Writers are always being told by other writers (and editors) about the importance of being edited. But what does it actually feel like to have someone go through your precious words with that dreaded red pen? Only recently, as I’ve struggled with edits in my own book, have I realised how my clients must feel when they receive their poor corrected texts back from me. I hope this new understanding will help me to be a better editor …
On being edited
I’ve been putting together an e-book based on my Libro Full Time blog which has charted my experiences of going full-time self-employed. I pulled all the blog posts together, added some commentary, an introduction, fleshed it out a bit, read it through … but before I went to publish it I did as all good writers (should) do and considered having it edited.
I put a call out for beta readers and a few kind volunteers spoke up. One read it and made some excellent, useful comments, although I was a little thrown even then to see my words through someone else’s eyes. Another friend did EXACTLY as I hoped she would – she went through it line by line, picking out errors, suggesting better ways of writing sentences, AND commented on the structure, the way it hung together, how the experience of reading it could be improved.
This is the Thing: One It was like having ME edit that book. And I know I’m a decent editor
This is the Thing: Two I hated reading those comments the first time round
This is how I make my clients feel!
That was my first thought. No: my first thought was, “My text, my beautiful text! How dare she muck with it??” All defences up, all crests raised, spines bristling, eyes watering …
And I must be at pains to point out here that my friend:
- Did it right – she said exactly what I would have said had the document been written by anybody else
- Did it kindly – no snarkiness, no visible or invisible sighs
- Did a good job – she picked up micro and macro errors
- MADE THE TEXT BETTER – she really, really did
But my knee-jerk reaction, in pretty well this order, was
- Anger – how dare she mess with my text? I write stuff all the time! It can’t be wrong! … oh …
- Horror – how did I not notice THAT?
- Shame – I was going to publish this pile of rubbish?
- Embarrassment – someone has seen this in this state!
- Despair – will I ever get this into shape or should I just give up now? I know, I’ll give up
In the interests of research, I’ve gone back and looked at the text. It’s fine: it can be whipped into shape and it will be a much better book for it.
Once I’d gone through these cycles of shame, horror, despair and … finally … acceptance, the terrible realisation dawned on me …
This is how my clients must feel when they get their work back from me
Is it just me, or is it everyone?
I asked some editor colleagues, writers and people I’ve worked with what being edited feels like to them. We all know it’s a worthwhile process – but I was after the emotional reaction.
My old friend, Annabelle Hitchcock from Yara Consulting reported that she feels quite comfortable about being edited, “but specifically about being edited by you, Liz. I know you and I trust you and I know that you know my writing style and won’t alter it into something that it’s not. I also trust you to give me feedback, and to make sure that I’m actually communicating what I THINK I’m communicating”. So that trust is very important, and makes it easier (although I trusted the ladies who looked at my text, too, of course … )
Trust comes up for Alison Mead of Silicon Bullet, too – “Personally for my blog posts, knowing I am going to be edited means I can type my stream of consciousness without worrying too much about grammar and spelling , so my words can have the flow they would if I was talking them – but I have the confidence that those errors will be picked up and corrected. To be honest I don’t notice the edits – so have no idea how many changes you actually make! It is good to have that trust and confidence about the job being done well!”.
So these two highlight the ideal working relationship between an editor and a writer. It’s worth noting that I have been working on small blog post texts for these two ladies for a few years now, and have known them for significantly longer. But how do you build up that trust instantly? And what if’ you’re an editorial and writing professional yourself?
Here’s someone who actively enjoys it, but do note that he still finds it challenging: “I enjoy being edited. It gives me a chance to see how other editors do things, gets me to think about things I have done unthinkingly, and reminds me that all writers, even if they are also editors, have blind spots sometimes. It is also a little nerve-racking, of course – but then many worthwhile things are!” – Sebastian Manley of Manley Editorial.
