Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Some Tips For Negotiating Edits

Alicia asked the other day about how you all would handle disagreements over edits. We have remarkably little trouble of that nature with our authors, but I've been in this game a long time. I've witnessed plenty of self-destructive behavior and have had to mediate my share of disputes, both as an agent and as an editor. Along the way, I've developed a bit of an understanding of how to negotiate edits.

1. Respond in haste, repent at leisure.

Don't ever respond to the substance of edits in the first 24 hours after you've viewed them. Most of the problems I've seen have erupted during this first tender period. Give yourself a cooling-off, and don't respond until you've cooled off. Can't stress that enough. You don't want to vent your emotions here, because it will not help your cause. Period.

If you get through the first 24 hours and your head is still smoking, write your editor a polite and brief note thanking her for her editing notes and telling her that you'd like some time to review them. She'll understand.

2. Remember that your editor is on your side.

You and your editor both share a goal of making your work as strong as possible. You might not understand or appreciate her methods, but that doesn't mean she's sabotaging you. How do you know when an editor is no longer invested your success? She stops editing you. If you get blanket approval of all your submissions, or if your editor offers only token revision suggestions, that's when it's time to worry.

I once knew an editor who worked on a freelance per-project basis. She admitted quite openly that her profits came from churning paper. Every manuscript that crossed her desk for substantive revisions received the same response: voluminous praise coupled with a suggestion to add an epilogue. Do you think she was doing those writers any favors? Do you think she was a worthy partner in the process?

If your editor gives you a manuscript with carefully thought-out changes, that's all the evidence you need that she's on your side. If she listens to you and responds in detail, she's on your side, even if it takes a while for her to get to you. Turnaround time is not an accurate measure of her interest. Engagement in the text is.

3. Assume your editor knows something you don't.

This is not the same as asking you to admit to your own stupidity. Instead, think of it like this. We are busy people. We don't make changes to your text out of boredom or a need to fill our hours. The editor's motto is, If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

In other words, if we're taking the time to fix it, that ought to signal to you that we see a problem. Maybe you used the adjective "dimpled" to describe something other than facial features twice in four pages. Maybe there's a technical error. Maybe one of your stylistic choices violates house style guidelines.

Your editor is a bigger expert than you might guess. Even if she's never committed acts of editorial pyrotechnics in your presence, you can believe she's capable of them. I've seen Alicia analyze entire plots in 10.2 seconds flat, complete with suggestions for deeper character and theme development. And I've got a few tricks up my sleeve, too -- we all do. The point is, one of the biggest hurts you can do to yourself comes from assuming you're right and your editor is stupid.

Look at the original text. Look at your editor's recommended change. See if you can figure out why she's doing it. You might just learn something. And if you're still confused and still think she's wrong, try asking -- politely, of course -- for more explanation. Example: "I don't really understand your suggestion about the point of view in chapter two. I've looked at the chapter, but I could use a little more guidance on how to implement this change. What is our goal here?" (Not, "I looked at the chapter and don't see any mistakes. I can't imagine what you were looking at. Someone else's manuscript, maybe? Anyway, I'm going to cross that item off the list.")

4. If you want to go to battle, make damn sure you're right.

Every editor can tell war stories about writers who declared war over some grammar or style choice, only to discover that they were wrong about the rules. Before you do battle over whatever nits have been picked -- improper use of past perfect verbs, or comma splices, or placement of participial phrases -- make sure you first review the rules governing the past perfect tense or comma splices or whatever else is at issue.

And make sure you really understand the rules. You can damage your credibility by incorrectly arguing a technical error. You can't win the argument if you don't know the rules.

Most of us would be happy to explain a rule to you if you ask about it. But if you come after us, guns blazing, we're more likely to duck for cover than to meet you halfway.

5. Don't ever insult your editor.

"Dear stupid obstreperous crankynose, Thanks oh so much for your recent so-called evaluation of my work. My cat has enjoyed batting around a crumpled up printout of your letter all morning long, which is about all it's good for. Why don't you get a real job? You wouldn't know real writing if it tattooed itself on you knees! Sincerely, a most exalted genius."

Okay, maybe you would never take it that far. But don't say anything that can be construed as an insult to your editor. You might not mean it as a personal attack when you label her line edits "careless and awkward." But if she called your work careless and awkward, how would you respond? Not well, I would imagine. You might think you're cleverly concealing your attack on her when you scream to everyone in the house that she's not explaining things in a way you can understand. But screams have a funny way of echoing, and everyone who hears those echoes will wonder why on earth you don't just work with your editor to learn what you need to know to follow her instructions.

If you need to vent, do it privately with people you trust. Good candidates are people outside of publishing, such as a spouse or parent or your best friend, the nurse. Or how about telling your dog? That's one audience guaranteed never to repeat your words. You can talk to your agent, too, but remember that this is a professional relationship. You may have the world's coolest, hippest agent, but you're still better off saving the zingers for other audiences.

6. For substantive edits, try it before you reject it.

I've never once had a problem with an author that came to me and said, "Theresa, about this subplot overhaul/new opening/whatever, I tried writing it a couple of different ways and I can't seem to get it right. Can we talk about it? Is there another solution?"

A smart editor handles substantive edits by first identifying the root cause of a problem, and then suggesting a solution. So if I recommend that you clip out the prologue and write a new first scene containing such-and-such, what I'm presenting to you is one possible solution to a problem.

If that solution doesn't work, there will surely be another option. There's more than one way to peel a potato. But how will you know if the solution doesn't work until you try it -- until you think it through, and evaluate the ramifications, and play with the idea a little? Give it a shot. It's not like you have to write the new pages with your blood instead of ink.

I hope this helps. Remember, none of us are perfect. We all have off moments. But a little trust and a healthy shot of kindness can go a long way toward helping you through any disputes.



Maria Zannini said...

Boy, is this a timely post. I just finished my edits with my editor for my book, Touch Of Fire, debuting in May. I was nervous about what I was going to get back because I had heard through the grapevine she was very picky. (I WANTED picky--but I was still scared. LOL!)

She said my manuscript was pretty clean technically and content-wise and I started breathing again. :o)

>>Assume your editor knows something you don't.

I walked into this venture with that attitude. I'm not about to tell someone else their business, especially if they've been doing it for years.

The only real question I had was about scene breaks. She explained it to me and it makes perfect sense now. I'd like to see that question answered on a public forum. It's not something I've ever seen addressed that I recall.

How are scene breaks illustrated? When do you add an extra line space and when do you insert a widget like an asterisk?

I love ALL editors. You guys are gods!

Ian said...

I have editor envy.

Mostly because I don't have one. LOL

This is useful information, Theresa (not that I expect anything less when I open this blog anymore). Thanks!


Edittorrent said...

Maria, it's probably house style or the typesetter that determines how scene breaks are signified. But blank spaces don't work, because that can look accidental. Three asterisks and a blank space are more usual.

But don't sweat it-- that's actually more between the editor and the typesetter. Just make sure the editor understands that you're ending the scene here and it's not just too heavy a hand on the Enter key. :)

Edittorrent said...

Maria, congratulations on your sale! Picky is good, you know. :) Picky saves you from publishing a story that contains the textual equivalent of walking around with your skirt tucked into your pantyhose.

Ian, keep writing. You'll get an editor someday, and then you'll look back fondly on the days when writing was not a collaboration. Enjoy your control while you have it! ;)