Criticism plays a key role in the creation of nearly every book but ideally the editorial process involves more than that; it’s an exchange of ideas. A book’s author and editor seek to establish a connection, together crafting a piece of writing into its most coherent, effective form.
Both line edits and developmental edits involve diplomacy: as an editor, I strive to show respect for an author’s skill, technique and imagination while suggesting ways in which their writing might yet be improved.
But what happens when a career author objects to an editor’s advice, or finds their suggestions entirely disagreeable? An author may wonder if this editor actually understands their book, whether the editor is paying full attention, or if they’re just wrong-headed. And the writer may be right: there is the possibility that proffered advice is misguided or even terrible. It’s important for writers to trust their sources.
Or it could be that the editor’s alternative perspective needs time to sink in. One of my favorite past authors said she would be troubled and upset after first reading my editorial letters. A day later, she would re-read, reconsider, and be re-inspired to get back to work.
Differences yield results
Writer-editor differences can yield unexpected outcomes. You may have read of Harper Lee’s editor Tay Hohoff suggesting she drastically rethink her submitted novel and focus on her characters in a different way; the result was the much-loved To Kill a Mockingbird.
On a much more modest level, while working with an author on his legal thriller I expressed my opinion that there were too many male characters, and that he should mix it up: a certain brash, tough-talking attorney might be more appealing as a female character. The lawyer underwent a sex change, stealing the show and winning the case. She also became the main character of his next novel.
Recipes gone wrong
Naturally, I’ve encountered writers less open to this give and take. A cookbook author penned a beautifully nostalgic memoir about the early romantic days with her husband. The manuscript had a number of problems—mostly, it was too long—but the story was lovely and the project was promising, with considerable sales potential. As the author was a renowned cook, I suggested adding recipes between chapters—somewhat in publishing vogue at the time and something I felt many readers would enjoy. I also thought the addition might spur on promotional opportunities.
The writer was enraged I had typecast her as a “lowly cook.” It appeared that my minor suggestion in a long editorial letter had nixed the deal; after that greatly off-putting suggestion, she did not want to hear of any additional work that I felt was necessary for her book to be readied for submission to an agent or publisher. While my advice fell on deaf ears, I learned she heard many of the same revision suggestions restated when her book was later rejected by literary agents.
Another author and I scheduled a follow-up call to discuss the editorial letter I’d written about his novel. Alas, this was not an exchange of ideas: instead, he read me typed notes on why he could not carry out my suggested revisions. When I tried to get a word in edgewise about how he might attempt an alternative approach, it didn’t matter: that wasn’t in his script. Rather than a discussion, a position paper was being read.
Writing is an expression and—we hope—an exploration of ideas. In addition to working extremely hard, the best writers prudently listen to the world around them.
The thing that stops me
I’m not always right. (Ask my husband.) As a book editor, I offer guidance sincerely but do not assume my advice must be strictly heeded to achieve a successful outcome. Certainly, no writer should follow all the advice they hear. But when I make editorial suggestions, it’s because some thing has stopped me in my tracks; an error, an ambiguity, or momentary confusion has halted my progress. I point out the problem, perhaps suggest a solution, or advise how this issue might be resolved.
Less important than following my precise directions is understanding there’s a problem: if a writer can come up with a more creative, dynamic or interesting solution than mine, that’s fantastic.
Stay calm and carry on
A career author wants to provide a glitch-free reading experience. To make your book better and more marketable, a professional editor can advise you line by line and, at another level, strategically. And if an editor raises a troublesome issue, don’t get your back up. Think of it this way: a problem needs fixing. In a business of manipulating emotions, you may have misstepped, and a career author never wants their prose misconstrued.
E.M. Forster’s epigram for Howard’s End was “Only connect.” His emphasis was on personal relationships in general, but I mention it here in reference to the crucial, intimate relationship between author and reader.
Connecting to readers is a writer’s primary task. An editor’s job is to help.
Writers will resolve editorial quandaries their own way. These days, with literary agents expecting manuscript submissions to be 90 percent ready to go, I suggest careful listening should be part of the process.
After more reflection, have you ever reconsidered an editor’s initially off-putting advice? Or have you ever felt that an editor overstepped? Share your experiences with us on Facebook.