Look at an offending edit and figure out why the editor thought the text needed help. There will usually be something wrong that needs fixing: after all, if the editor misunderstood you, other readers may, too.
—Carol Fisher Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor
Once you’ve finished writing and revising your manuscript, it is time to prepare for and then begin the editing process. We recommend that you look for a professional editor with whom you can establish a strong working partnership, because even at the best of times, working with an editor can feel like returning to grade school. You hand in your assignment, expecting to amass praise and accolades, only to receive pages filled with red marks. Words are crossed out, sentences have been rearranged, and there are even further suggestions in the sidebar! In short, your once pristine copy now looks like it’s been through a war.
Once you’ve received your edited manuscript, seeing the revisions can feel like a punch in the gut, kicking you into argumentative mode. Every correction can feel like a personal affront, every suggestion an insult. What could a stranger possibly know about you, your writing, or your book? And what right does that person have to tell you what to do?
In this frame of mind, the process of writing a book will become a miserable slog and you will likely spend hours (or weeks) wondering why you even bothered. If you find yourself in such a mental state, it’s best to take a break, then read the words of William Zinsser (writer, editor, critic, and teacher): “What a good editor brings to a piece of writing is an objective eye that the writer has long since lost” (On Writing Well, p. 290).
Remember that a good editor:
- is honest but tactful;
- takes the author’s beliefs, opinions, and ideas to heart;
- answers questions;
- provides guidance;
- edits to retain the author’s unique voice and style; and
- knows when to leave good enough alone. (“First, do no harm.”)
A good editor wants to work with you, as collaboratively and harmoniously as possible, answering any questions you have while building your confidence and skill. A good editor has no agenda other than helping make your project the best it can possibly be. We don’t want to take it over, and we don’t want to suppress your style. As James Thurber (author, cartoonist, journalist, and playwright) once pointed out in a memo to the New Yorker, “The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, ‘How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?’ and avoid ‘How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?’ ”
To get the most out of the editorial process, then, after you’ve reminded yourself of the above facts, we suggest that you go back to the edited manuscript in the following frame of mind:
- eager to view your work from a different perspective (namely, that of the reader);
- willing to consider new ideas—even if they seem a bit unorthodox at first; and
- confident enough to stick to your guns when necessary but also knowing when to heed the editor’s advice.
We editors aren’t perfect, and you won’t agree with every change we make, but we don’t expect you to. We only ask you to consider, to turn the revisions over in your mind and to, once in a while at least, concede.