When you disagree with the editor


What do you mean her behavior is "out of character"? I WROTE this character!

There’s nothing quite like that moment when you get a manuscript critique back from your editor. Nothing quite like that rush of exhilaration mixed with apprehension … or possibly abject terror. What will the editor say? How much will you have to go back and change?

If you’re new to the process, you might expect the following:

1. The editor loves something you did and wants you to keep it the way it is. Validation! Hooray! Whatever the editor approves of—your characterization, your structure, your word choices—it’s one less thing to worry about as you focus on the areas that didn’t work as well.

2. The editor doesn’t like some element of your writing and shows you how to improve it. Obviously, this is a lot less fun to hear. You may be disappointed in yourself for not having gotten it right to begin with. You’re probably frustrated about the amount of time and effort it will take to fix the problem. Still, the whole point of hiring an editor was to make the book better, and now you know how to do that.

But there’s a third option you may not have considered:

3. The editor makes a suggestion you don’t agree with. At all.

It happens. In fact, it’s unusual for a writer to agree with each and every suggestion the editor makes. Don’t freak out. No, really, don’t freak out. Deep breaths. It’s going to be okay.

The first thing to do when you find yourself face-to-face with questionable advice is … nothing. Don’t argue with the editor. Don’t plunge in and do what the editor tells you, either. Just let the critique sit for two or three days.

Once the initial shock has passed, you’re ready for the second step: trying to figure out why you disagree. A tip from acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman will serve you well here.

When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Say your story centers around a love triangle, and your editor objects to its resolution. Mark would never choose sincere-but-boring Laurie (your editor argues)—he’d lose interest in her within a week. It’s more realistic for him to run off with Danielle, the dangerously unpredictable Alaskan bush pilot. If you still don’t agree after a few days, go back and puzzle out what the editor is reacting to. Maybe you failed to show Laurie’s more enticing qualities. Maybe Mark’s character growth, which enables him to stop running from healthy relationships, isn’t as apparent to readers as you think. The solution: instead of changing the ending, tweak previous passages so that the ending makes more sense.

Take heart. You survived writing a whole book; you’ll survive the critique. Just remember that it’s possible to take an editor’s advice seriously without sacrificing your vision.

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7 Responses to When you disagree with the editor

  1. Erin Brenner says:

    What authors and editors both frequently forget is that each edit is a recommendation. Unless there’s a publisher with more control than the author, the author doesn’t have to follow the editor’s suggestions.

    Just remembering that fact can help make the edits seem much less threatening.

    It also helps to remember that you’ve consulted an expert. Just as you wouldn’t toss off what your doctor says without proper consideration, you shouldn’t toss off what your editor says without consideration.

    • susanedits says:

      I learned a while back to try phrasing each suggestion as, well, a suggestion. Bad: “Delete this paragraph.” Better: “The passage will flow better if you delete this paragraph.” Better still: “The passage will flow better without this paragraph. Consider deleting.” Same message, but it emphasizes that the writer decides.

  2. Karen Adams says:

    Gaiman has a point, and I think we as editors should signal that we recognize it. When I return a critique/edit, I almost always say: “I’ve pitched solutions for the issues I’ve noted — because it seems more helpful than just saying “this is wrong, fix it” — but that doesn’t mean I think mine is the best or only solution. It’s your book, they’re your characters, and you may very well have a better fix than me. In fact, most authors come up with fixes I never even thought of, so please feel free to speak your mind.” I’ve found that this approach means I get many fewer “OMG” email responses from clients, and many more “Okay, I see your point. What do you think about this?” responses. Stating it up front helps put the focus on the ms, on the issue, not my “fix” for it.

    • susanedits says:

      I have a similar caveat for my critiques and substantive edits. Before they read anything, I tell them they’re not going to agree with me every time. At the end I elaborate on what they should do if they disagree.

  3. Great article. Your example with the love triangle is spot on. Content edits–whether you’re the professional doing the editing or the writer responding to them–are all about addressing the WHY of a problematic element rather than the blatant trouble spot itself.

  4. Ed Godwin says:

    In my experience, the #1 factor with an editor is trust. If you’re fortunate (like me) to find an editor who has an eagle eye yet firmly believes in your story and you as a writer, then disagreeing isn’t quite as big a deal. True, there’s been times when I first disagreed then came back later to change my mind, but that had nothing to do with her. I just had to face the harsh reality that I had even more work to do. And my editor helped me get there by having faith in my ability to rise to the challenge.