What Stace had to say on Thursday, February 3rd, 2011
Edits are up to you

I hadn’t actually planned to start my little series on editing today, but this topic came up last night in email with a good friend of mine, and it annoyed me, so here we go, and we’ll do more next week (including copyedits, which will be fun, I think, and of course I’m going to use pages from the original mss of UNHOLY MAGIC and CITY OF GHOSTS to illustrate, which, again, will hopefully be fun).

Anyway. My friend and I were discussing edits, and the fact that someone she knew got a set of edits where the editor actually wrote in new dialogue.

Editors are not supposed to do this.

It is not their job.

They can tell you that conversation/line doesn’t work for them. They can maybe suggest new lines, by saying “Maybe you could try having Character A say he hates that, and Character B can say he knows, and that might make the joke clearer?” But anything beyond that is them trying to write your book for you, and you shouldn’t let them do it.

It seems to me that, especially when you get into the micropress/epress area, the favorite excuse of lame publishers for why an author might be upset with them is “S/he refused to accept editing.” “Oh, Author A is only saying we’re a total high-school clique house because she refused to accept editing so we dropped her.” “All those authors are mad because they’re prima donnas who refused to accept editing.” That sort of thing.

And I think that atmosphere, that sort of Red Pen of Damocles hanging over every writers’ head, permeates the world of writers’ forums etc., and leads many to the belief that they have to accept all suggested edits, no questions asked. If the editor says “Change this,” it better be changed.

Sadly, I also have no doubt that at some little crappy places, that is indeed the case. I know I was required to fight tooth and nail about factual accuracy, against an editor who believed people in the medieval period used hieroglyphs to communicate in writing. I’ve heard similar horror stories from small- and micro-press friends; maybe not quite as bad as that, but lots of tales about style and voice being removed and replaced with plodding paint-by-numbers writing.

Then there’s the matter of “house style,” which in a lot of cases can be downright lousy, and sometimes doesn’t make sense at all. “House style,” though, is unfortunately the one thing you’re probably not going to be able to fight with. You may be able to keep a comma here or a semicolon there if you can make a good enough case for it, but beyond that you’re going to need to let it go.

“House style,” though, isn’t generally messing about with your actual writing. It may be ridiculous things, sure, like completely interrupting the flow of a sex scene by inserting a hard break to indicate a POV switch (because we’re all so paranoid about “head-hopping” that we refuse to accept that readers are not in fact stupid, and are perfectly capable of dealing with one POV switch), or being forced to change every “start” in your book to “begin,” or whatever, because someone thinks “start” sounds “common.” But usually it’s just a few little bits here and there.

Editing is different, and editing is up to you.

It’s your book. You wrote it, and it belongs to you, and your name is on it. Yes, there is a line. An editor can refuse to accept the book, thereby requiring you to give back your advance and lose the contract, if you won’t make any changes at all. I’ve never heard of it happening, but then, most writers I know believe–as I do–that editors are generally awesome, and that it’s fun to work with them, and that they’re right most of the time with their suggestions.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a line, and it’s a line you do NOT have to cross. It certainly doesn’t mean they’re right all the time. You do NOT have to accept every edit, every suggestion, every wording change. You certainly do NOT have to allow anyone to re-write part of your book for you, absolutely not.

Working with an editor is just that–working with an editor. It’s the two of you–and maybe your agent, or maybe the editor’s assistant might have an idea, or a friend of yours who’s read the mss might come up with something you like–working together to make the book as good as it can be. It’s not you handing your work over to someone else to change it and turn it into something that isn’t yours.

There’s a difference between edits, as in your editorial letter, and edits, as in line edits, too. When I get edits from my editor at Del Rey, it’s in the form of an email or Word doc with all of her thoughts, good and bad (I firmly believe a good editor tells you what they love about the book, too; they don’t simply assume that you know they like it since they bought it. A good editor wants to talk to you about your book and the things they love about it).

I go through and implement her suggestions, basically. I may disagree with one, and discuss it with her, but so far I can think of only one editorial suggestion I dug my heels in over, and that ended up working out just fine–a quick change of something else, and it became a moot point. Really? There shouldn’t even be many issues if any, because you should agree with most of your editor’s thoughts. If s/he’s a good editor, and you’re not a Speshul Golden-Words Snowflake, most if not all of the suggestions should fall into the “Oh, riiiiight!” category.

Then come line edits. (My last few books, my ms has been sent back to me with an editorial letter and some notes made on the ms, so it’s like a combination of the two.) Line edits are “This line makes no sense,” basically. I often get “What the hell is Bump saying here, because I can’t understand him at all,” but of course, that’s me. Line edits might also be “This paragraph is overkill,” or whatever. This is where “kill your darlings”–advice with which I disagree, frankly–comes in. Lots of those overkill lines? Yeah…those are probably the “Stacia knows this is probably too much but look how good that sentence is!” lines. So those have to go. (I often stick them into a special Word doc in case I have the chance to use them later. Of course, then I never open it and re-use them, but whatever. I still have them, my poor deleted darlings, and I can go frolic in the midst of them whenever I choose.)

There may be some typos tossed in throughout there, too. There usually are. No matter how hard I try to make the ms perfect, there’s always going to be something I miss before I send it to my editor, mainly because I’ve read the damn thing so many times I see what should be there, not what is.

There will also probably be some story inconsistencies or whatever to clean up, from my own edits. If I decide to switch from having two ghosts to one, for example, I need to make sure I’ve done what is called “Following through on the cut,” and removed every reference to “they/them,” “the two ghosts,” whatever. I often miss this stuff too, again, because I’ve been going through it so much/so many times.

