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. (An ailment commonly referred to as over-editing.) 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.
Let’s Put Editing in Its Context
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?
The Over-Confident Writer
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. He saw me as someone who was over-editing his manuscript. 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?”
“Yes,” he replied. He was serious! That book never was published because the author wouldn’t allow any changes in the manuscript.
The Overly-Sensitive Writer
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.
On the Other Hand
In contrast to my in-bed-all-day response, one of my clients a few weeks ago told me, “I’ve made an important discovery about myself. I’m not so much a writer as I am an editor. I love the editing process; I don’t actually like to write.” What an important insight. It explained the agonies she goes through to get that first draft. And why she so enjoys working with an editor to clean up that draft.
That doesn’t mean she isn’t sensitive to over-editing. Oh, yes, she’s experienced that and recognized it for what it was.
What’s an Author to do?
If you feel that you’ve been over-edited, 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.”
Over-Editing or Not?
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 to Do About Over-Editing
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? Do you enjoy the revision process?
What should a writer do if she suspects her manuscript has been over-edited? Click to tweet.
How to recognize if your manuscript has been over-edited. Click to tweet.