The Importance Of Listening To Your Editor

August 9, 2017 | By | 2 Replies More

I am currently co-editing an anthology of short fiction. I also supplement my paltry writers’ income with freelance editing projects. I’m not a proof reader; the edits I offer are structural, though I will pick up on any punctuation that has gone awry.

Editing is something I enjoy. The idea of helping a writer to perfect their work makes me happy but I also find that editing other people’s work makes me a better writer. Editing not only raises my awareness of common writing pitfalls, it also reminds me to put away the resistance to criticism that all writers experience.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been on the receiving end of dedicated and improving edits for both my books. Uppermost in my mind is my collection of short stories, Fifteen Minutes, which underwent several in-depth edits with Unbound Publishing earlier this year. This was an amazing learning curve and the book is vastly improved as a result. When the first edit arrived I opened a manuscript which was literally covered in red marks and comments.

My editor had forewarned me that this was normal in her email but even so it was quite a shock. I have had short stories edited professionally before, for publication in journals like Rip Tide and The Manchester Review. The editors of those journals did brilliant job and, yes, each manuscript was covered in crossings out, with sentences shifted and lengthy comments inserted. Again, I was a bit shocked by the extent of the mark-ups.  For a moment I wondered if the writing was any good after all.

This seems to be a common experience for most writers. When faced with a manuscript covered in mark-ups and comments we tend to take it personally. The self-doubt nags, we mutter things under our breath like, ‘obviously they haven’t read it properly,’ and, ‘they wouldn’t know a joke if it got up and bit them.’ What we forget is that as writers we can become too immersed in a piece to see the flaws and the gaps. The writing is obviously great or it wouldn’t have been selected for publication.

However, the editor has read it more closely than anyone else ever will. Their mark-ups don’t mean that the writing isn’t good, just that as the writer we have become too used to what we have written. We think that because we can picture it in our head our readers will be able to do so too. This is not always the case. If an editor points something out as not being clear, and you have to use a paragraph to explain to them why it is clear, the editor is right and you are not.

Obviously editors are not infallible. This is why they often work in pairs. The first edit of Fifteen Minutes suggested alterations that the second editor then suggested should be changed back. At this point it was up to me to decide which worked best. Often it was the original – but not always – sometimes it was something completely different.

You can always negotiate. If you truly believe that your piece is better without the changes, that the reader you have in mind will know exactly what you mean, then go ahead, argue your case. What is interesting is that as you progress in your career you will get comments such as ‘still not clear’ from a professional editor a third or fourth time no matter how much you plead.

If this happens you have no choice but to adhere to their suggestion. If you are arguing about the placement of commas and the cutting of single words you are being too precious. Go with what the editor suggests; it’s what they do for a living. They know what they are talking about. The real shock will come when you get your proofs back and realize you know nothing about punctuation!

Erinna Mettler is a UK-based writer and mentor. Her first novel, Starlings, was published in 2011 and was described by one critic as doing for Brighton what The Wire did for Baltimore.

She is a founder and co-director of The Brighton Prize for short fiction and of the spoken word group Rattle Tales. Her stories have been published internationally and short-listed for the Manchester Fiction Prize, The Bristol Prize, The Fish Prize and The Writers & Artists Yearbook Award. Erinna’s new short story collection on the theme of fame, Fifteen Minutes, will be published by crowd-funding publisher Unbound in 2017. 



Fifteen Minutes by Erinna Mettler

Gripping, witty and perceptive – Laura Wilkinson (Skin Deep)

A tramp wanders through New York on the day John Lennon is shot, a doctor remembers a Muhammad Ali fight from his childhood; a mother’s Harry Potter obsession follows the death of her child.

Intentionally or not, celebrities past, present and future assert their influence over the lives of us all. Addressing this very modern phenomenon, these stories offer an unflinchingly honest and thought provoking picture of the world in which we live.

Fifteen Minutes is a short story collection about fame, present through the extraordinary eyes of unabashedly ordinary characters.

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

Comments (2)

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  1. Daveler says:

    On most occassions I find that critiques which involve a lot of red ink often miss larger issues, like being so focused on adverbs they don’t notice a gun disappeared mid-scene. If the person in question is a line editor specifically, then having it marked up like that is understandable, but with freelance editors and small press publishers growing more popular, many authors get burned on being too trusting of their editor and it’s important to recognize what the editor’s job is and what is typical for that context. Usually, I find overall comments about style, with a few examples, better than when they go threw and make rewrites for me.

    When I see a manuscript marked chock-full of red lines, my first assumption is the adviser is a frustrated writer and is attempting to rewrite it in their style, which makes it difficult to separate out the good advice from the control issues, even if the editor is savvy about what she’s doing. I say this as a third-party witness to some bad criticisms and truly have encountered situations in which I would recommend the author to reconsider working with that company/editor. I’ve met some professionals with some really bizarre ideas about what is good writing, just recently one informing me that he just added ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ to the dialogue and then it was golden.

    It would be interesting to hear more about your experience in telling when to listen, when to discuss, when to stand strong, and when to find a new home for your work.

    • Hi,

      I wonder what level of editing you are talking about? A small press usually employs professional editors. The editing I do is mostly structural, the gun disappearing mid scene, but also stylistic. All the work I have done that has been published professionally has been absolutely covered in mark ups. Like I said in the last couple of paragraphs, writers often can’t see the prose for the words, they’ve spent so much time working on it they need outside input. Generally if you are writing long explanations as to why something works – it doesn’t. If it’s still not clear to the editor after 3 or 4 edits don’t hang on to it – it’s unclear! I may well write a follow up piece with more examples. Thanks for these comments.

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