Accepting feedback

How to handle editing and feedback on your novel

No author wants spend time changing a bunch of commas in their manuscript—except when the editor recommends deep changes, at which point changing commas is often all you feel capable of doing. Every writer feels the sting of opening a document file filled with red ink.

But when the entire editing process becomes a battle of wills over rejecting as many edits as possible in order to rabidly defend the integrity of your work, you’ve either chosen the wrong editor to work with or you’re not ready for a professional edit.

What are your editing goals?

When a new author approaches me about an edit, one of the first things I ask about are their editing and publishing goals. Do you want to tighten your writing, check basic mechanics and spelling, examine your story structure, or something else? Are you hoping to successfully pitch to an agent, preserve and share your story for friends and family, put out a commercially viable self-published product, launch a self-publishing career, or something else?

Your motivations for an edit are a lot like the motivations you create for the characters in your story. Your characters have external, conscious motivations, but curled up inside those are internal, unconscious motivations. Your initial goal for editing may be a clean, polished manuscript that’s ready for publication, but the real value lies in the substantial leaps you can make in honing your craft.

A professional edit represents an extended engagement with a professional writing coach. “You get a professional coach and instructor to guide you over the speed bumps that are slowing down your development,” writes editor and publishing expert Jane Friedman. “The authors I work most successfully with are those that recognize the value of the author-editor relationship and hope to forge a creative partnership that will last over time.” I agree wholeheartedly, and those are the kind of creative relationships I seek as an editor.

In my experience, the most valuable benefits of an edit are process and growth, not product and results. You’ll get the latter, most assuredly. But authors who are invigorated by the idea of taking their stories to the next level will get the most from a professional edit.

Dealing with a developmental edit

Come revision time, it’s all too easy to find yourself piddling around with your main characters’ clothing instead of figuring out why their motivations aren’t driving the story. If you’re having trouble accepting and implementing your editor’s developmental recommendations, you may be shortchanging your edit—and yourself.

If you’re dragging your feet because you can’t figure out how to attack your revision, all you need is a smart revision plan. But if you’re avoiding facing feedback because the criticism stings, you need a way to crack the critique by getting past your emotions.

Your editor’s recommendations are based on experience with what works for many, many other authors. Even so, those suggestions aren’t the only way to improve your story. There are multiple ways to go about solving most developmental issues, so there’s no reason to feel as if a ghostwriter in disguise has abruptly hijacked your story. It’s up to you to work out a solution you find creatively satisfying. I urge my clients to take my recommendations as advocacy for their books, not prescriptive instruction, and to use them as creative inspiration for their own alternatives and solutions.

Dealing with line editing and copyediting

The situation is different if you find yourself digging in your heels at line edits or copyedits. If you’re rejecting edits at this level, you’re ignoring professional advice you paid to get. But what about the fact that you used those commas that way to create a specific effect? While it’s true that your editor could be mistaken about those commas, it’s also possible that the effect you intended didn’t come through and the nonstandard usage is making the sentence awkward to read.

A heavy edit on a manuscript that wasn’t carefully revised beforehand can generate tens of thousands of changes: insertions, deletions, moves, formatting changes, and comments. I avoid making “silent” (unmarked) changes because I want my authors to see and learn from each and every change and comment. Seasoned authors take steps before an edit to improve the manuscript and reduce the number of errors so we can see the forest for the trees.

But what if your editor recommends writing something one way, yet that’s not how you learned it? Preventing this kind of power struggle over language and mechanics is on you. Do your due diligence when selecting an editor. Check their professional credentials. Check their references. It’s up to you to suss out the difference between someone who edits on the side and someone who edits for living, between someone who was good in English class twenty-five years ago and someone who spends their workdays immersed in books and publishing and usage and style. Once you find a professional wordsmith worth trusting, your path forward is clear: trust them!

Don’t choose the wrong type of edit

Another issue that often crops up around line edits and copy edits is when an author tries to hire an editor to do a line edit or copy edit before they’ve addressed developmental issues. It’s a waste of time and money to ask a copyeditor to keep an eye out for plot issues during a final edit. When you try to combine a developmental (content) edit with a line edit, you’re trying to combine two processes that are at odds by their very nature. A content edit is performed before revisions. A line edit, on the other hand, is a final polish.

It’s understandable to want to get the most from your editing dollar as possible, but please don’t pay for half of two jobs. Don’t half-ass two edits; whole-ass one instead. If you can only afford one round of editing, the smart move is to examine what type of editing your story needs most.

Best practices for handling editorial feedback

Your job during an edit is to rejuvenate your creative energies and get yourself into a confident frame of mind. When the editorial report hits your desk, you want to be ready to absorb new ideas. That’s what an edit is all about, after all.

Read your editorial report. When your edit arrives, read the editorial report thoroughly—and do not reply. Also, do not bring the report to your significant other, post snippets of it on social media, or share comments with other writers, editors, or your critique group. Just read the report and step away. Digest it. Sleep on it.

Once the initial rush of reaction has settled, read the report again. And again. And then dig deeper at the tougher sections. At some point, you’ll begin recognizing larger patterns in the feedback. You’ll spot connections between areas you always knew weren’t quite working as intended.

When you find yourself spending more time thinking about the things you’d like to change than the things you’re upset about hearing, you’re ready to begin revising.

Get into the groove. Tackle a few simple revision tasks first to get you back into the flow. Don’t put the cart before the horse with anything that involves polishing, but give yourself a chance to re-familiarize yourself with your manuscript before tackling anything major like a point of view overhaul.

Clarify points of disagreement. At some point, you may find yourself frustrated enough by a recommendation you don’t agree with to say “Well, that’s just not my creative vision for this work, so I’m not going to take that advice.” Whoops—you’ve missed a valuable opportunity. If your editor has made a recommendation you just can’t get straight with, ask for the reasoning behind it.

Your editor’s recommendations don’t represent the only possible way forward. Don’t get angry about specifics. Instead, seek to understand why your editor offered that feedback. You might find you agree about the underlying issue but come up with an entirely different way to fix it. But you can’t do that if you dismiss a recommendation you don’t like without understanding the reasoning that went into it.

Successful, growth-oriented authors view editing as an opportunity to propel their craft forward rather than to rubber-stamp their achievements thus far. Would you be okay paying for a professional edit if your book never got picked up by an agent or never sold strongly as a self-published title? If the answer is no, you should probably keep your project at a hobbyist level. Don’t spend the money. 

But if the idea of that much one-on-one feedback ignites your creative flames, you’re ready to invest in your writing. Go forth, get edited, and revise!—you just keep on not seeing them. Don’t save your volunteer readers for spotting typos. Enlist them to look at the story first.

Lisa Poisso, Editor and Book Coach

Understanding how stories work changes everything. I’ll show you how to back up your creative instincts so your ideas hit home. It’s time to accelerate your journey from aspiring writer to emerging author. 

Ready to get serious about your book? Apply to work with me.

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