All writers go through times when they need a second opinion to help polish and publish their work. Whether you’re working with in-house editors from literary journals or you’ve hired a freelance editor before sending your work out into the world you need to be ready to chop and change (without mercy).
Having this skill is important for all writers because if we don’t edit and revise, our writing cannot fulfil its potential and we’re actually holding it back.
It’s not easy to put your emotions and efforts into your writing then be told to kill your darlings, but over time and with plenty of practice you can cut down and rewrite without a second thought.
1. Build a strong writer/editor relationship
It’s easy to see that writing and editing are roles that go hand in hand, and it’s only natural that many writers become their own self-editors when revising drafts.
But having another person, like an editor, advise you on how to structure and style your story can be a confronting experience.
An editor has the advantage of coming to your story or poem with fresh eyes, and by not knowing the back story or the inspiration they're approaching your text as a reader would.
As writers, our view of our own work is tarnished by our intent; by the secret knowledge that only we know what we really mean.
This disparity between the editor and the writer can make us glad for the new perspective or feel that they don’t really know what they’re talking about.
What’s important to remember is that the editor has the same goal as you: to perfect your piece. They want to let the heart of your story shine and they want the people who read it to feel something special (just as you did when you wrote it).
You’re on the same team and remembering that the editor has the best intentions for your work will help to make the whole process a little less painful. Read more about great editorial advice and strong editor/writer relationships here.
2. Take a step back from your writing
When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you're done, you have to step back and look at the forest - Stephen King.
To fully appreciate the advice of your editor, you need to put up an emotionless barrier between you and your writing. Though you’ve thrown yourself into it and care for it deeply, there’s a point at which you step back and ready yourself for revision.
If you’re new to the editing process you’ll need to do the following:
- Understand that words are only words, and just because you revise a draft doesn’t mean your original work is lost forever (the world will not end when you edit).
- Acknowledge that by taking on an editor you open yourself up to constructive criticism that may be embarrassing or painful to hear (but never is this criticism personal).
- Accept that by cutting lines, scrapping characters, or adding in things you’d never have thought of you’re actually making your story or poem better (not betraying it).
3. Consider it from their perspective
Once you’ve distanced yourself from your work and come to terms with the fact that the editing process isn’t going to be pretty (but that you’re going to face it head on anyway) the next challenge is how to use your constructive feedback; how you’re going to consider and interpret the editor’s suggestions.
When an editor tells you something isn’t working you’re going to either agree or disagree. But if you look at the work from their perspective (the way a reader out in the real world might) their ideas will start to make sense.
Editing is based on solving problems logically. Some of these problems are set in stone by grammar rules, like when to add a semi-colon or change your word choice, and some of the issues need to be nutted out through collaboration between editor and writer.
Editors have different methods, and while some might give hints and others flat-out tell you what you need to do, it’s your task as a writer to come up with a solution that best solves the problem and stays true to your work.
The more you write and experience editing (whether through technical editing or workshopping in a group), the easier it becomes to read feedback and suggestions and not feel that you’re being criticised.
Eventually you can see your writing from the editor's perspective immediately and say ‘yep, that makes sense’, then come up with a way to fix the problem (and this is a good thing!).
4. Change or challenge?
People will always have different opinions and sometimes, even when you’ve looked at your writing from the editor’s point of view, you disagree. I’ve been told that in regards to editors:
If you’re not an idiot, you’ll change it.
And although harsh, it seems to work for most things. But sometimes the suggestions try to turn your work into something it’s not and travel too far from the truth at the heart of your writing.
Editors are people, just like anyone else, and you have to remember that they might not understand every subtle reference - they might not ‘get’ everything.
So while their intentions are good they might need you to give them a few pointers as to what direction you want your work to go.
It’s okay for a writer to stick to their guns if they have a good reason (there’s no point arguing over a single word if you’re not prepared to seriously back up your decision).
You may find that your editor comes back with new feedback that suits you better or they may hold to their advice and be very adamant about their changes.
Whether you decide to change or challenge just remember that the editor’s goal is to work for you, not against you. Don’t let a bad experience with an editor turn you off revising your writing; every editor is different and you’ll learn something valuable with each person you work with throughout your time in the industry (you just have to keep at it).