Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Spoonful of Sugar

Recently, I had the less-than-stellar experience of editing a manuscript for a first-time writer who believed her every word, every comma, every sentence contributed to her perfect book and under no circumstances should be changed. Emotions ran high, and reason ran out the door. Resistance became the word of the day, every day.

A few years ago, I attended a seminar where we were told that our books are not our babies. However, books are birthed after months, sometimes years, of hard labor. That does suggest a kinship between the two b’s—babies and books. Let’s take that comparison a step further. What happens when our baby gets sick? Do we take it to the doctor? Yes. When the doctor writes out a prescription, do we fill it? Of course. We even get well-baby checks and follow a schedule of immunizations to prevent measles, mumps, chickenpox, tetanus, hepatitis, and other diseases. Why? We want our baby to be healthy, the best it can be.

What about our manuscripts? When they are less than healthy, do we take them to the doctor, a.k.a., editor? When the editor writes out a prescription (suggestion to make the book better), do we fill it? Suppose we don’t think the story’s ailing. Do we still get well-manuscript checks? Do we immunize our book against lack of continuity and flow, poor dialogue, plot and character weaknesses, redundancies, lagging story lines, absence of hooks, telling rather than showing, and a host of other disorders? Do we want our story to be the best it can be?

Most of us agree that the doctor’s ability to ascertain the true state of our baby’s health exceeds our own. Similarly, a competent editor’s ability to determine the well-being of our manuscript far surpasses ours. Yet, do we resist the editor’s efforts to make our book the best it can be?

We writers often love our words and are loath to part with a phrase that epitomizes our feelings or paints an extraordinary (in our opinion) word picture. We may need to be convinced that a few more strokes of the brush will enhance our emotions or add depth to our scene. But if we are resistant writers, we want to protect our words at any cost.

Sometimes that cost is very high. Take the writer mentioned above. Her book has great potential to become a bestseller. However, much of her unedited writing rambles and digresses from her topic. If polished, her incredible story and unique delivery will draw in many readers. But its present state falls far short of excellence and stifles the realization of that potential.

How do editors reach a writer with the needed prescription before the manuscript’s poor health becomes terminal? According to Mary Poppins, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” We editors—a.k.a., book doctors—prescribe cures for almost all literary ailments. How can we help resistant writers to swallow those cures? What is that "spoonful of sugar” that "helps the medicine go down”? What do you think?

Linda Lane loves words. She writes, edits, and publishes books, a lifelong dream come true. Two books she edited have won national awards, and her own latest book, a psychological drama, goes to press this week. Visit her under-construction Web site at


  1. I think the attitude of the editor is all-important when a writer's work is not-yet-stellar. Perhaps first identifying all the really good things about the manuscript, and then launching into what might improve upon it? I know many editors (and publishers) who think this sort of work is above them - after all, if they wanted to be teachers, they'd be doing that. But in truth, we can all help someone along the writing path with encouragement and kindness, no matter how dreadful the work at this point.

    Maybe we could get L.j. to comment - she does evaluations all the time, and is known for her constructive and kind critique.

    I guess what I'm saying is embrace those darlings... and then kill them! LOL.


  2. Some people will never learn. It's just reality.
    Anyone who is SERIOUS about this business will kill their darlings. And any editor worth their salt knows how to change something to make it better without changing th spirit of the book.
    If it were a perfect world editors would only work with writers willing to make their mss the best.

  3. Great article! I think that the best an editor can do is to make suggestions. Writers are grown-ups with their own ideas about their material. We can explain why it would be in their best interest to change grammar, characterizations, structure or anything along that line, but in the long run, they have the freedom to accept or reject what we suggest.

    I always try to give detailed explanations when I come up against a lot of resistance. For example, I know someone right now who is writing an extremely long book that would have a much better chance of being taken by a publisher if it were slashed in half. But she doesn't want to do that. I've offered specific reasons why she should but ultimately it's not up to me. And at heart, I'm a populist. I believe that each person should make his or her own decision.

    Some writers love me to almost rewrite their material; others, are reluctant to change a single word. It is frustrating for editors but in the long run, we offer advice and that's the best we can do. If the client decides to implement it, great. If not, we've still done our job.

    Fellow editor, Sigrid

  4. Linda, I have had similar experiences with some writers and finally had to turn a manuscript back to a publisher because the author was so resistant to the suggested changes. And, Dani, I did approach that writer with all the good points first, hoping that would ease the transition into what needed work.

    I love the comparison to taking the baby to the doctor. Very appropriate for this topic.

  5. I never understood the "book is my baby" attitude. I'm more than happy to have a good editor slash and burn.

    I've written thousands of pages of technical docs working in a team, with an editor nipping at our butts along the way. Heck, you want to THROW that baby to the wolves before long.

  6. "with an editor nipping at our butts along the way."

