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Publetariat Dispatch: Working With An Editor – Got My Edits Back; Now What?

Publetariat: For People Who Publish!
In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, author Cheri Lasota discusses how to work most effectively with an editor.

I was about to email this infor­ma­tion to one of my edit­ing clients  (yes, I edit fic­tion as well), but real­ized many writ­ers out there  could ben­e­fit from these tips. I’ve worked with dozens upon dozens of  writ­ers through the years, and I walk each of them through the best way  to go about incor­po­rat­ing my com­ments and edits into their  man­u­scripts (MS). It can be over­whelm­ing  and some­times even dev­as­tat­ing for a writer to receive  a man­u­script back that looks like the edi­tor dumped a can of red  paint on it. I know. I’ve been on the receiv­ing end for my own novel, Artemis Rising.

Here are the steps, in order, of how to go about receiv­ing and  revis­ing your man­u­script edit from an agent, edi­tor, cri­tique  group, or kind friend with time on his or her hands.

Give your­self some peace and quiet.

Carve out a quiet block of time—several hours’ worth—to read through your MS.  Try to clear your mind of dis­trac­tions, upcom­ing appoint­ments, the  fight you had with your sig­nif­i­cant other. If you don’t have time to  browse through slowly, then hold off until you do. The rea­son? If  you’re rushed, you won’t be able to take any­thing in or think  crit­i­cally about it. The more you can retain in this first  pass-through the bet­ter. In fact, it’s imper­a­tive. I’ve ini­tially  zoomed through edits from cri­tique groups and failed to catch  impor­tant points and sug­ges­tions. And worse, I’ve mis­read com­ments  as snarky or unkind, when in truth, they were just spe­cific and  hon­est. When I cooled off and read back through, I would have to adjust  my incor­rect assump­tions, which wasted my time and energy. In  gen­eral, a cri­ti­quer or editor’s goal is to aid you in achiev­ing  your dream of pub­li­ca­tion. They wish to make your man­u­script  bet­ter, albeit through their own sub­jec­tive view­point. But we’re all  human, and some­times editors/critiquers aren’t as tact­ful as we  could be. This is some­thing, the writer must antic­i­pate and  even­tu­ally over­look. Why? Because you might miss the valu­able advice  buried under the snarkiness.

Don’t scan or skip.

Don’t skip ahead and scan through a doc­u­ment look­ing for how much  the editor’s pen has bled onto the page. This is a self-defeating  exer­cise from the begin­ning. Why? Because many of those com­ments  might be praise. I often lit­ter man­u­scripts with praise and  encour­age­ment. I do this because I know how impor­tant it is for  writ­ers to know when they are hit­ting the mark on their lan­guage,  char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, or plot.

Sit on the manuscript.

Yes, you heard me. Sit on your MS, like  a chicken incu­bat­ing an egg. That’s quite literally—okay,  metaphorically—what you are doing. Incubating, con­coct­ing, invent­ing,  spawn­ing . . . That last one sounds wrong, doesn’t it? Anyhoo, let  that sucker fes­ter for a LONG  time. I mean it. Don’t touch it after you’ve read all the edits and  com­ments. I rec­om­mend two weeks at least. Perhaps a month. Here’s  why: a writer’s nat­ural response to criticism—either pos­i­tive or  negative—is to be defen­sive. That doesn’t make the writer child­ish or  fool­ish. It is just a nat­ural response, and wait­ing to dive into  revi­sions cools off that nat­ural ten­dency. If you wait for a long  time before jump­ing in, you’ll be shocked at how dif­fer­ent your  response is to the edits than the first time around. I’m always  sur­prised at the dif­fer­ence, and I’ve been at this for years.

Mull over your options.

During your “vaca­tion” from the MS, start  think­ing about some of the major issues the edi­tor men­tioned. Allow  your­self to come up with ideas for how to fix that character’s  incon­sis­tent per­son­al­ity or that plot hole in chap­ter nine. Maybe  write some notes down to remem­ber for later or freewrite pos­si­ble  avenues to explore. But again, don’t touch the MS.  You’ll thank your­self later, when you’ve had time to let your anger or  con­fu­sion cool and you begin to see the edits for the first time with  clear, objec­tive eyes.

Make a copy.

Whether you’re work­ing with hard copy or elec­tronic edits, you’ll want to start revis­ing in a COPY  of the man­u­script the edi­tor worked on. You want to pre­serve those  orig­i­nal comments/edits for future ref­er­ence as well as keep your  orig­i­nal draft intact in case you need to go back to it for any  rea­son. So copy and rename that mas­ter file with the cur­rent day’s  date. And every day you work on your edits, save the pre­vi­ous day’s  draft, and start a new file with the cur­rent days’ date. This way,  you’ll have a log of all edits you’ve ever done and when. Works  bril­liantly. I learned that trick from the pres­i­dent of  a pub­lish­ing house actu­ally. And don’t worry about drafts fill­ing up  your hard drive. Your man­u­script file is prob­a­bly not even  a megabyte, which is noth­ing com­pared to one music or photo file. Oh,  yes . . . one more thing: BACK UP YOUR NOVEL FILES  fre­quently. All of them. Most of us have lost drafts to lazi­ness,  stu­pid­ity, or busy­ness. Learn from those pre­vi­ous mis­takes. Back  up, even if you are just email­ing the file to your­self. ‘Nuff said.

Turn your Track Changes ON!

