Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Spoonful of Sugar

First published Wednesday, March 24, 2010

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.

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 to paint word pictures. For years she has worked as an editor (2 books she edited won national awards and a third on which she worked was accepted for nomination for a Pulitzer Prize) and writer (when she had time - which was seldom). In January 2012 she is changing her focus. Teaching writers to write through hands-on work with their own manuscripts, she will coach them in the skills that will save thousands of dollars in editing fees over the course of their writing careers. How? Well-written, polished manuscripts cost less to edit.

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  1. If a phrase or a passage or a scene that we love needs to be cut, it helps to know that we can file it away and use it another day. If one thinks nothing should be changed why engage an editor??

  2. It sounds as if this author wanted affirmation that her book was perfect, not an edit. More than likely, her book will not get published or she will eventually have to work with an editor to get it picked up by a publisher or to sell it as an independently published e-book. On the other hand, this may be her first book. It sometimes takes us writing several books to realize that our first (and 2nd and 3rd, etc.) are not perfect.

  3. Ouch! I do feel the pain of the writer you edited for. My works are my babies too. However, I feel I am more open to critique than she sounded. I once edited such a poorly written manuscript that unfortunately, with what I considered improvements became more my words than hers. Now I understand that a writer and editor must be clear on what type and how much editing they want done. Do you want spelling corrections or more... It's a wide open field. Very insightful article from an editor's perspective. Thank you very much!

  4. A good editor always approaches these situations and authors with a double dose of positive attitude. Otherwise the editing job might not be that great either. Keep in mind that the author probably did NOT think her manuscript was perfect - otherwise, why send it out for editing? I'm guessing there was more going on at different levels than was evident. Sometimes an editor has to be a bit of a therapist, too, I guess. I've learned over time that I have to communicate my points in different ways - sometimes I can kill the darlings, other times it takes a gentler hand.

  5. Two comments:

    1) You can change a whole lot of words before losing the literary thumbprint of the author

    2) Another thing we allow our children: an education, so they can grow up to be the best they can be! In fact, all good parents encourage this.

  6. This particular edit was required by the publisher, and I did the editing for that publisher at the time. The writer was resistant, the publisher was insistent, and the atmosphere was tense to say the least. To complicate matters, I had no direct access to the writer, so all she could see were my changes. I wish, Dani, that I could have had the opportunity to deal with her directly. A lot of tension would likely have gone away if we could have talked.

  7. I so get this! As an editor and proofreader, I've had many manuscripts, short stories, and blog posts come my way. The writer thought his/her writing just peachy and wonderful. And after I've sent my critique I get a blah, "Thank you for reading my MS," or no response at all. The no-response-at-all I relate to hurt feelings. I've shared this blog post all over the place.

  8. A spoonful of sugar? Critique thusly: first, praise; then, pan; then, offer suggestions.

    A critique should be offered honestly, based only on the merits, or lack of them, found in the work. If you're judging a Star Trek series, do so on its own merits. Leave the other series out of it.

    Authors, take a critique for what it is: potentially helpful. Listen. That means, don't talk, don't defend and don't explain. When it's done, say "Thank you" and consider it.

    This also means you must get over yourself. None of us is perfect and can always afford a bit more learning.


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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