    How can we turn those fine words into a slogan? LOL. Love it!

    Marva, how about a guest post about team-writing or technical writing? I don't think we've covered that here. Team writing especially, since I'm moodling the idea.


  7. I'd say most of the time the editor is right on the money. I accepted almost every suggestion Helen Ginger made about Killer Career and they made sense. It's been years since I took grammar in grade school. (g)

    Of course, you do need to make sure you have a good editor. Your manuscript in the wrong hands could be a disaster. That said, you'll find some great ones here.

    Sometimes, there's a differing of opinion about the direction of a manuscript and there's no clearcut right or wrong. Then the author needs to decide which is the best course to follow.

    Morgan Mandel

  8. I'm in favor of the sandwich technique myself. Criticism sandwiched between praise. Every time I critique something for my writer's group, this is what I do. It points out the deficiencies in the writing without coming off too harsh.

  9. And two different editors would judge the same manuscript completely differently, I guess? Or maybe not? It reminds me of a writing exercise we had in high school. A friend and I wrote the story toghether, and handed it in to our respective teachers. One gave it an A, the other a C. In the end our experiment was uncovered, and we got a lot of trouble for cheating, or maybe it was because we had challenged the system ... >;)

  10. I think dealing with a first-time writer is hard.

    She doesn't know the business. She's terrified of criticism. She doesn't understand that the criticism she gets from an editor will be nothing compared to the criticism she will get from the world.

    Maybe there isn't anything more you can do to help her feel comfortable with the changes you are suggesting.

    I'm curious to know what you see in her work that shows potential best-seller if it's not written that well!

  11. Jenn, what makes this a potential best-seller is its content and, for the most part, its personal and often humorous delivery. The writer's personality shines through the nonfiction narrative and beckons the reader to come along for the ride.

    The problems with the manuscript included extensive use of passive verbs, rambling sentences and digressions, and many redundancies. Suggested changes didn't imply any need for a rewrite (despite the author's insistence that they did), but only for tightening to improve flow and to keep the reader engaged. Of course, they also included replacement of some of the passive verbs. The writer had argued about every comma change with an earlier editor, who finally became so frustrated that she refused to work any more on the manuscript because of the writer's attitude and resistance.

    A number of comments here have suggested a tactful approach, with noted needs for change sandwiched between kudos. The writer received great pats on the back, all of which were ignored. Instead every suggested edit met with a wall of resistance. The grammar was fine, the writer insisted, so no change was needed.

    All in all, however, the book's good . . . if only the author gives a little on the editing, which has stepped up its pace (by limiting digressions that pull the reader out of the story) and made it a much more enjoyable read. The writer's voice remains totally intact, and the personality still shines on every page.

  12. The re-write. Many a good book has died because the author wouldn't do the work. That attitude is very telling.


  13. The publication of my 1st book has been a long time coming. The Darkness started as a short story five years ago and it hasn’t always been easy. Not only for me but it was really difficult for the people who love me most. here was a phase where I wrote the same scene over and over…there where times I’d be out walking around in public with a blank glaze talking out the scenes and I’m sure I appeared quite mad.

    There were times that people would be talking to me and I didn’t hear a word that had been said because I was distracted by the imaginary world that I had created and wanted to know what was happening there.

    There were months on end when all I selfishly talked about was The Darkness despite the importance of what the people who cared about me spoke about.

    There was a time when I wrote for 2 or 3 days straight, I didn’t eat and couldn’t sleep, my eyes felt like sandpaper and in a sleep-deprived state of delirium I called my sister at 3am mumbling frantically incoherently about a character from The Darkness. Because I startled her awake and I was near hysterics I scared her pretty bad and when she realized I was talking about the book she was pretty pissed.

    I cried for 3 days when I saw the bloody gore on every page of my manuscript that had been caused by the razor sharp tip of my editors red pen.

    On day 4 of the crying I googled "How to read editor notes" and slowly tried decode my editors encrypted message. Then I called my mom to decry the injustice that I was suffering through. My mom didn't put any sugar on it but she got her point across. She said to me "Your editor is not going to let you fail."

    Like most writes I think I can tell a pretty good story but our editor not only know how to tell a good story they know how to sell books, so in that way they are more inportant than our Dr.'s we should think of them as coaches.

    Our editors are the guys to tell us to put the cake down and do another set of squats. The end result is a better body and a better book.

    Don't get me wrong I still have my princess problems and throw diva fits but my mom and my editor rule with an iron fist...and I'm all the better for it.

    This was a great post, thank for sharing =D

  14. I am only recently becoming more comfortable with editing. I owe it to a great writing group with two friends who love editing (weirdos).

  15. Linda, as a writer, I'm in love with your response. The fact that humour and personality can outshine run-on sentences and passive verb use make me feel less anxious about making mistakes.

    As I am re-writing my novel, and then querying, I will remember that.



The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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