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5 Steps to Surviving an Edit

This post originally ran on January 6, 2010, but its advice is timeless.

You have decided to submit your manuscript to a freelance editor. On one level you are hoping that editor will identify any issues that might prevent a publishing house from purchasing your book so that you can fix them before you are rejected. But deep down inside—no matter how much you are paying for the service—you are also kind of hoping that editor will deem your work “brilliant as is” and return it with only a few typos changed.

I know. I may be an editor, but I am also a writer who has previously hired a freelance editor. And it’s amazing how your thumping heart can squeeze all common sense from your brain as you open up your evaluation and wonder…does she think I’m any good?

Ahem—wrong question. If submitting to a freelance editor is on your New Year's resolution list, please keep this post handy and read it through a few times before you read your edited pages.

1. Editors know how hard it is to communicate effectively on paper—it’s often harder than the author thinks—and respect anyone who gives it their best shot. Your editor wants you to succeed and will apply special evaluation skills to help you do so. To communicate these concepts she must put marks on your page.
Marks on the page ≠ “I am a bad writer.”
Marks on the page = your editor is doing what you paid her to do.

2. Ask any published author: each manuscript attempted offers up its own specific challenges. You submitted your work to be edited because you wanted to determine whether those problems have been adequately addressed, and whether others you haven’t yet identified lurk between the lines. While reading your editor’s evaluation of your work is not the time to pretend those problems never existed.

3. Identifying problems is helpful because problems have solutions. No doubt your editor will point you toward some possible solutions. Her suggestions might take the story in a direction you hadn’t hoped for—but read them anyway. You don’t have to use them, but they might help loosen your hold on your former way of thinking so you can move in a more productive direction.

4. Rather than brace yourself against your editor's comments, open yourself to their possibilities. Allow a week or two to digest them so whatever truth is there can sink in.

5. Even constructive criticism can be difficult to read. Try to accommodate your discomfort. “If I were an agent I would have stopped reading here” is not an easy thing for you to read or your editor to write—but its very honesty is a gift. Especially if the only feedback you’d received thus far was from family and friends who think your writing is “awesome.”

I’ll leave you with this related story. Determined to make the most of his talent, a friend of mine studied classical voice in New York City at a rate he could barely afford—$200 an hour. One day, during his lesson, he broke down. He had sacrificed so much to be there and could no longer take the constant criticism. “You only tell me the things I do wrong,” he told his instructor. The instructor seemed baffled. “That’s because you’re paying me to correct what isn’t working,” he said. “You have improved significantly since you started studying with me. The fact that we are working on new problems indicates this. Now. We have 15 minutes left. Do you want to spend that $50 on me attempting to help you feel better about yourself, or do you want to learn a little something more from me today?”

The moral of this anecdote, of course, is that creative endeavor is hard and taking criticism is even harder. Make sure you do what you need to do to bolster your spirits. Pray. Meditate. Go for a walk. Kiss your dog. Read inspirational literature. Just don’t expect your editor to provide coddling that is at odds with the honest feedback you are paying to receive.

Remember that your editor’s remarks have no bearing on her opinion of you or on her thoughts as to whether or not you are a good writer. A good writer is simply someone who continues to address the problems in the writing until no barriers remain between her story and the reader eager to enter it.

And never underestimate the transformative power of hard work. Once your diligent problem solving starts to shove those barriers out of the way in the revision process, that editor that seemed to be your harshest critic will become your greatest cheerleader.


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. At her blog, Healing through Writing, she is currently posting about the philosophical, logistical, and biological challenges of healing from a triple ankle fracture sustained during Hurricane Irene.

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  1. Very timely! I'm having a novel edited by my publisher at the moment and it has been quite a struggle. My problem isn't that I shrivel and die when the editor wants changes, but that I gird my loins and launch into battle.

    Actually, I'm not quite that bad. I do accept a lot of criticism and work hard on fixing things, but there are some times when the editor is just wrong and I am just right. Sadly, in the end, the editor has the publishing contract on her side, so I must lose in the end. But I will not go down without a fight!

  2. Excellent! Thanks for a terrific post. It is, indeed, hard to read "this part didn't work for me" or "you need to tell more about this, but THIS is an infodump". (Can you tell I've had some good--honest and useful--critiques?) The hardest part of writing is not writing, not marketing, not rewriting, not being critiqued. The hardest part is LISTENING to critiques and, as you say, figuring out how to make YOUR piece work YOUR way to satisfy the reader. Thanks again for an article I do, indeed, plan to save.

