On Being Edited

So this is the second post in the three-way blogapalooza I’m sharing with Anna Branford and Sally Murphy. Because it’s part of a series, I’ve followed the same format for the title, but the first thing I should say is that I think it’s misleading.

You don’t ‘get edited’. I’ve never ‘been edited’. It’s not a passive process in which the writer sits back and waits for the editor to tell them what needs to be done. It’s a dialogue – a back-and-forth that begins with the text, moves to the editor, bounces back to the author, who returns to the text, then bounces it back to the editor, and so on thusly for the term of your natural life (or so it can seem).

When I show people the six-page editorial letter for Annabel, Again, or a marked up draft of Surface Tension, I get some interesting reactions. Some people actually draw back in horror. 48519-aaedltrsmall3But isn’t it your story? How can you let them? From time to time I hear people – often aspiring writers – talking about the way publishers insist on ‘changing’ people’s work, to shape it to fit their own set of parameters.

But really, that’s not how it works. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. If a publisher were to take this approach, I too would walk very quickly in the opposite direction.

My experience of ‘being edited’ has been that in every single case, my manuscript has emerged from the process as a stronger, more satisfying version of itself. Editors, in my experience, are the savvy, objective readers who guide your manuscript towards becoming the best version of what it is already trying to be, rather than steering it towards being any kind of version of something else.

The truth is, I love editing. I love everything about the process. I love taking the lump of clay (what we so often optimistically call ‘the final draft’) and seeing it get flattened and kneaded and hammered into shape (for more gratuitous pottery-writing metaphors, click here). Of course, I’m the one doing the flattening and the kneading and that’s a confronting and difficult thing when you thought your beautiful sculpture was already finished, but it is also very satisfying when you have confidence in the process and the endpoint you’re working toward.

I didn’t always feel this way, though.

My first experience of being edited was something of a shock, actually. It was many moons ago when I was being mentored on a YA manuscript. This was really the first piece of fiction I’d ever written and I thought it was brilliant. It got me a mentorship and I thought I was on my way and many accolades were just around the corner (publication would happen first, of course, but I knew I had that in the bag).

Then I got the first part of the manuscript back from my mentor, a well-known YA author, and it looked like this:

b8590-angelaediting3It’s a little hard to tell from the picture, but I would estimate that close to 70% of it was highlighted in yellow. And when I uncovered the colour-coding key, cunningly buried a few pages into the manuscript, I discovered that yellow did not, in fact, mean, “Alert! Awesome writing!” but rather, “You could probably cut this bit.”*

Going through that process unstitched me and then put me back together again. I learnt so much. I learnt not to be precious about what was on the page. I learnt that it was raw material, to be flattened and kneaded and slashed and burned and various other agrarian metaphors.

And I learned something else, too.

Because my mentor and I were very different writers. At one point, I began a chapter with the line, “A bomb went off at school today” and my mentor wrote, “Oh, thank Christ! Finally something is happening.”

Unfortunately, he had commented before reading my next line, which read, “Oh, not really. That kind of thing only happens on Home and Away.”

To be honest, my first reaction to his comment was, “I can’t work with this guy. He seriously thought there might be an actual bomb? I don’t write like that. I … I… I… mememe mybookmybook blahblahblah.”

Then I took a step back. Because it wasn’t about the bomb. I didn’t need a bomb. And he wasn’t really suggesting I did. What I needed was, exactly as he said, something to happen.
I had not actually realised that I’d written approximately 50 pages in which nothing at all happened outside of my character’s head.

I’m not saying you can’t write a story like that. Maybe you can. But at the very least, it needs to be a conscious choice. You need to know that you’re doing it. And why.

That’s part of what editing has done for me. It’s helped me understand that when I write, I’m making choices. And that there are other choices, other possibilities; that the way things are is not the way they must be.

It’s made me realise that I do have a voice, that what I think of as simply writing the story the way anyone would write it, is actually me writing the story the way only I would write it.
It’s helped me own that a bit. To be aware of the choices I’ve made. To interrogate them and be open to alternatives. To defend them when necessary.

I would never have put a bomb in that story. And no editor would ever ask me to. But they would certainly point out that nothing had happened yet, and ask if that was what I had intended, and was I thinking about the consequences for the story, and my readers, and were there perhaps alternatives that might be considered? And yes, I know, Meg, that you want to write a ‘quiet’ story but there’s ‘quiet’ and then there’s dead, you know? Food for thought?

