Don’t Take it Personally: A Beginner’s Guide to the Editing Process
By Beau North
The day I got confirmation that Longbourn’s Songbird had been selected for publication was one of the happiest of my life. I was visiting my friend and writing partner on the East Coast when I saw the email, and even though it was still morning there, I called my husband back in Portland to tell him the happy news. He sleepily congratulated me and said, “You worked really hard for this.” I felt myself swell with pride. I had worked really hard for this. Little did I know how much hard work was in store for me.
Shortly after the congratulations rolled in, I was introduced to my editor, a friendly, approachable woman who nevertheless intimidated me with her professionalism. I’d recently read several of the books she’d edited, including at least one award-winner. How would I measure up to these other authors? I was a college dropout, and my only publishing credit, some terrible poetry in the University of South Carolina’s literary magazine. I’d been accepted, but I discovered that the self-doubt didn’t end there.
She explained the editing process to me so that it was not quite so overwhelming. I was warned that her suggestions may sound blunt, and it was nothing personal. She explained that if I disagreed on any particular edit, I could state my case and defend it. “The last thing an editor wants to do is change your voice,” she explained. However, as my contract stated, the editor gets the final say.
I thought about that clause for a long time. I won’t deny that it made me nervous. What if the editing process did change my voice? What if I disagreed with every suggestion? I wasn’t sure I was ready to endure that level of stress, even for something I’d dreamed of my whole life.
As it happens, none of this was an issue. My editor and I got along famously, and the first round of edits passed with little fanfare. There were bumps in the road, though they were handled in the same friendly, professional manner we’d established from the beginning. Then there came a point where she advised I cut almost an entire chapter, and write almost a chapter’s worth of material elsewhere. I think I might have cried a little.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King commands, “…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
This is what he meant. You poured your heart and lifeblood into that writing. You lost sleep over it. You felt joy in reading it and thought, Look at my words, ye mighty, and tremble. You feel suddenly humbled — that this writing, this piece of yourself on the page — does not measure up and has become the literary equivalent of a ruptured appendix — unnecessary — and must be removed if your manuscript is to thrive.
I know best, you tell yourself. This is my story. But do you? Once you decide to publish, the story is no longer for you, it’s for the reader. Do you have their best interests in mind when you push back against editorial advice, or is it just your understandably bruised ego?
After some fretting and a long walk to clear my head, here is what I realized: cutting work does not mean the writing does not measure up. It’s still good. It’s still yours. To put it in food terms, dark chocolate truffles are delicious, but that does not mean they belong in chicken pot pie.
Following this realization, I removed the sections in question, then I went to bed. I didn’t look at the manuscript for two entire days. When I went back and re-read it, I saw that my editor was right. The chapter was tighter, flowed better. Without this change, those particular scenes would have pulled the reader out of the narrative. Basically, my editor knew her business.
So, when you find yourself in this position — before you write back a bitter tirade against publishing, editing, and words in general — remember that your editor is not your enemy. They are your partner. They want your work to succeed, and so should you. You’ve come this far after all.
Beau North is the author of Longbourn’s Songbird and a contributor to the anthology Then Comes Winter. Beau is a native southerner who now calls Portland, Oregon home with her husband and two cats. She attended the University of South Carolina where she began a lifelong obsession with English Literature. In her spare time, Beau is the brains behind Rhymes With Nerdy, a pop culture podcast and website.