  3. A very timely post as I've just had some initial edits back from my publisher (gosh, I love writing that - debut novelist!) and I was staggered at how many typos both I and my other half had missed even after what we thought were several rigorous proof-reads. Your comments are very helpful - yes, I did gulp a bit when I first saw the t/s, but when I saw how it was improved by small changes just to streamline some unwieldy sentences (like this!)I was very grateful for my editor's work.

  4. Thanks for the reminder. I won a 75 page deep edit from a well-respected professional and the ms is with her now. I'm sure she'll be much tougher than my publisher and I'm looking forward to moving my writing along. On a totally unrelated topic, I have to tell you that you look so much like my mother (50 years ago, of course) that it's almost scary!

  5. I value a good editor's criticism since it makes my novel stronger. Still, sometimes I get nervous wondering if I can make the changes so they make sense. So far,I've been able to do it. There's always that bit of self-doubt that likes to creep in, but I do my best to ignore it. I don't know too many authors who are so confident they don't at times get worried about their work.

    Morgan Mandel

  6. This post reminds us to remain encouraged and look at the big picture. I've worked with freelance editors and the editor at my publisher. It is always like taking a master's class in my own writing - not easy, but I come away feeling much better about the overall work.

  7. Chris:
    Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel!! I wish you much success with it.

  8. Editor and writer have to work together. As a writer, I want to learn and get better with each manuscript. If we see this as a partnership rather than a confrontation, I can learn rather than be defensive. It's not easy to let down your guard, though.

    Straight From Hel

  9. "Graywave": I'd like to say something about an editor being wrong and the whole battle aspect, because I've been thinking about that a lot lately. I think both the assumption that an editor is powerful and therefore right, and the need to "do battle," is a perspective that comes from writers more than editors. There is an equal chance of "egocentric moron" on both sides of the fence, of course, and I pity either the writer or the editor who has to deal with one. But for the most part I think editors think of their work as collaborative. If you think the editor is "wrong," it's possible you did not make clear the direction you wanted to take that character/passage. So if your editor's comments seem off-base (okay, wrong), instead of "doing battle," I suggest a humbler approach: share what it is you were trying to achieve and ask why it didn't work, and how you might change it to be more effective. An editor who offered comments in a collaborative spirit might respond well to the approach. You both want the same thing: a good, salable book. And I'm sure neither of you would mind a relationship based on mutual respect and as free of turmoil as is possible.

  10. Shannon:
    I ended up with two sons, but have always been curious what a daughter of mine would look like--this is a real compliment!

  11. Morgan and Marian:
    I know what you mean, Morgan! Confidence rides high when you are still riding that rush of creativity--but once something is called into question, suddenly you wonder if you can ever trust yourself again. If I had to choose a "hardest part" as in Marian's statement:
    The hardest part of writing is not writing, not "marketing, not rewriting, not being's listening to your critiques..." I'd go one step further: for me it's not listening to the critiques, it's regaining authorial confidence once you have let other critical eyes into the process.

  12. Great post. I especially liked the story about the singer which made the whole thing very clear.

    I agree that the editor/writer relationship has got to be collaborative. If you don't agree with something discuss it. I recently did edits on my romance that will be coming out in April. One of the comments from the editor didn't make sense to me. I felt it would disipate tension. After explaining she agreed.

  13. I actually disagree a bit.

    Telling someone what they do right isn't just about making them feel good -- it tells them what to REPEAT, what to keep doing. An editor or teacher cannot assume that the person they're critiquing/instructing knows what they did right just because that thing wasn't pointed out as wrong. Lack of correction does NOT equal "well done."

    Traditional coaching methods rely on pointing out problems and correcting them. A friend of mine has, for several years, been working on a different method where they focus on identifying CORRECT behavior. They've done numerous (scientifically valid) studies in different fields, and every single time, the student whose coaches focused on what was RIGHT learned the skills FASTER.

  14. Wonderful post and one that I will reread when I get the edits on my next book back. No matter how many times I have edited for other folks, the process still stirs some tough emotions in me when I am on the other side of the page. Your example of the music student was perfect.

