The Joys and Pains of Editing

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Many of you are working on your first contracted book. (Yeah!) Prior to your publishing deal, you may have been through countless edits and revisions. But you’ve never had to do it under deadline, and you’ve never done it with the input of a publishing house editor. So this is something new, so we need to talk about the emotional aspect of this milestone.

You care deeply about your words and you’ve tried to get them just right, so your first encounter with an editor might be a little daunting. When they send you pages and pages of notes for revisions, you might be overwhelmed, depressed, and demoralized. Take heart… this is normal.

If you are overwhelmed and even if your honest gut reaction is, “No way! I’m not doing this. The editor doesn’t get me, she is missing the whole point of my book. This would RUIN it!” — it’s okay. I promise!

Give yourself some time, a few hours to a few days. Let your emotions subside, and let your editor’s words sink in. For most writers, this is all that’s needed in order to get back to work.


The best approach is to enter the editorial process with a humble and teachable spirit. Maybe not the advice you wanted! But the editing process is your best chance to learn more than you ever have and keep improving your writing.

Handling Disagreement

One of the questions writers ask me is: How do you tactfully interact with your editor when there are differences of opinion about the revision process? In other words, your editor is requesting changes with which you disagree. The answer may vary depending on who you are, i.e. if you’re a bestselling author versus a first-timer. Guess who has more leverage?

In a situation where you don’t understand the editorial request or you disagree with it, ask a lot of questions of your editor. Try to get their perspective. Get them to explain their reasoning, and keep your mind open, considering the possibility that they may be right. If you feel the need, gently explain your side. But realize you may not understand what they’re saying until you actually do what they say. Most times, authors end up agreeing that the changes improved the book. In any case, the key is communication. Be courteous in your disagreement and try to negotiate a win-win with your editor. Your name is on the book, so it’s important you get your point across.

When Things Turn Bad

You’re always going to hear a few random stories from authors who feel an editor ruined their book, totally didn’t get it, etc. Take my word for it, that scenario is not the norm.

Now sometimes an author deeply disagrees with certain changes an editor requests. And sometimes, the editor has strong reasons, and they won’t back down. In this situation, you have to decide if this is a hill you want to die on. In the last fifteen years, I’ve been involved in two cases where the author so strenuously disagreed with the editorial changes that the author and publisher agreed to cancel the contract. And the author paid back the advance. So, consider how important it is that you get your way in the editorial process. Are you willing to give up the contract for it?

If you want an overview of a typical editorial process at a publishing house, here’s a post.

How do you handle the editing process? Any advice for your fellow writers?



Photo by John Jennings on Unsplash

19 Responses

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  1. Writing is like Michelangelo hauling a block of marble to the studio. Editing…that’s David coming to life.

  2. It’s not, “The editor doesn’t get me.” It is, “I didn’t make my point well, and that needs to be fixed.” Yes, it is humbling to realize that a skilled reader didn’t read my work as I intended. Better to fix it before hundreds of readers “don’t get me.”

  3. I’ve not yet had the privilege of working with an editor, but I have a wonderful critique group who pushes me and points out those areas that don’t make sense. Sometimes it is hard to swallow, but after I get past the emotional part, it always makes my stories better. I imagine the emotional process we’ll be similar even with an editor. In the end, you both have the desire to put your best work out there, and no one can do that without outside help. 🙂

  4. Rachelle, I’m just editing the Authors’ Notes for my sixteenth novel. I wrote there that, after I got my first fiction contract, I was flabbergasted to get the editorial letter. I mean, after all, the publishing house bought it. Why should it be edited? But over the years, I’ve learned that a book can always be improved, which is why we have first readers, agents, editors, and everyone who helps us. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. I appreciate this post, Rachelle. I haven’t been through working with a publishing house editor yet.i have in mind how I want and hope I’ll respond when I receive an editorial letter. I am so glad you addressed the emotional impact an author experiences with these letters. Though I’ve heardfrom friends about some of their experiences, I know i’ll Have to grapple with my own emotions. I’m thinking that keeping the big picture in mind may make it easier to see the changes an editor sends. But, I’m not sure. 😀

  6. Interesting. I’ve not had the privilege but have wondered what it would be like if I was faced with this very situation. I suppose trust becomes part of the dynamic between writer and editor. Choosing to learn throughout the process appears to open the attitude and create energy for the process. I appreciate having a better understanding of the process. Thanks, Rachelle.

  7. I haven’t had to handle this, but I think having heard from my favorite authors on this topic will give me the courage to press forward. One of my favorite authors said she grieves a few days, then she gets busy making those changes. And she’s always agreed that the changes made her stories stronger. If that amazing writer is required to make changes, who am I? And at this point, I pray that I can become the kind of writer that a publisher would want to take on … so I want to remember this heart-feeling of “I’ll do what it takes to make my story better … I want and need guidance.” I also think being in a crit group helps you overcome the belief that your story is perfect the way it is. 🙂

  8. I am currently working with an editor on my debut. She requested changes, and I disagreed with her, only to realise a few weeks later that she was completely correct. But there were also two minor changes where a few weeks later I decided she was wrong – every time I saw those two changes they irked me. I’d say she’s right 99.9% of the time.

    Andrew, I had exactly the same metaphor in my head. Editing is what seems to make the difference between “oh, that’s nice…whatever it is”, and art.

  9. Oh, thank you for this. The encouragement is timely. Most humbling experience of my life. I listen and I learn. I am thankful for the feedback. It is making me better. (I won’t say I don’t lay down under my covers sometimes.)

  10. Mary Kay Moody says:

    I value having observations of others and usually find changes make the work stronger. So I listen and if I don’t understand, ask for more info. Remembering that the reader’s/critiquer’s suggestions can only be based on what’s on the page is critical. Writer subjectivity is an obstacle. Once, though, it seemed an editor’s suggestions (on a short true story) were aimed at changing the point of the story. Negotiating through that was a challenge! Thanks, Rachelle, for another installment to help us, as Andrew says, bring our art to life.

  11. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    Sometimes I can tell if I’ve written something ridiculous…sometimes I’m too subjective and I can’t. And if it’s subtle, then it really takes trained eyes for which I’m grateful. I want to improve. Thanks, Rachelle!

  12. Angela Arndt says:

    I haven’t had a professional editor look at my work, but other writers have. I’ve found that if my edited file has too much red, then I close it and allow myself a day (if I’m not on a deadline) to “chill” before I open it again. Then, when I open it again, I’m more open to the changes and suggestions.

  13. Thanks for this great information Rachelle. I appreciate your forthrightness.

    This is what I know, as a registered nurse for over thirty years, I had many patients that did not want to follow recommendations to get better. They felt like they could just do their own thing. Because the health of the patient was at stake…sometimes their life, I had to be able to communicate the needed information in a way that person “got it” and the need for it–the change or changes. To not understand or ignore the advice of a trained and experienced nurse would be to suffer at their own hands.

    I have great respect for those who are trained and experienced in other vocations, and that would include editing. I will work with the agent, and learn from them. It doesn’t mean I won’t have certain opinions and desires, but I will work with the editor until we “get it” right. I don’t want to suffer the loss coming from being resistant to change or unteachable.