Dispatches from the Word Mines: Dancing with Editors by Sherry D. Ramsey

Dispatches from the Word Mines is an irregular blog series about literature and writing from the perspective of writers themselves. This entry comes to us from Sherry D. Ramsey, author of The Seventh Crow, The Murder Prophet, One's Aspect to the Sun (a personal favorite!) and many other tales. She is a founding editor at Third Person Press, a member of the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia Writers' Council and an active member of SF Canada. In this dispatch, she discusses the complexities of working as a writer with multiple editors and offers good advice for navigating these relationships. Many thanks, Sherry!

The title of this post makes the process sound much more elegant than it actually is, but I’ve been musing lately on the complexities of being a writer working with different editors.

In the past, a writer might publish numerous novels with the same publisher, and work with the same editor for many years. Although that still happens, of course, I think today’s writer is likely to work with many editors over the course of a writing career: editors of magazines and anthologies, editors of websites, editors at publishing houses, editors hired freelance for single projects. And all of these editors may have different tastes and expectations.

Being edited is often not an easy process. I’ve spent time on both sides of the editorial desk, and I know that writers deal with it in different ways. There are those who accept every suggestion without question. There are those who fight every suggested change. There are those who tread a middle path. Just how accepting—or not—should you be?

There’s no easy answer to this question, and the answer gets more difficult when you work with multiple editors. You may encounter an editor who edits your work very lightly—you mostly seem to agree on style and punctuation issues, so there isn’t a lot to disagree over. Then you may turn around and find another manuscript heavily marked-up from a different editor. Could the two pieces of work be so different that they require completely different treatment?

Probably not. You’ve just encountered two editors whose tastes, experience, or stylistic choices differ from each other. Does this mean one or the other of them is wrong? Better? Not necessarily. Just different. But it’s a tricky business for a writer to navigate these experiences. I have one editor who tends to add commas to my work. I have another editor who tends to take commas out. It’s not likely that it’s my style differing between the works they’re editing—it’s their stylistic visions and tastes that are different. But if I’m okay with the additional commas of the first editor, can I also be okay with the missing commas of the second?

Of course. That’s where the dancing comes in.

I’ve always tried to be open to editorial comments and suggestions, because I accepted at the outset of my writing career that most stylistic choices fall on a spectrum. Every writer and editor has their own spectrum: on one end are the Rules (and things that Break the Rules are Just Wrong), and on the other end are the Things That Don’t Matter. Unfortunately for the writer, everyone has their own version of this spectrum, and sometimes things slide around, and we can have huge arguments when our ideas about the spectrum clash.

So what do you, the professional writer, do when an editor wants to make changes with which you don’t agree?

First I’ll tell you what you don’t do: you don’t get angry, throw a fit, refuse to make changes, threaten to withdraw your work, call your editor names, or take it personally. You’re a professional (or trying to be one) and that means acting like one.

The reality is, there will almost always be editorial suggestions you don’t particularly agree with or like. There should also be some that make sense to you (although you might not recognize these at first). I think the natural first reaction as a writer is to dislike suggestions for change. However, it pays to think of these first reactions as something we have to acknowledge, and then discard in favour of more considered, thoughtful, and objective examination.

When I open a document full of editorial markups, I generally read through all of them first without deciding on or accepting any (except for obvious typos, spelling errors, etc.). This allows me to react as negatively to some of them as I want, in the privacy of my own brain (“What?” “You’ve got to be kidding!” “Now, that’s just wrong!” etc.) No-one ever knows about these reactions (okay, I might mutter to myself a bit), but I think it’s healthy to let myself have them!

On the next pass, I’ll accept changes that fall on the Things That Don’t Matter end of my personal spectrum. These often include, for me, the addition or removal of some commas or changes of other punctuation, suggestions about word choice, paragraphing, etc. I’m always wary of changes that affect clarity, however, if I don’t feel that a change makes a huge difference one way or the other, I’ll accept it.

“But that’s not the way you wrote it!” I can hear some people protesting. That’s true. But who’s to say that on some other day, in some other mood, I might not have written it that way? Who’s to say that the editor I’m working with might not have better instincts than I do about a particular writing issue? Working with an editor should be, in my view, a partnership. We share the same end goal, after all: to make the manuscript the best it can be. Unless an editor is trying to completely change or undermine your style and voice as a writer, you should be able to work things out. If you can’t, then you’re probably working with the wrong editor.

And there’s a saying that applies as well to working with an editor as it does to parenting: choose your battles. Save your energy and your arguments for the things that really matter to you.

After this second pass, things are going to get trickier. Now we’ll be getting into areas where I feel more strongly about suggested changes, and I’m going to examine them more closely. I still try to keep an open mind, however. I’m still choosing my battles. I might isolate a change and type out a sentence twice in a separate document; once my original way, and once the editor’s suggested way, and compare them. Is one really that much better than the other? Is it a matter of clarity for the reader? Does it affect the overall story? Can I live with the manuscript if I accept the change?

These are often difficult questions. But my goal is to accept as many of the editor’s suggestions as I comfortably can. Again, why? Isn’t this my story?

Sure it is. But as I said earlier, when you enter into a working relationship with an editor (and isn’t that the goal from the moment you submit a work to them?), you should go in considering that editor as a partner, someone you’re going to work with. After all, by submitting your work, you’re signalling your desire to do that. And presumably, you wouldn’t send your work to someone whose ability, knowledge, and experience you don’t trust—at least a little.

This segment of working through the edits might take a few passes. With each run through, I’ll make decisions on some things, and leave others for later. These others are the things that I’m really not sure about. The things I might not be comfortable changing. That I might have to take a stand on.

For me, here’s the real bottom-line question. Will I still love my story if I accept this change?

If, after considering it numerous times, and maybe asking writing colleagues about it, and accepting the fact that I could be wrong about it and the editor could be right—if, after all of this, I’m going to feel embarrassed about, or ashamed of, or disappointed in my story if I make a certain change...that’s one of my battles. That’s the type of change I will reasonably, calmly, and politely tell my editor I’m not comfortable with. I’ll ask for their reasoning, explain my thinking, and sometimes most importantly, suggest alternate changes. Very often there is a third way to deal with a contentious section—not what I originally wrote, not what the editor suggested (but I don’t like), but another option we can both live with. These compromises, in many cases, actually strengthen the work, because the most time and effort has gone into crafting them.

These methods and ideas should help you, as a writer, deal with 99% of editorial input. Maybe even 99.9%. But sometimes there’s that one thing...

If you come upon an issue that is so vital to you, and also so vital to your editor, that you cannot, after repeated attempts, compromise or come to agreement over it—well, it’s a problem. If you have contractual obligations, you must consider the full implications of withdrawing your work or breaking the contract. I’d suggest that only a major substantive issue—one that has implications for the entire work and how you feel about it—merits considering this drastic step. On all other issues—especially technical ones—try to consider the impact of a change against the backdrop of the entire manuscript. Does shortening that scene actually ruin the whole chapter? Can a comma really make or break your story?

Dancing with editors can be elegant, awkward, combative, or placatory—and sometimes all of these. If compromise and partnership form the foundation on which you dance, however, the steps, no matter how intricate, will lead to a manuscript of which you can be proud.

You can find Sherry online at:
Twitter: @sdramsey