Alright, you just got your manuscript back from your editor. You’re filled with nervous excitement, perhaps a little bit of dread. What now?
First up, read the email or notes the editor points you to. All editors differ, of course, but when I send edits back it’s usually accompanied by an email that highlights the main things I picked up on – such as spelling and grammar, pacing issues, lots of redundant phrasing etc – and a style guide.
In the style guide, sometimes I’ll include a section of ‘Things to watch’ so the author knows what to look out for as they go through. This is usually where I’ll point out overused phrases or plot elements that didn’t make sense to me. It’s best that the author checks through these materials first so they can go in prepared.
Next, if you’ve got the time, start with a simple read through of the whole manuscript. Take stock of all the comments and edits so you know what you’ve got ahead you.
At this point, you don’t need to accept or reject any of the changes – this is just to acclimate yourself with the file and get an idea of how much work is needed.
Take a walk
Sometimes, receiving feedback can feel like a punch to the chest. Even though you know you’ve sent your writing to an editor for their professional help, it can still sting when they flag up errors or inconsistencies. It’s very natural for your initial reaction to be one of anger or disappointment. No one likes to have the holes pointed out in something they’ve worked hard on.
So, once you’ve done your initial pass, go take a walk. Sit out in the garden and get some fresh air. Yell at the clouds if it’ll make you feel better. Rant to a friend about the edit if you need an entity that can actually respond and sympathise. Your editor isn’t going to know if you cuss them out a little (unless you email them saying such things, in which case… don’t). Do whatever it takes to shake off that initial gut reaction.
And even if your feelings are mostly positive and you’re thrilled with the suggested edits, taking a step back before you jump in can help to clear your mind and give you space to figure out any plot or character issues the editor might have flagged.
Tackle the comments
I like to suggest doing this first because I leave lots of comments throughout the manuscript – pointing out the parts I loved as much as the parts that need work. Sometimes I’ll mention something in a comment right near the end that will require a change at the start of the manuscript, so it’s always worth scanning through all of them first to save yourself having to go back and re-work a section.
To remove the temptation to check in-line edits, you can switch the Track Changes mark-up options to just show comments, hiding everything else.
Start with the easy yeses and noes
When you’re ready to actually work on the edits, turn the full mark-up back on and start with the simple fixes. The edits you easily agree or disagree with, such as obvious spelling errors, deleted double spaces, or missed punctuation. Those little things are usually what covers the document in so much red-lining, so once they’re out the way it will almost always look a whole lot better.
Move on to the thinkers
Once you’ve cleared the basics, you’ll be left with the edits that gave you pause the first time around. Maybe these are suggestions for restructuring a sentence. Maybe the editor has swapped out a repeated word and you’re not sure the replacement fits with your intended meaning. Maybe they’ve suggested cutting an entire scene because it slows the pace, and that’s a big decision to make so you need a minute to think.
Ask for clarification
If you have questions about any of the edits, ask the editor to clarify. Whether you just want to know why they’ve swapped a hyphen for an en dash, or you don’t understand why they’ve trimmed a whole sentence or paragraph, no good editor is going to be mad at you asking for an explanation.
Of course, it would be a lot of work for us to explain every edit, but our job isn’t just to make fixes, it’s also to help the writer learn for their next project, and you can only do that if you know why an error is an error.
Rather than pinging an email to your editor every time you find a new thing to query, write them up as a list and send them all over at the end. It’ll be much easier for the editor to address your queries that way, and they might even suggest a quick call to talk it through.
The power lies with the author
Something that’s always important to keep in mind is that an editor’s changes are merely suggestions. There are style guides and ‘rules’ and widely-agreed-upon ways of doing certain things, but at the end of the day this is your book. If you don’t like a change an editor has made, you can reject that change and move on.
There are very few hills I would die on when it comes to edits. I have my preferences (like using ‘alright’, ‘okay’ and the en dash instead of ‘all right’, ‘OK’ and em dashes) but if one of my clients has a different opinion, I defer to that. Because it’s not my book. It won’t be my name on the cover.
The only thing I always say when it comes to rejecting a suggestion, however, is that there is rarely smoke without fire. If an editor has cut a paragraph or rewritten a line, you might not agree with how they’ve done the fix, but you should certainly consider why it needed a fix. Often, it means they tripped over the wording or felt that the pace was off – and if the editor has stumbled here, readers will too.