And another editor colleague, Katharine O’Moore Klopf of KOK Edit, has a similar emotional pathway to mine: “My initial reaction to being edited—and I’ve been an editor since 1984—is ‘Oh, #@&^!’ And then I start reading through the edits and nodding my head, thinking, ‘You know, that’s a good edit. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.’ And by the time I’ve finished reviewing the edits, I’m thinking, ‘Thank goodness for editors!’ You’d think I’d go straight to the ‘thank goodness’ part by now, but there is always that first little shock.”
And what about fiction authors? I suspect that fiction and memoir writers are the ones most wedded to their words, as they are perhaps most personal to them (I might be wrong there, though!).
Steve Hewson, author of “The Wild Earth” writes,”I asked Linda Bates to edit my first novel. Prior to the process starting, I imagined that the it might be more of a grammatical check (necessary because a) I am very (and unavoidably) careless b) I don’t really know anything about grammar. However, it soon became clear that editing was a whole other level of input. Once I’d decided to put in the effort to properly respond to Linda’s editorial suggestions (I was rather busy and somewhat tired of the whole affair prior to giving it to Linda) I found it really challenging and enjoyable.” So there’s the c-word again – “challenging”. Steve has gone on to kindly describe the whole process for us:
“I remember being aghast that the first page (which I thought was pretty good) had loads of changes suggested. (17, after counting them!). Then on the next pages I saw that Linda had added many comments concerning word definitions, writing styles and so on. I was dismayed at the clear time implications of working on these and also thought that Linda might be overdoing the proofreading job. However, I took the plunge and accepted the changes and realised that the result was more streamlined and clean.
Once I had decided to devote my energies to reworking the book I soon got into the stride and began to welcome the editorial changes rather than dread them. I think that being edited is rather similar to being filmed whilst teaching or lecturing: unconscious habits of pen are unearthed in the same way that the camera reveals unconscious habits of speech (such as saying ‘erm’ very frequently). I realised that I made frequent use of double adverbs. It was really very tough (see what I did there …) to realise that this habit made the text less engaging, but was good to realise this.
The sort of comment that I never got used to were those concerning the ways that the characters spoke or behaved. I love my characters and to be told ‘X wouldn’t say that sort of thing’ was always met defensively. I was particularly distressed to be told that I had (at a key moment) unconsciously reinforced gender stereotypes with Gracie. This was a difficult pill to swallow, especially since I had deliberately attempted to eliminate this sort of thing. Still I emerged a better person for it, and Gracie has a little more action at a key part of the book. I’m sure she’d thank me for it …”
Thanks to Steve for that great description of what it feels like to be edited – I’m sure my fellow editors will read it with great interest!
How do we make it right?
So, as editors, how do we make this process as smooth as possible for our clients? I have realised that they will never just grab the new document with joy, making all the changes immediately and unquestioningly. Well, some of them will, but going by the comments I garnered and discussed above, only people I’ve known for years who just have little bits and bobs for me to work on are likely to do that.
As for the rest of them, well, now I have some inkling of how they feel when they receive my annotated manuscript back, I’m going to make these resolutions:
- Try to build trust first of all – I already send links to my references, and many of my clients come via recommendation – and I have a new procedure whereby I send the style sheet I’ve put together during the editing process to the author at the end, thus proving I know what I’m doing and there are reasons for my choices.
- Remain kind. Sometimes I do get a little exasperated. But I, too, make the same mistakes throughout, repeat myself and am not always consistent. So why should I expect anyone else to be any different?
- Understand that when the client asks a question, sometimes they just need reassurance that they’re not stupid or rubbish at writing. And they are almost never casting doubt on my ability, but either wanting to know why in order to make their writing better, or being anxious generally.
- Make sure I praise as well as criticise. I do try to do this already; I will try to do it more, now. Whether they’ve written a great bibliography or coined a smart turn of phrase, even if they’ve just managed to avoid plagiarising or quoting Wikipedia this time round, there’s always something to praise and I must find it and mention it.
Has this article struck a chord? Are you a writer with something to say about your emotional reaction to being edited? Are you an editor who’s found ways to smooth this emotional path? Do share in the comments!
