Help! I’ve Been Edited and Can’t Get Up

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Location: Books & Such Main Office,  Santa Rosa, Calif.

Author Dies While Reading Edited Manuscript

Such a headline might well echo the feelings an author experiences when, much to his horror, he discovers his editor has–ahem–done some pretty creative work on the manuscript sent into the publishing house. The palpitating heart, the churning stomach, and the aching head that can accompany such a revelation leave the author wondering, What do I do now? Let’s explore options.

First let  me say that most editors are conscientious about not violating an author’s creative efforts but instead strive to clarify and elucidate through any changes made. And some authors have thick skins when it comes to the editing process and usually agree to what the editor thinks is best.

But what if, when you read your edited manuscript, you’re confused by some changes, frustrated by others, and downright upset by still  others?

I’ve been on both sides of this fence. I still can recall decades ago, as an editor, having a conversation with an author about changes I’d made in his manuscript. Our phone conversation began with his telling me the comma corrections I had made in the first sentence should not be made. I pointed out the sentence had been punctuated incorrectly. He didn’t believe me. I told him I would find the punctuation rule in a grammar book and send the reference to him. He still wasn’t convinced, and I decided we had better move on to the more substantial changes I had made in the manuscript.

Instead he moved on to the second sentence of the manuscript, in which I had made another minor change. I explained the grammar rule that had been violated in his writing. Once again he was unimpressed.

That’s when I realized he was going to challenge every jot and tittle that had been edited. So I decided to bring a bit of reality into the situation. I asked, “Do you believe your manuscript is inerrant, perfect and without flaw?” Ha! Only Scripture could qualify for such a descriptor.

“Yes,” he replied. He was serious! That book never was published because the author wouldn’t allow any changes in the manuscript.

I’ve also been on the other side of the fence, that of the author. When I received the edited manuscript for one of my books, I was so appalled by the severity of the edit that I crawled into bed and stayed there for two days. I couldn’t figure out how to approach the editor with such a long list of changes I disagreed with.

So what’s an author to do?

Start out by knowing your rights.

How can you determine that? Most contracts specify what is appropriate for a publishing house to change. Here’s some typical wording: “The Publisher shall have the right to edit and revise the manuscript; provided, however, that such editing or revision shall not materially change the meaning, or materially alter the text of said Work without the Author’s consent. Editing to correct infelicities of expression, misstatements of fact, misquotations, errors in grammar, sentence structure, and spelling, and editing to make the Work conform to the Publisher’s style of punctuation, capitalization, and like details shall not be considered materially changing the manuscript.”

Okay, so we have guidelines as to what is an appropriate change and what isn’t. The author who didn’t think I should change the punctuation and grammatical errors in his manuscript was operating outside the boundaries he had agreed to when he signed the contract.

On the other hand, the editor of my manuscript had added several examples to my manuscript to illustrate points. If I didn’t agree to those additions, I contractually had a right to say I wanted them removed.

What did I do? I remembered what I, in my role as an editor,  had often told authors who questioned why I had made a certain change. “I made the change for a reason. If you don’t like the way I changed it, let’s talk about why I made it. I’m very open to seeing an alternate way to solve the problem I found.”

In that spirit, I went to work on reinstating my sense that this was my manuscript and talking with the editor about how to make the manuscript all it could be. It turned out to be a win-win situation. And I didn’t die from the malady called “the editing process.”

How do you decide when to speak up about editing on your work?


15 Responses

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  1. Teri D. Smith says:

    Obviously the ability to pick ourselves up off the floor, dust off the hurt, and roll up our sleeves for more work is an absolute must for authors.

    I often use a similar analogy to my high school writing students. I tell them the only thing written in stone is the Ten Commandments. Everything else is subject to editing. Perhaps its good that new writers get a taste of this with crit partners as a slight introduction of what’s to come.

    Your example of the work that never got published should sound as a warning to us all.