My editor also catches the occasional repeated word, as in “Slowly the ghost moved toward her. It raised its arm slowly, the knife in its spectral hand catching the moonlight and sending it right into her eyes, blinding her.” I don’t always notice these when I’m actually writing, and while I catch most of them when I’m editing before I turn the book in, again, I can’t find everything. I hate repeated words, actually. They bug me almost as much as sentences that begin with participial phrases (dangling or not), which I loathe with a fiery and all-devouring passion, and will never, ever use, because they’re so awful I can’t even find a way to describe how awful they are. (Let me just say, though, that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you find them in the mss of newbie writers, because they think that sentence construction is “writery” or professional, thus making them look very smooth and clever. It’s not, and it doesn’t.)

Anyway, enough of that rant. The point is, edits are something you do with your editor, not for or in spite of. You get to make the choice, and there is nothing wrong with doing so. I’d say when it comes to “regular” edits–as in editorial letter/line edits–I probably accept pretty much all of my editor’s suggestions, because I trust her, and because in most cases I agree with her. With copyedits it’s probably more like 50-75%, depending on how good the CE is, of course.

An editor is there to help you, and to help make the book as good as it can be. They are not there to rewrite your book themselves, and they are not there to remove your voice and turn it into something a third-grader would have written.

I can’t remember who said it, but I read an awesome quote a little while back. It basically said, “The only rule of grammar a writer needs to follow is to make himself understood. Everything else is style.”

It may not be true all of the time–well, it isn’t, not ALL of the time–but it is most of the time. You don’t have to let yourself be treated badly, you don’t have to let control of your work be taken from you, and you don’t have to agree to every edit.

8 comments to “Edits are up to you”

  1. K.S. Manning
    · February 3rd, 2011 at 6:00 pm · Link

    Excellent information, Stacia. I let myself get caught up in the ‘my editor knows best’ before and ended up with a book I hated to promo. Definitely not something I plan on repeating. Thanks so much for reminding me!

  2. Michele Lee
    · February 3rd, 2011 at 6:18 pm · Link

    I keep a “Junk Pile” file for each book for the same reason :) Never open it except to put things in, but it’s there.

  3. Jill Sorenson
    · February 4th, 2011 at 8:05 am · Link

    Now this post I totally agree with! Except that dangling participle bit. (*running to check my manuscripts*)

    There was an interesting discussion on Karen Knows Best once about a NY author who’d had her book entirely rewritten by an editor. I spoke up and said editors don’t do that. Several people corrected me. I guess it can happen in less-than-ideal situations. I was shocked. I feel very lucky to have worked with editors who make great suggestions and leave it up to me.

  4. Erin Kane Spock
    · February 4th, 2011 at 8:54 am · Link

    Great post and something to think about. Right now I won’t review a book or mention it specifically if I don’t have something nice to say about it. I’m unpublished and have no idea where my bread is going to be buttered. No point in burning bridges. :)

  5. Betsy Dornbusch
    · February 4th, 2011 at 10:02 am · Link

    Our experiences are really similar (though one time I wasn’t edited very much at all and it annoyed me. It needed that extra eye for sure.)

    But I sit on both sides of the table, as an editor and a writer. We make changes on nearly every story we buy at Electric Spec. Sometimes it’s cutting. Sometimes it’s actual changes for clarity. We do our damnedest to change as little as possible. We do go ahead and make the actual changes because our deadlines are so tight (less than a month) but our writers know that up front and they get plenty of time to check galleys. I’ve only had one person complain about my edits, and we talked about it and fixed it to both our satisfaction. The writer has final say and that generally holds true, but we do reserve the right to not publish if it comes to it.

    But one of our requirements for consideration is a clean story. I don’t mean perfect (a dropped comma or a missing word is not going to kill your chances). But the author must demonstrate, in the slushpile, quality and consistency in their writing, including grammar, spelling, and punctuation. After five years, we’ve learned such consistency and care means we’ve got a writer we can work with. One time I took a story that needed a ton of work, and when I said something about turning in cleaner copy, he said “that’s your job.” My job? To run spell check and put commas in the right place? I don’t think so. He was also notoriously difficult to work with on every issue. Now I avoid poor copy like the plague.

    So do your editor a favor and turn in as clean a mss as possible! They’ll love you and your story all the more for it!

  6. BernardL
    · February 4th, 2011 at 10:23 am · Link

    Great post as always. That POV switch is something writers need to regain control of from the editing world. Sure, head hopping randomly without thought is a no-no; but I believe as you stated, readers are intelligent enough to decipher a passage where POV change happens intelligently without an announcement.

  7. Zoe Winters
    · February 5th, 2011 at 5:34 pm · Link

    Good stuff! I think writers also have to be careful with critique partners, also. Because there is always that CP that makes a comment based on “how they would have written it”, well, that’s great, but it’s not their book.

    And a lot of what I’ve heard through the grapevine is that it’s a lot of the really really small presses that try to re-write an author’s voice sometimes. (Makes one wonder why they bought the book in the first place.)

  8. B.J. Keeton
    · March 20th, 2011 at 8:26 pm · Link

    This has really been true for me, in terms of the participial phrases. I never realized how often I did it until I read this. Going back and revising, I see how smart I thought I was. As I revise, I’m cutting as many out as I can, and the writing has taken on the adult SF sound that I wanted rather than the YA/middle-grade tone it had before. I mean, revision is supposed to make the writing better, but I think it’s gotten a lot stronger just from this one edit because it’s affecting the way I structure the prose.

    Thanks for calling me out on it.


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