Food for thought, yes. Suggestions, possibilities, guidance. These are all part of the process. But no one tells you what to do. It’s always your story. Editors know this. And what they are really good at doing is working out what the story is trying to do, and helping you find ways to do it better – in the context of your story, your style, your voice.

On a couple of my books, I’ve done what I thought were close to total rewrites during the editorial process, stripping them back and rebuilding them from the ground up. But when I put them back together, and sat back feeling satisfied with what I’d achieved, I realised that the seeds of everything that made the final version stronger were there in the first version, sleeping quietly. Waiting for a canny editor to come along and tease them out, to guide me towards them.

This in itself is a spooky art, I think, and I suppose all editors are different in terms of how much guidance they give, how directive they are. And perhaps that varies depending on how they read the author.

Personally, I don’t like an editor to be too directive. I don’t particularly want suggestions on how to fix things, possible directions the plot might take, and so on. I’d rather just have the problems laid bare, maybe get a nudge this way or that, but essentially find my way to the solutions myself.

At the same time, I recognise that’s a bit of a tightrope for an editor to walk, and they can’t know what my particular preferences are, so I try not to be too much of a delicate flower. If an editor says, hmm, what about this? and it seems like a sensible suggestion, I’ll explore the idea. Even if the impetus comes from elsewhere (and doesn’t everything, anyway?), I’m still going to make it my own in the writing of it.

Along the way there is much discussion. Debate. Disagreement. You can argue. You can fight. But it’s not a battle of wills between two opposing sides. It’s both of you fighting for what you think is best for the story.

I like to fight. And I’m kind of stubborn. I tend to think I know best. It’s my story after all. But that’s not what I meant! She just doesn’t get it!

But here’s a thought: If she doesn’t get what I mean, maybe I’m not saying what I think I am. Maybe what I meant hasn’t actually made it onto the page. Maybe I’ve got some revising to do?

I’m stubborn, but I’ve finally learned something very simple. I cannot see my own blind spots. They are, by definition, blind spots. I think I’m getting slightly better at avoiding certain things – ‘being’ edited feeds ideally back into self-editing, after all – but I still need my editor to thwack me every now and then and tell me to just stop it. Stop overwriting. Stop telling endless, quirky anecdotes that slow the pace at crucial moments. Stop circling and circling around the point and just explain what you mean. Sometimes exposition is good. TELL, DON’T SHOW!

And so on.

I’ve lamented my particular writing tics in other posts. If you’re interested, you can read more here and here. Did I mention I have a particular weakness for overwriting? For rambling? As demonstrated in all those places, and also here.

The final thing I’ll say about editing is that I don’t think it ever really ends. Even after a book is published, I’m still editing it, in a way. I’ll change things as I read, to smooth them over, to shift emphasis. I’ll wonder why on earth I did this and not that.

The French critic and poet Paul Valery once said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” That feels particularly true of poetry to me, but to a certain extent I think it applies to all writing. We shape and tighten and remix and unpick and rebuild and at some point we have to say enough! and then the binding goes on, setting everything in stone, and on we move to the next shiny thing.

And having said that, I have said more than enough and hereby abandon this post.

* If you’re wondering what green means, it means “This bit is actually quite good.” See those two-and-a-half lines in the middle there? That bit.

9 thoughts on “On Being Edited

  1. anna

    There's so much that I relate to very directly here Meg so naturally, contrary soul that I am, what stands out for me is the part about editors not being too directive – because I think I rather love a directive editor.

    I far prefer, 'I don't feel this conversation is quite finished. Wouldn't the character add something like x or y or z?' to just a plain old, 'I don't feel this conversation is quite finished', that leaves me saying quietly in my head,' Well, I do.' Even if I don't go with any of the suggestions, I find it so helpful to have a kind of rhythm or shape to work with (and slightly frustrating when I don't have that).

    “I realised that the seeds of everything that made the final version stronger were there in the first version, sleeping quietly. Waiting for a canny editor to come along and tease them out, to guide me towards them.” I love this and I feel I know exactly what you mean.

    As for continuing to edit when the actual finished books are in our hands, what horror. I try so hard not to do this, for fear that if I did I might never have peace!

    Lovely, thought provoking post, Meg.


  2. Meg McKinlay

    You've made me reflect a little more on the question of 'direction', Anna, and I think I might qualify what I wrote in my post.

