Bad Advice Wednesday: How to Work with an Editor

categories: Cocktail Hour


A while ago a former student of mine had a book accepted for publication. This was great news of course, the best. Happy times followed. Happy moments at least.


Then the student got the edited version back from his editor. He called me, he wrote me, he cried. He didn’t know what to make of all the marked-up pages and the long letter full of suggestions and re-workings.  


What I told him was that this meant he had a good editor, one who thought a lot about the books he took on and one who cared.


Which was true except that I remembered when I got my first edited manuscript back. The howls of rage.  “It’s like they cut off my arm,” I yelled to my wife about one deleted passage. (I wish I was exaggerating for comic effect; I am not.)


That was over eighteen years ago, and while I still get pretty worked up upon first seeing my marked manuscripts, I have come to understand how much editing, and working with editors, is not just a partnership but, at its best, a collaborative creative act.


As for advice, here is some that I sent to my student, in no particular order:


Remember it is normal to freak out at this point in creating a book. (Same as all the other points.)


Consider time.  Time is vital. Read the edits and let them sit there—inside you. It is often not comfortable. It is another person’s vision imposed on your vision. Got for a walk. Try to sleep. Let time pass with the edits.

 This is important because very often something that an editor suggests will seem idiotic at first and then a week later you will say “wait a minute.” (You might even convince yourself that it was your idea.)

Some writers don’t take any edits. They “stet” everything.  But generally these people are dicks. (Stet is a copyediting mark that means “Don’t fucking change this. Put it back the way it was.”)

It is completely fine and acceptable to hold the line in places. To “stet” a bit. But try to think about why you are holding the line in terms of the larger work. This will be helpful for a couple of reasons:
1. It will get you thinking about your work again in big picture terms.
2. It may make you see things in a new way, and even add new sentences, chapters.

For me writing at the editing stage is all about problem solving and that is always creative. Rather than fight with specifics think about what problems your editor is suggesting and how they can be solved.  You may not solve it in exactly the way the editor suggests, but you should be thankful that the problem was pointed out. The point is to solve it.

Working with an editor is a creative act. Just a different kind of creative act than writing it in the first place.

In the end no one knows your book as well as you. But it’s nice to know there is someone who knows it almost as well.  And it’s nice to have someone else, a teammate of sorts, as the book makes its way out in the world.

P.S. Whenever they run one of those monthly “The End of Books” articles they always mention that “editing is dead.” I always wonder what planet they are living on because on my planet editing is alive and well.

  1. Lisa Romeo writes:

    Good advice, especially the part about waiting it out, sitting with the edits/comments for a bit before reacting. Allowing time to work its charm is so often the answer to many writing dilemmas, starting with letting more time go by between revisions long before you get to the stage when you are in the (lucky) position to get feedback from an editor at a publisher, journal, or other media venue that has accepted your work. And STET is a tool to use with care, but a writer shouldn’t be afraid to deploy it when necessary.

  2. Richard Gilbert writes:

    I worked at a university press where the editors were shockingly good. Writers usually were in shock when they got their edits—including me, when I wrote the catalog and they edited me. They made me better, at least in that format. But there were differences. One guy was known for having a heavy hand, trying to make all writers sound like he wanted them too. At least that was one excellent editor’s view of him. So you do have to protect yourself from that, from an editor trying to be the writer.

  3. M. L. Doyle writes:

    I agree that one needs to look at the whole picture and that often times an editors comments/changes/suggestions can give you a new perspective on the work. That said, sometimes they just don’t get it. I’ve learned that I don’t have to accept everything an editor tells me. Sometimes, like all of us, they are wrong.

  4. Ellen Cooney writes:

    Okay, but how about a second thought on stetting everything means you’re a dick? I know you’re talking about edit-edits but how about copyedits? What if a copy editor has changed your sentences to another style? For example, from true life: the original bit is, “She looked up. Was that an American plane?” From the copy editor: “Looking up at the sky, she realized she couldn’t tell whether or not the plane was American.” And this sort of thing over and over and over, stet stet stet, not because you’re a dick, but because you’re undoing a nightmare. But maybe copyediting is a whole other subject? And oh, I’m glad I had the chance to bring it up.

    • Dave writes:

      Happy to hear all second thoughts! This is a cocktail party after all. Mine was just a conversation starter……

    • Dave writes:

      I have had similar experiences….

    • Nina writes:

      I had an experience like that too, Ellen, with a copyeditor who completely changed the rhythm of my sentences by moving and adding commas everywhere. I stetted everything. And I am not a dick.