  2. Laura Frantz says:

    I remember that there is only one perfect book, after all. And I know, deep down, that my editor is very savvy about books and has the best interest of my book at heart or she wouldn’t have bought it, brought it before all those other editors, pub board, etc. I believe it was Jerry Jenkins who said a good book is really a duet between an author and editor.

    Your post title made me laugh out loud, Janet:) A great way to begin a Monday morning. You have a great blog. Thank you.

  3. gina says:

    I would like to think that I would be open and understanding about any suggestions for editing. I guess that we will see when the time comes.

  4. Lynn Dean says:

    I have only small experience, but when an editor requested plot changes to a work in progress (I’d say that constitutes a fairly major change), she was kind enough to explain that the nifty twist I had planned for the end might frustrate and disappoint some readers–that a first novel should be more generally satisfying so readers would look for me again. That made sense to me. She clearly had my long-term interests at heart. Hopefully, I’ve worked out a solution that will fill the bill.

    I saved the alternate ending, though, to post on a website. If it was wasted effort as far as the publisher was concerned, maybe I can salvage it as marketing and generate reader discussion as to which suitor my heroine “should” have chosen–Mr. Exciting, or Mr. Dependable. 🙂

  5. Jane Lebak says:

    I’ve written a list of changes I wanted to contest and then decided which were worth a potential fight. I made sure that whenever I said “Are you STUPID?” it was when I was alone in a room with no phone. 🙂 When I actually questioned the change, it was phrased as, “I was confused by this correction.”

    Sometimes I’d suggest an alternative correction, and usually the editor was pleased with that. I had only one time when I thought, “I’ll pull the book if they insist on that change” and that time, the editor and I worked out a very different (but very significant) change which preserved the integrity of the book but answered the problem the editor had found.

    Often there’s a sweet spot in the middle, I’ve found. Let the editor find the problem, and I’d like to find my own solution if possible.

  6. Lynn Rush says:

    I haven’t had experience with this yet, but I enjoyed reading the comments so far.

    I hope I’d be open to suggestions and if I had questions/concerns I’d pray about them and talk to my agent, then go for it.

    I mean, editors and agents are all about making a manuscript better, right? They wouldn’t suggest things to make it tank when it’s published. I would trust in that along with praying about it and the advice of my agent.

  7. Amy Sorrells says:

    Love this, Janet. Especially the title. Thanks so much!

  8. janetgrant says:

    Thanks for all of your comments. I loved your statement, Jane, about only saying, “What are you STUPID?” when you were in a room by yourself. Lots of discussions with the “ghost” of the editor can be therapeutic.
    Lynn Dean, I appreciated your idea of keeping your more creative ending as an outtake that you can offer on your website. That’s a great idea, and a constructive way to find a new use for the material.

  9. I think one thing that helps is getting more feedback. Some people will read and give you ‘big picture’ feedback, while others will catch every comma and grammar error but not a word about the big idea. As you get more comments and red marks (oops, schools use purple now to help the kids’ self esteem) you get more used to it.

    It’s also helped to help review and edit other people’s writing, which I’ve gotten to do with a magazine start up. As you read what others have done, and you notice some patterns, you may start recognizing you have patterns of your own.

    If you’re not willing to listen to feedback, self-publish and accept that every error large and small, every lost thought, and every repeated line is there – exactly the way you wanted it!

  10. Marti Pieper says:

    I’m a day late but hopefully not too late to contribute.

    Years ago a pediatrician gave me some parenting advice that’s so wise it’s become cliche: choose your battles. This phrase applies to relationships in general and the editor/writer or author one in particular. I edit others’ work, so I understand the need for another perspective and other pairs of eyes. But as a writer, I’m intentional with each word and phrase I use.

    A few years ago, when an editor asked me to go back and changes that seemed to overturn my deliberately YA voice, I didn’t argue–but I did send a polite, inquiring email (similar to Jane’s advice above). The senior editor called me and we had a great conversation. She completely understood my perspective and said that the junior editor had little experience in YA work.