    I think personality-wise, I prefer a less directive approach, but in practical terms, having suggestions has been very helpful to me in the past, even if it's simply as you say, to provide a beginning shape – even one from which I end up veering off into something different altogether. Another way of avoiding the blank canvas, I guess.

    There was one occasion where an editor said my ending 'wasn't credible' and gave two suggested alternatives. She did stress they were only suggestions, but I still had a crankypants moment. Why? Because I really liked one of them and could immediately see how to make it work, but felt reluctant to use it because I hadn't come up with it myself. Eventually I realised I was being ridiculous and just got on with it.


  3. Mirka Breen

    I enjoyed reading your post just as I have enjoyed working with editors. I have the highest opinion of those I’ve worked with (after acceptance) and I never felt they were disrespectful of my ownership of the story.
    But neither should you be: you are the author. Editors worth the title have good instincts, but their judgment is not flawless.


  4. Sally Murphy

    But it's not a battle of wills between two opposing sides. It's both of you fighting for what you think is best for the story.

    This is so true, and so important to remember. It isn't 'them and us' (in spite of my description of poor Ethel the editor on my blog). The whole team – editor, illustrator, designer, marketing etc etc and including the author – is a team, working to produce the best possible book. Opinions may differ but we all want the same thing.

    I think I fall somewhere in between the two of you regarding directive editors. There are times when I just want someone to tell me what I can do to 'fix' it but other times where just pointing out changes is needed are more beneficial. In the editing process for my rhyming PB, for example, a change was suggested which fitted the pattern of rhyme and rythm, but just didn't fit the story. I was adamant that new line was not going in. But then worked hard to find the right replacement line. In that case I think prescriptive didn't work for me. But I was able to argue succesfully (and calmly) for the right change. Other times though a suggestion has been just perfect and I've thought 'now why idn't I think of that?'

    And editing after the story is published? Yep!


  5. Nathan Luff

    Great post. I too love the process of working with a good editor. I have fallen into the trap though where I submit something I clearly know is not ready purely because I want an editor to look at it and see the gem I know is buried in it somewhere – it is me after a lazy shortcut. Then I get surprised when it is rejected. The trick I have learned is to submit it when you think it is perfect and then discover that it isn't but now the gem is at least detectable.


  6. Anonymous

    Interesting thoughts, Meg and everyone. I must drop in again.

    In my one-and-only publishing experience, there was quite a distinction between the publisher and the editor.

    The publisher suggested a few big picture things (we need more of this character early on, we need this other character to be quirkier etc)and suggested a different title (which I struggled against, but accepted in the end when she wouldn't budge – and still regret two years into publication).

    Then the MS was sent off to a freelance editor for structural and copy editing. Oh what joy! The to-and-fro exchange was immensely rewarding. Sadly, as she was free lance, it only lasted 2-3 weeks. I sorely wished it could have continued longer.

    Steven O'Connor

    (Sorry about the 'Anon' – I was unable to get the profile to accept my ID!)


  7. Stephen Dedman

    One of the many wonderful things about the internet is that editors, no matter where they're based, can ask the writer to make any changes they feel necessary, rather than rewriting material themselves because of time pressure. Pre-internet, this was not always true, and there are two pieces of work of mine that were rewritten by editors without any feedback from me. Fortunately, one was under a pseudonym, so I can disown it.


  8. Meg McKinlay

    Nathan, I agree. I've learned that there is always more work to be done, so if I get the ms to the point where I believe it's 'perfect', then I at least minimise that. Having said that, I have had cases where I've sent work off, knowing it needed more, but also that I couldn't get there without help. I did make that clear when I sent it, though, and these were cases where I had a specific editor waiting for the ms, and we'd discussed it in the past. I wouldn't send an unsolicited sub like that. I guess I'd try and find a good beta reader in that sort of situation.

    Steven O: your experience with the title of your book sounds difficult. I made a concession I regret in an early novel too. The editor was right about cutting a section near the end of the novel (I tend to write endless endings), but there was material in there that added depth to the ending, and in hindsight, I should have found a way of working just that part into what remained, rather than just cutting the section wholesale. I'm sure the editor would have been open to that; I think I was just a bit too eager to go along with things. Live and learn, I guess.

    Stephen D: I hadn't thought about that, but you're right, of course. I can't imagine what it must be like to have your name out there on work that isn't really 'yours' any more. We were just talking about this in the context of “Work for Hire” projects over at Sally's blog. I would find that sort of situation very difficult, to say the least.



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