manuscript
Or "What to Do with an Edited Manuscript: Part Two."
In Part One, I focused on the technical aspects of reviewing suggested changes, like how to switch views in Track Changes, and different approaches to reviewing edits efficiently. This article will focus on your mental and emotional responses to the edits. Not just how you feel about them, but how you evaluate and make decisions about them.
Nobody likes criticism. Even if it's constructive. Even if you paid someone to do it. And it's natural to struggle with seeing your manuscript covered with markup and comments. As an emotionally sensitive person—and one who prides myself on being good with words—I imagine it would feel like a kick in the gut ... and might even lead to defensiveness and/or despair, depending on whether you tend to turn blame inward or outward ... or both.
K. J. Charles is both an editor and a published author, and this is what she wrote on her (very entertaining) blog after having her first book edited:
I have spent eighteen years tweaking people’s manuscripts ... However, I am a novice at being edited, and I have just had my first major line-editing experience. Imagine a desolate post-nuclear wasteland of shattered buildings and shambling undead. Then imagine that’s your MS after the copy editor’s comments.
If you relate to what she wrote, you are not alone. In fact, I'm always surprised when authors take editing in stride, excited and quick to accept most of the changes.
How personally you takes editing depends on different factors, of course, but I think an important one is how much your writing ability is tied to your self-concept. If you base much of your self-worth on a particular attribute or skill, even gentle, constructive criticism can feel deeply threating. (Writer Chuck Wendig has an interesting take on reacting to editing and the stages of grief.)
This is why I make sure to emphasize—to my clients and on my website—that copyediting and storytelling are different skill sets. I am not a fiction writer; I love to read stories, and even dreamed of writing them when I was a child, but the truth is that I dread playing Storymatic with my kids or making up bedtime stories. I have nothing but admiration and respect for the creative writers whose words I edit.
Some writers and editors are fabulous at both story creation and line craft. They can dream up fascinating characters and situations and still spot a dangling participle from a mile away, can orchestrate the rhythm and flow of not only the larger story but also the individual sentences and words—all while keeping mindful of the logical connections. Lucky them😉. (Though even these remarkable individuals need copyediting.) For the rest of us, we've got each other to fill in the gaps.
So take some time to process your feelings: go for a run, have a good cry, scream in the bathroom. (Please try these things before firing off an angry email to your editor!) Make sure you're in the right place emotionally and mentally before tackling the work ---- just another reason to schedule a good chunk of time for reviewing the edits.
Trust your editor ... but also your gut
Two opposite responses to editing both stem from insecurity: defensive resistance to the edits and automatically accepting every change. To get the most from your editor's suggestions, you need to be open to their wisdom—but you also have to remember that only you know the intent behind your words, and not every suggestion an editor makes will be in line with that intent. Maybe they suggest a word that you've always hated, or a punctuation mark you loathe. Or maybe they just missed the point. (Though you might want to consider whether the point wasn't clear enough in that case.)
If you're struggling with whether to accept or reject what appears to be a subjective change, it might help to know that you have more than two options.
This is editor-speak for "let it stand" (actually it's Latin). If a change misses the boat, you, as author, have the right to reject it. No, wait ... that sounds like editors are in charge and are granting you the right. You have the responsibility to yourself to reject it. Writing a book may be more collaborative than most people realize, but it's your name that will be on it, and it should reflect your vision and sound like your voice.
2. Agree and Accept
If you agree with the reasoning behind the suggested change and like the way the editor worded that change, then by all means accept.
3. Disagree and Accept
There may be times when you're not sure you agree a change is needed, but the change isn't a major deal to you and the editor seems to feel strongly about it. In this case, you may decide to defer to the editor's judgement and experience. After all, that's why you hired an editor.
4. Agree with the Reasoning, but Reject the Change
Before rejecting a change outright, you should always ask yourself why your editor felt that change was needed (especially if the reasoning isn't explained in a comment). If you're not sure, ask—good editors will always have a reason for an edit, something more than just "it sounded better."
But even if you agree that a change is needed, you may not like the editor's suggested solution and decide to fix it a different way. Editors try to mirror your voice when they make a suggestion, but we want you to revise in your own words if it doesn't ring true. (Just make sure Track Changes is on before making revisions if you plan on sending the manuscript back to your editor for review).
How should your editor respond to you?
Sometimes you'll want to discuss a change with your editor. Perhaps you don't understand a suggestion, or perhaps you want to explain the reasoning behind your original choice. (Editors can also respond in ways that stem from insecurity, and interestingly enough, these responses mirror those of writers.)
Editors should not respond with defensive resistance: "I'm the editor, do what I say!" Even if an editor has this as a knee-jerk reaction (we are, after all, human), they should never respond to a client from this mindset. Editors need to respect an author's authority in regards to their creative work, to listen to a writer's perspective with openness and humility. An editor isn't a writer's boss, any more than the client is the editor's boss. It's a collaborative relationship. But ultimately, the writer is the boss of the book. The editor may believe they're right—heck, they may actually be right (there's a reason they're editors after all)—but they may not bully a writer into doing things their way.
Nor should editors roll over when they encounter resistance: "You're the author, whatever you say!" An editor is an important resource for a writer. If they shut down whenever you push back a little, they aren't giving you their best.
Say a client writing in a commercial fiction genre has chosen to use unconventional dialogue formatting, forgoing quotation marks and running the dialogue through the narrative rather than setting off each new speaker as a new paragraph. The editor, aware this literary style may be a hard sell in his genre, suggests switching to conventional dialogue formatting. But the author is convinced this style is the best choice for his book, so his editor immediately drops the matter, giving the writer the impression that she has been convinced by his argument—when actually she still has strong reservations about the wisdom of his choice.
Yes, there's a time for an editor to say, "Your book, your choice." But the time is after making sure the client is making an informed choice. Folding too soon on a potentially book-changing issue gives the impression that the issue isn't really that big of a deal.
So after the writer makes their case, the editor (if they still feel strongly) should reiterate and clarify theirs, especially if the original suggestion was written in a comment or in the editorial report. After some respectful back and forth, the writer will be in a better position to make a decision, and the editor will be able to let it go, satisfied that they did their best for their client.