    Graywave, it is too bad that your editor is so strict. The one I have worked with on my last two books has allowed me to be right sometimes, and that has made it easier for me to let her be right the rest of the time. Usually is involves her trying to change style as opposed to craft. Big difference that I try to honor when I am editing for a client.

  15. Kathryn, The situation isn't quite the way you're thinking it is. So far, three editors have had a go at my MS. The main one is a copy editor and she and I have had the long discussions about approach, stylistic matters, and even plot. We've had disagreements but, on the whole, have worked through things and compromised where necessary. She has actually been very halpful and has definitely improved the book (specially in matters such as POV, where I can be a bit sloppy). The other two were doing line edits. The first one undid many of the changes the copy editor had asked me to make in punctuation, and also hypenated about a dozen (frequently-occurring)words which are technical terms and should not have been hyphenated. It caused both me and the copy editor a lot of extra work to set things back.

    The third editor (the real problem) also happens to be a more senior editor. She has found several dozen cases where the text violates the "house style". By applying rules such as "numbers in dialogue must be spelled out unless they are dates" inappropriately to names which happen to contain digits, she is asking me to do something I know will jar with readers. The most frequent instance of this is the name "MI5" (yes, it's a thriller) which would look very odd as "MI Five". I have put this case, but the house style is, apparently, "non-negotiable". It is very frustrating (as Maryann notes.)

    Until recently, I didn't even know that publishers had "house style" manuals (on top of CMoS, etc.) - software companies, yes, government departments, yes, but publishers? And to apply them so rigidly (and incorrectly) seems bizarre.

  16. Good advice. When I critique I like to also point out what does work well so that the author doesn't delete the really good stuff while rewriting.

  17. Okay graywave, I'd like to say something soothing but now I'm all full of turmoil as well. House rules aside, that MI Five example is just nuts. All "rules" should serve the clarity of the story.

  18. Melissa:
    I've been thinking about what you said. Each edit is a learning experience that shapes the editor, writer and manuscript. Both writer and editor learn more about what they like and don't like. Sometimes, as a writer, it's what you don't like that propels you into a new, more useful direction. You learned that you need more positive feedback, which was valuable. This has impacted your thoughts on what kind of critiques you will give to your fellow writers. My editing service, for example, provides a written evaluation, the very nature of which will tell the author what is working. But if you did not receive the feedback you required, I think asking for "what is working" is a valid follow-up question whose answer should not cost you--but I know that's not the way all free-lance editors work, since some charge by the hour.

    But since you now know better what your own needs are, I would ask your editor up front next time to please include information on both what is working well and what is not working. Not all authors are cut from the same cloth—another, for example, might think everything he's written is brilliant and despite the fact that he hired an editor is unwilling to question a word of it. You are your own best advocate.

  19. Good advice, Kathryn. But I also try to provide some uplifting comments to my clients. Writers, especially new ones, are treading on eggshells, wondering if they're any good, so a little positive feedback can go a long way in counteracting the "constructive criticism" in the rest of the edit.

    I had one client who said she paid an editor to work on her manuscript, he accepted the fee, and then he told her "You can't write. This is terrible." How discouraging is that?! I think that was a horrible thing to do.


  20. All I can say is that writing is subjective ... one person's genius is another persons's hack. You should be confident enough in your ability to withstand criticism, knowing that is subjective, too. To work well, author and editor should share a common vision and respect the skills each brings to the project.
    Whew, that sounded a heck of a lot like a serious thought ... now, I'm going to have to take a nap.

  21. LOL, Christopher, enjoy your nap. You did make an excellent point about the mutual respect. That is so crucial in an author/editor relationship.

    Katherine, this is timely advice. I especially like that you said, "A good writer is simply someone who continues to address the problems in the writing until no barriers remain between her story and the reader eager to enter it."

    I'm working with a writer now who is very new at the craft, but she is so willing and eager and open, it is a joy to work with her.

  22. Chris, I appreciate that my post was the focus of a serious thought, lol! Too many authors hide behind the subjectivity objection when confronted with difficult feedback, though, in my opinion. That's where the respect comes in I guess. If you've researched an editor enough to plunk down a big hunk of change for her opinion, maybe you should go ahead and honor that by making the changes and see if it doesn't improve the project. Those writers might be surprised that there's actually some cold, hard craft beneath all that subjectivity that they's been missing out on.

  23. Maryann, that's the very best kind of client no matter what her level, isn't it? Enjoy!


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