After your “vaca­tion,” give your­self a long block of time to begin look­ing at your MS.  Have a notepad by your com­puter or an open blank doc­u­ment up to  write notes. Critical at this stage: turn your Track Changes on (in  Microsoft Word). Yes, you heard me right. Any changes you make need to  be tracked from here on out. Why? Because you are more likely to  intro­duce errors into your man­u­script at this stage than at any  other. Yup. This is because despite your best efforts, you’ll start  rush­ing through accept­ing edits, and you won’t pay atten­tion to the  fact that an extra space just slipped into that sen­tence or the first  let­ter wasn’t cap­i­tal­ized, etc. This hap­pens ALL the time. Trust me. I know.

Choose your direction.

This depends on the type of edit/critique you’ve received, but usu­ally you can sep­a­rate your edit into the “easy stuff”and the “hard stuff.”The easy stuff is straight copy­edit­ing issues: gram­mar,  punc­tu­a­tion, etc. These are rel­a­tively quick fixes. I have to say  that I heartily rec­om­mend this route. It will:

  • ease you into the revi­sion process.
  • elim­i­nate a lot of the edit­ing marks that are rid­dling your document.
  • ensure that most of your gram­mat­i­cal prob­lems are fixed before you press on to more dif­fi­cult edits.

Conversely, you could go straight to the more time-consuming  devel­op­men­tal or sub­stan­tive edits. Bear in mind that this will  save you some time if you end up cut­ting a lot of scenes from your  man­u­script. But again, I don’t rec­om­mend this route for the rea­sons  I listed above.

Don’t just make changes. Learn!

If you’ve hired a pro­fes­sional edi­tor to work on your  man­u­script, you’ve invested in that editor’s exper­tise and  knowl­edge. To get the most from your invest­ment, don’t just go through  and blindly make changes. Understand why the edi­tor has made these  edits and sug­ges­tions. If you notice an edi­tor has repeat­edly added  in para­graph breaks around blocks of dia­logue, find out why. What is  the gen­eral rule/guideline? What is the goal? If you notice the  edi­tor has re-done your comma usage in a par­tic­u­lar type of  sen­tence con­struc­tion, find out what you are doing wrong. Memorize  that gram­mar rule. Look it up in the Chicago Manual of Style  (the fic­tion writer’s style man­ual). Learn the rule and vow never to  make that error again. This will aid you not only as you rewrite your  cur­rent MS but in sub­se­quent man­u­scripts as well.

Incorporate only what you feel will serve your story.

Remember that you don’t have to incor­po­rate all sug­ges­tions. I per­son­ally break my edits into two categories:

  • Comment is optional/recommended.
  • Ignore at your own risk.

My optional com­ments usu­ally involve issues of lan­guage, style,  voice, clar­ity, or sen­tence struc­ture. I’ll sug­gest a change in  these instances some­times, but there are always other ways to smooth  out struc­ture, rhythm, or lan­guage in your own author’s voice. Often,  I’ll set off these types of com­ments with a “con­sider this” or  ques­tion mark to make its optional nature clear. For exam­ple, I might  say: Delete this phrase to tighten the sen­tence struc­ture here? Or:  Consider expand­ing on your descrip­tion of the MC  to bet­ter illus­trate her ten­dency toward self-deprecation. Other  editors/critiquers might use dif­fer­ent meth­ods, so ask them if you  are unsure.

The key is to use both your head and your gut when mak­ing these  deci­sions. If you feel a sug­ges­tion may com­pro­mise the over­all  plot or the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion or the theme, etc., then put that  com­ment on the back burner. You can always come back to it later or  ignore it com­pletely if you feel it doesn’t serve your story well.

WARNING: There is a big  dif­fer­ence between decid­ing that a change isn’t right for your story  and being too lazy to make the change. Confession: This is a prob­lem  for me per­son­ally as a writer. I’ll often see the merit in  a critiquer’s sug­ges­tion, but due to lack of time or energy, I’ll put  it aside and “con­ve­niently” for­get to go back to it. *blushes with shame*  This is a bad prac­tice for writ­ers, con­sid­er­ing that our ulti­mate  goal is to bet­ter our books. And don’t for­get that the cri­ti­quer  took his or her valu­able time to make the sug­ges­tion in the first  place. So, don’t be lazy or use busy­ness as an excuse. Do the hard  work—you won’t regret it.

Overhauling? Then get out of your MS.

If your edi­tor has rec­om­mended doing major revi­sions to whole  scenes or chap­ters, I highly rec­om­mend copy­ing and past­ing those  scenes into a new doc­u­ment. Playing with ideas or major fixes out­side  of your mas­ter MS file accom­plishes two things:

  • You elim­i­nate the pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing any valu­able orig­i­nal material.
  • You allow your­self the free­dom of explor­ing ideas and pos­si­bil­i­ties in a “throw­away” document.

Once you’ve rewrit­ten a scene to your sat­is­fac­tion, you’ll want  to re-paste it into your mas­ter file and save the file again.

Take another vacation.

Once you’ve made (and tracked) all the edits you can bear to make  with­out keel­ing over from exhaus­tion, then take another “vaca­tion.”  Yes, you’ve earned it! But only a cou­ple of days’ worth, because you’ve  still got work to do on this draft. Once you’re back at it, go through  the MS again and accept your tracked changes  one by one. Make sure that you dou­ble check those edits before you  accept them, to ensure that you aren’t intro­duc­ing more errors. You’ve  spent count­less hours on spit-polishing your mas­ter­piece; you  don’t want to screw any­thing up at this point, eh?

Get to work!

All right, now that you know all my secrets for a proper revi­sion,  you’ve no more excuses. Get to work and get that man­u­script out there  already!

This post, by Cheri Lasota, originally appeared on her site on 7/15/10 and is reprinted here in its entirety with her permission.


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