“So how can you stand being edited?” is a question that’s been coming up at conventions lately. The subtext usually assumes that all editors are a) idiots and/or b) out to ruin everyone’s brilliant manuscripts, and that they must therefore be fought off with every bit of a writer’s strength and energy.
This happens not to be the case. There are, in fact, so many misconceptions inherent in this attitude that I’m not even going to try to correct them one at a time; just throw the whole notion overboard, and let’s start with how the process really works.
For starters, at most major publishing houses, there isn’t one event that is clearly identifiably as “being edited.” There are at least two, often three, and they all occur at different times and deal with different levels.
The first editorial pass is known as “revision requests.” It occurs a month or two after the author has turned in a completed draft. The editor has had time to go over it and identify things that he/she wants changed: this scene is too important to happen offstage, these two characters are an awful lot alike and could be combined to the benefit of the story, the pacing drags in the middle, etc. The editor does not, in my experience, demand any of these changes; the editor presents them to the author, there’s a discussion about which ones are or aren’t objectionable (see #5 and #6 below), and the editor and author come to some reasonable compromise (rarely does either editor or author “win” the discussion, i.e. persuade/insist on doing everything their way, no exceptions).
The author takes these comments away and produces a revised draft, which then undergoes the second editorial pass known as a line edit. This is where the editor goes through the microwriting and complains that this sentence is awkward, that the phrase “she said icily” has been used three times in two pages, that the viewpoint is floating, that this paragraph would make more sense if it came before that one instead of after, and so on.
The third round of editorial comment is the copy-edit, in which the copy-editor does three very specific things: 1) double checks factual information like dates, names of historical figures and places, etc. (this can be hell on a copy-editor who is working with an alternate history manuscript); 2) checks grammar, syntax, and punctuation as appropriate; and 3) marks things like em-dashes and en-dashes, space breaks, and other typographical stuff for the typesetter. #3 has changed from marking the changes to actually making the changes in most publishers that are using electronic typesetting, but the typographical stuff is the only thing a copy-editor is supposed to actually change. Everything else, even the incorrect grammar, they’re only supposed to query. Very occasionally, one of them gets carried away, but that’s what “stet” stamps and “reject change” buttons are for.
Depending on the experience of the editor and author and how clean the final submission manuscript is, some editors combine the revision requests and the line edit; others wait and combine the line edit and the copy edit. In all cases, the author gets to review any queries or proposed changes and approve or disapprove them.
Which brings me to the sorts of things that come up in the course of editorial revisions, line editing, and copyediting. In my experience, these fall into six loosely-defined categories.
- 1. The obvious mistakes – the places where I called the character Lewis in Chapter 4 and Louis in Chapter 8, or accidentally doubled a word, or phrased a sentence so that it can easily mean the exact opposite of what I meant. These are the no-brainers, and I change them immediately and hope that the editor won’t actually remember that I did that.
- 2. The arguable things – the places where I have seventeen semi-colons on one page, or have twelve places where people do the same bit of body language (roll their eyes, blink, shrug), or echo the same phrase too close together. Most of the time, these are mistakes, and I treat them the same as #1 – change immediately and try to forget I ever did something so stupid. Every once in a while, though, I want the echo of that same word, or the parallel body language, or whatever. I leave those and flag them for review as the last thing I check before I send the ms. back to the editor. Usually, I end up keeping a few the way I wrote them, but going ahead and changing most of the ones I initially flagged.
- 3. The things that make the book better – the scene the editor wants added (I’ve had five to ten thousand words added to each of the last two books as a result of the editor saying “I really want to see the bit where…”); the bit the editor wants moved, or cut, or combined for the sake of clarity or tension or drama;
- 4. The changes that don’t matter much to me – places where the editor wants to change “there was a difference” to “there were differences” or “tomorrow” to “Monday,” or add or delete a phrase to make a sentence clearer. These are things that usually don’t mess with the story I want to tell, so I’ll let them go (unless they noticeably mess up the rhythm of the sentence/paragraph, in which case I’ll try to come up with an alternative that does what the editor wants without messing up the rhythm).
- 5. Things I’ll argue about, but I can be persuaded if the editor feels strongly. Usually, these turn out to be places where the editor was trying to fix a problem by making a specific suggestion (“Change the scene so that it looks like they’re going to kill the girl if things go wrong”). The specific suggestion gives me hives, but when I discuss it with the editor, I find out what the problem was (“There wasn’t enough tension in that scene; a death threat would up the stakes”) and I can fix it quite satisfactorily some other way, without doing violence to my story. So the editor’s happy, and I’m happy. Every so often, I lose one of these arguments; it is a measure of how right my editors are that I cannot remember any of the specific incidents that I changed. (Or possibly it’s a measure of how much I hate losing, so I wipe them from my memory…)
- 6. Things I absolutely refuse to change. There haven’t been many of these, because I’ve always had editors who are willing to talk about the whys and wherefores, and usually when they’ve given me the reason they had for suggesting a change, and I’ve given them my reason for wanting to keep it, we can come up with something that works for both of us.
Editors work similarly – that is, they have changes they think are absolutely needed, and things they suggest but are OK with the writer not doing. Interestingly, I’ve not yet run into something that each of us felt was a 6 – where the editor absolutely thought it was needed, and I absolutely wasn’t going to give.