February 13, 2013 at 9:24 am
This is a fantastic post, and one I will share with my newsletters readers, if I may. I recently had the same realisation when I talked to a client about another client they had referred to me, and it turned out this second client had been really upset about the changes I made to her novel. I’ve since talked to other authors I’ve worked with and one said she was surprised with some of the edits I’d made but it did make the text better …. Which I guess is the aim! But yes, I have started to make sure I praise something and am much more sensitive and thoughtful in my feedback.
Liz at Libro
February 13, 2013 at 9:33 am
Thanks Alison, and yes, please do share in your newsletter and wherever. It really brought things home to me – you might feel the same if you have someone do a thorough edit on your new book! But, really, I’d recommend this to all editors!
February 13, 2013 at 9:36 am
I have sent it out to some beta readers who gave me great feedback and made some excellent suggestions too. But actually having it edited – yes, that’s a bit scary because it’s my baby!!
Liz at Libro
February 13, 2013 at 9:41 am
It’s worth it, though – it will be a much better and more successful and useful book when I’ve redone it all!
Mary Dickinson Edwards
February 18, 2013 at 10:42 pm
Being edited is a lot like any other kind of judgment: It doesn’t hurt nearly as much when a friend does it. I’ve also discovered that in addition to the points you make about how to do it right, it’s also important to remember writing is a collaboration. While it’s wonderful to be a perfect writer right off the bat, it’s also wonderful to have someone who has your back in ensuring the end product is sparkling.
Liz at Libro
February 19, 2013 at 7:55 am
Thank you for your comment … although I’m not sure I entirely agree with your first sentence! I would look for editorial efficiency above friendship, and sometimes I think it’s easier to hear criticism from someone who you don’t know personally as it can feel, well, personal. But you’re right that we all need an editor and thank you for dropping by to comment!
February 13, 2013 at 12:55 pm
Thanks for this Liz; it was a great read. I
wonder, might it be useful if a whole group of us editors did a sort of writing/editing trade so that those of us, like me, who have never seen their work professionally edited, could get a taste of their own medicine? For example, perhaps a group of willing volunteers could submit a piece of work they have written, and we edit each other’s submitted piece?
I’m sure it would be a really good learning experience for those who haven’t had their own work edited before. What do you think?
Liz at Libro
February 13, 2013 at 3:08 pm
Thanks, Sally, I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. That is an interesting idea – if you decide to do that, let me know!
Jo Michaels (@WriteJoMichaels)
February 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm
I warn people up front I’m a brutal editor. But, I also tell them to try and distance themselves from their work. It’s not personal, it’s business. 🙂 I always edit the first chapter in my usual way and send it back as a baseline to judge whether or not we should work together. It’s part of trust building. I just wish more people would use an editor. Even editors who write use an editor before going to press. We all need fresh eyes on our work. Great post! WRITE ON!
Liz at Libro
February 13, 2013 at 3:07 pm
Thanks for your comment. I like to think I’m not brutal as such, but I probably do rip things apart. If it’s a long-term client who is actually the writer, I will warn them if I’ve shredded something more than usual. Often I am working for an agency though, so it isn’t so direct. Anyway, glad you liked the post!
February 13, 2013 at 4:14 pm
I had the exact same reaction to being edited. Dose of my own medicine, for sure!! The stages of being edited that you list are hilarious, and true. If I may offer an edit: add the other stages you described. Acceptance and maybe even appreciation were described, followed by pride in the result. Those stages count too.
Liz at Libro
February 13, 2013 at 4:24 pm
Thanks Adrienne, glad other people have been through the same process! I will add those bullet points at the end of that section: good idea!
Liz at Libro
February 13, 2013 at 6:12 pm
My colleague, Eva Blaskovic, has this to say but was unable to log in to WordPress … (posted with her permission)
Just what people need to hear. I find writers are terrified of editors because the editing marks either make them feel bad or they have had bad experiences in the past where editors have actually destroyed their intended message. It is important for the message to get out there that a good editor works with the author, not against the author. The idea is to make the text say better and more accurately what the author, not the editor, intended, and should preserve the author’s voice, especially in certain circumstances.