    Yes,you could say I won. But I also preserved the relationships involved. That’s more important than winning or being right. Two years later, the junior editor is overseeing two more of my projects and we’re working together well.

    I love the insights I find here. Thanks much.

  11. There were a few minor changes the editor of my first book wanted, but I did them anyway since they didn’t change the plot. The hard part was making the changes I did agree with because I knew better than to have done things that way in the first place. I couldn’t believe how many times I’d used the verb, to be, and repeated the same words like “just” and “suddenly.” Nobody in my critique groups had noticed the repetitions either. Maybe we should hire a copy editor to come to our meetings.

    At least with books authors have some input. I used to write for a local newspaper and sometimes the editor would edit grammatical errors into articles with my byline. Oh, well, most people don’t read bylines in newspaper articles anyway.

  12. I laughed at the fictionalized newspaper headline. 🙂

    I’ve only gone through the editing process on one book, and I’m blessed because I loved my editor. She was very willing to work with me on compromises that would make us both happy. I so agree that it is all in the way you approach a situation.

    How does the old saying go? “You catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinigar.”

  13. The one time I was unhappy with changes to an article I wrote, I handled it badly, I suppose. I asked the editor to publish the work under a pen name since it wasn’t my work anymore. I asked as diplomatically as I could, telling her I understood that I was under contract and I knew she had the right to edit the piece to fit her magazine, but since the work no longer was in my voice, I wondered if it would be acceptable for me to publish it under a pseudonym.

    She was royally ticked, lectured me on being professional, gave me the weekend to cut the piece, which was the length she originally asked for, in half, and get it back to her in my voice. I spent the weekend cutting it, and she sent it back to me and said since she’d have to edit it even more and since I hated to be edited, she would pass.

    This was on a piece for a big ezine that paid well, and that was part of a very big magazine which promised future gigs.

    I knew I was blowing a big opportunity, not to mention a dollar a flippin’ word for the piece I’d labored over, but I didn’t care. People who knew me were going to read that piece which was no longer funny or meaningful in any way because the editor had totally butchered it. I couldn’t stand to have my name on the work.

    I also know the problem was the editor and not me, because I’ve written for other editors and never had a problem. If you ask for a certain word count and I deliver it, you shouldn’t then cut the piece in half, leaving paragraphs with no transitions between and complete articles that are ugly and make no sense.

    heh heh Sorry, this is a bit of a hot-button topic for me. I haven’t been published much, but I had one editor who was so kind and careful with my work. Maybe she spoiled me. She sent me stuff every step of the way so I could check for accuracy and voice, asking me to tell her if the pictures and article matched my voice and intent. Oh, if all editors were like her. She paid less than the other gal, but I’m not writing to get rich. I’m writing to communicate.

  14. janetgrant says:

    Sally, you ran right into a brick editorial wall. That’s a hard situation to know how to deal with. I do have to say that asking to use a pen name, regardless how politely you phrase the question, is like throwing a match into a puddle of gasoline. Only one outcome can be expected. Even though you didn’t mean to assail the editor’s work, you so did. And editors hate that. I’m sure you noticed. 🙂 Working to find a happy medium was probably a better solution that might have saved your relationship. When both sides are intractable, both sides lose and are exasperated with each other.

  15. Just saw your answer.

    Of course, you’re right. And this is one place where agents are beneficial. They can stop authors from slitting their own throats.

    Believe me, I will never ask another editor to publish me under a pen name. 🙂 It’s kind of funny because I know editors who like to talk about how they have to work very carefully with sensitive authors. But editors are creative people, too, with their own pride issues, I guess.

    Looking back on it, I could have just let it go, taken the paycheck and the credit for writing for that magazine, and forgotten it. It wasn’t like the editor had butchered my theology, after all.