X is for Xacto, or, The Joy of Editing

You may have read the famous quote by Emily Dickinson, once addressed to an editor, “Thank you for the surgery; it was not so painful as I supposed.” Who has not had this surgery, as a writer? How does one deal with what can amount to killing your babies? How do you slice and dice, excising the bad and keeping the good?


I don’t deal with it well, I know. I find that many times when my work is edited (when I am edited!), the meaning is lost, the changes are arbitrary, the personality is gone. Sometimes, though, sometimes, you light upon an exceptional editor, someone who leaves your voice but makes it better. This is the goal, folks.

Because it is true, physician, you cannot heal thyself (to continue with the medical metaphor). Dickinson also said, “While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb.” Sometimes, if you leave a piece for a bit and let it gel, you can come back to it and see it fresh. But this wouldn’t work, I wouldn’t think, for larger pieces. You really do need that extra set of eyes. The best editors I have worked with asked questions. They did not simply make changes. They looked for motivations, relationships and reasons behind the writing. That is a wonderful experience.

I know, many of us are erstwhile editors, but that’s only comparatively speaking. We spontaneously edit restaurant menus, chuckling to our table mates. We compulsively spot typos and erroneous grammar in print and online. We even, dare we say, correct reporters’ and news anchors’ grammar on live television (like we would be immune). But once it comes to your own work, your own baby, best leave it to a professional with a little bit of subjectivity.

I have worked as an editor for many years. I have been managing editor of five different publications (which, I know, is a very different skillset). I have done manuscript critiques (which I love doing!) and worked as a copyeditor. I much prefer the big picture to the niggly detail. I know my grammar rules fairly well – better than the average joe – but I don’t want to worry every day about split infinitives and dangling participles.

So in my client work, it’s big picture, but for my own work, I’m hiring out the line editing. I suggest that everyone hire a good copyeditor at least once during the process to go over their manuscript before submitting it to an agent or publisher. You may even go round more than once. I would actually recommend that.

Once you have your complete manuscript, start with a manuscript critique. Take those suggestions, and move on them. You may find someone who is willing to do a second pass on a manuscript critique, or if the changes were extensive, you may want to just have another one done. Then a copyedit, preferably with someone very experienced in the genre and form. You don’t want to hire a business writer to copyedit your romance novel.

Organizations like our own Professional Editors Network (PEN) and the National Writers Union are good places to find editors. PEN here in Minnesota is great. If you have something like that in your area, take advantage of it. As with many things, it’s best to start looking local. I think it’s exceedingly beneficial to have an editor in your local area. You may even find someone who will sit with you and go over edits and proposed changes. Most editors charge by the hour, so this is something you can work into the plan.

Above all, find someone that you can connect with. If you ask for referrals from friends and colleagues, you’re starting already with a good idea of how this person is to work with. I suggest a face-to-face meeting if you can swing it. Make sure they understand your work, and that they are reasonable to deal with. It’s often hard to discern this via email, so even a phone conversation can be helpful. If you feel uneasy about any of the aspects of the relationship, keep looking. Don’t be rushed.

Done well, a good editor-writer relationship can be wonderful. Last year, I participated in a panel (with my editor hat on) that talked about this relationship from the editor’s perspective. One of my comments that drew the biggest response was simply, “It’s all about trust.” You have to trust that your work is in good hands, they have to trust that you are doing your best, and you both have to trust that each other are committed to making the best result possible.

Don’t let your baby go out into the world being anything less than the best it can be. Find an editor to work with and take the time to do it right.

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