That’s not to say that even a person who expects corrections won’t be initially shocked by them. But a good writer will think about it and consider the suggestions carefully, especially if he or she trusts an editor. (Of course, ideally that’s what a writer should be doing: picking an editor he or she trusts, and that has experience with the genre.) What ultimately matters is the end result. A good writer is willing to go through some turmoil in order to produce the best product possible.
A great article! I especially like that you have quoted so many people and their views, even other editors who have switched roles and became the writer who was edited.
February 13, 2013 at 11:27 pm
(Apologize if this is a repeated comment … I not ❤ WordPress.)
I had a lighthearted take on this issue some years ago:
I was an editor for many years and am now back to being a writer. It's taken some adjustment. 🙂
Liz at Libro
February 14, 2013 at 7:16 am
Thanks for your comment, Mike – I’ve approved this one so it’s not on twice. It’s nice to know that the experience is so common!
February 14, 2013 at 9:16 pm
I had the exact same experience as you did when my first book (nonfiction) was edited. I hit the ceiling with the first change. When I came back down again, I realized most of the changes were for the better. The editor used some terms, like “out and about” that I would never use, but on reflection, I realized it wasn’t important and just left them. I live in the boonies and tend not to be up to date with current slang. I still talk about crockpots when others call them slow cookers.
Other changes that had obviously been made by some macro actually introduced errors, but I was able to change those.
I think we have to remember that there are a lot of gifted editors out there, but there are also a few bad ones who try to impose their writing style on someone else. I think the idea of having one chapter edited to see if the author and editor are on the same wavelength makes a lot of sense.
Liz at Libro
February 15, 2013 at 8:00 am
Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. I am always happy to do a sample section (not as much as a chapter without payment, though!) to see how it goes.
April Michelle Davis
February 14, 2013 at 9:31 pm
I published a book last year on indexing. As a freelance editor, indexer, and proofreader, when I first began reading through the editor’s comments for my book, I felt defensive. I am a professional editor; my book should be great. But it wasn’t perfect, and the editor did have good suggestions. Even though I am a professional editor, I was not writing the book as one. I was writing the book as an author, and I was focused on the content, sometimes forgetting to check for mistakes that an editor would focus on. Thank goodness for editors!
Liz at Libro
February 15, 2013 at 8:00 am
Yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I write text for other people, too, but that is not book-length and doesn’t have the same issues. Glad you enjoyed the article. I must learn indexing at some stage!
February 17, 2013 at 3:56 pm
As a non-fiction writer, I certainly relate to what you say in this essay. And I especially like the five stages a writer goes through upon being edited: Anger, Horror, Shame, Embarrassment, and Despair. However, none of us would persist if it weren’t that we overcome Despair and substitute Acceptance.
There’s an unusual twist to my writer/editor relationship: my editor, Beth Chapple, is my daughter! She not only always makes the text better but does it in a gentle way that almost always convinces me she’s right. What a blessing a fine editor is!
Liz at Libro
February 17, 2013 at 4:48 pm
Thank you for your comments from the writing face – and as a non-fiction writer too. That’s a brave editor-writer relationship I’m not sure many would try! But Beth sounds like an excellent editor indeed!
February 17, 2013 at 4:51 pm
Wow! This is a great reminder. Thanks for a great post.
Liz at Libro
February 17, 2013 at 4:52 pm
Thank you for your comment, Michelle – glad you found it useful!
April 1, 2014 at 6:31 pm
Those four resolutions are great. I’m going to adopt them myself. I’ve been editing since 1981, and I have room for improvement in all four areas. I’m going to adopt them myself. Also, I’m finishing a book with the working title An Editor’s Companion: A Friendly Guide to the Principles of Editing. One area the publisher asked me to expand was on editorial relationships. I plan to quote those lines (with full attribution). I just discovered your blog and really like it.
Liz at Libro
April 1, 2014 at 6:42 pm
Thanks for your comment, Steve, and I’m glad you’ve found something useful in the article and the blog in general. I’d be thrilled to be quoted in your book; let me know if you’d like to have your publisher send me a review copy for my book blog / a mention on here. Best wishes for completing the book!