The idea of finishing a manuscript is exhilarating — especially if you’re in the thrilling rush of momentum that is NaNoWriMo. (Hope it’s going great, NaNoers!) But as rewarding as it is to complete a draft, most writers know that isn’t the end of the road, just the first rest stop. Before you reach your destination — meaning agents, publishers, readers — you have to get out of the echo chamber of your own head and see what’s actually on the page. And for that, writers need objective feedback.
Yet once you get that feedback — whether you’re hiring a professional editor, sending the manuscript to your crit partners, or soliciting input from beta readers — what do you do with it?
It can be overwhelming to look at pages of editorial letter (often upward of 6–7K words, if you’re working with me), dozens or even hundreds of embedded comments, or an array of varying opinions among your critiquers and readers and process it all, let alone figure out what (and how) to translate that to your story.
Here are my step-by-step suggestions for how to navigate editorial feedback and most effectively approach revisions.
1. If there’s a separate note or letter of overview input, read it.
Read it more than once if you need to, but not too deeply. At this stage you’re not worrying yet about how to put any suggestions into practice, just taking it in.
After you’ve read the big-picture input, if there are also specific notes embedded in the manuscript, go through and read those too — again lightly, just to get a sense of the editorial thoughts.
2. Now step away.
The same way I advocate getting some literal and metaphorical distance from a first draft before you start editing and revising, I recommend taking in the gist of your editor’s or reader’s input and then leaving it alone for at least a day — more if you can. Let it swim around in your head — not necessarily in the foreground of your thoughts, but just percolating in the background as you go about your business. Don’t jump in and start revising yet — don’t even look at your manuscript during this time.
Instead be very, very kind to yourself. Getting feedback on your fresh literary newborn can be painful — even if you know it still needs work. We’re all tender in the creative places, and even the most well-intentioned, insightful, and constructive editorial input can smart — especially when it comes in volume. Have some wine. Take a bath. Walk your dog in the woods. Buy yourself a little something pretty. You deserve it, you fine artistic soul, you. You fabulous finisher.
Meanwhile, remember the old advice when you were in school to study right up till the day before the test and then leave it alone so your subconscious could process and internalize the information? Editorial input often seems to work the same way: While you’re taking good care of your hardworking, accomplished self, under the radar your brain will start making connections, collating the input you’ve received into categories, making a subconscious, orderly to-do list to some degree — and your mind will start mulling over the suggestions that most resonated (or most annoyed).
By the time you sit back down with the notes and your manuscript to contemplate revisions, you may find your subconscious already presents you with some clear ideas for improving your story.
3. Now it’s time to reread all the input, this time analytically.
A professional editorial letter will likely already be broken up into categories of specific story elements that may benefit from more development or clarification, but if not, break down the major points yourself: e.g., character notes in one category, plot in another, structure, tension, stakes, etc., each in their own. Usually you’ll tend to wind up with two to five areas of primary focus — and don’t worry for now about minor notes. With revisions it’s most productive to start high-level and drill down.
4. Let your gut weigh in at this point — how do the suggestions feel to you?
One of my favorite things to hear from authors after I return editorial notes is, “I knew that was what needed work!” or “It’s so obvious now — why didn’t I see that?” Not because I like being right in general (but oh, how I like being right in general), but because that tells me the edits resonated and are on the right track, that they hit on the places where the author was already aware, on some level, that her story wasn’t quite there yet, but couldn’t clearly see or articulate it till someone held up the mirror.
Those are the easy revisions to tackle — you already knew you needed to take a different route, and now you have a map.
The harder ones are those suggestions that rankle, that rub you the wrong way. These are the ones that you may feel a knee-jerk, visceral resistance to. The ones that make you snarl, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about” or immediately start to explain or defend your intentions or execution.
Pay special attention to these irritating suggestions — they may be off-base…but they may be critiquers doing you the great favor of highlighting a “darling” that might need killing. Try — hard as it can be! — to keep an open enough mind to at least consider the idea, even if it makes you want to chew glass.
I recently worked with an author who resisted my editorial suggestion that her use of journal excerpts wasn’t serving the story well. When she finally decided to take them out and just see how it worked without them, she said she immediately realized the improvement.
Remember we’re often too close to our own work — and our own beloved darlings — to be fully objective. (Writing hack: Never delete a darling completely. Move it into a separate file and save that puppy. Not only will it make it easier emotionally to delete it from your manuscript and offer a safety net in case you change your mind — like moving discarded clothes into a spare closet till you’re sure you’re ready to part with them — but every now and then you may also find that the material serves another story perfectly someday. Reduce, reuse, recycle.)
5. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground in certain areas.
You are the boss of you and your story. The same author I mention above didn’t agree with a few of the suggestions I made for fine-tuning her plot, and went in another direction — which wound up working beautifully. Feedback — even from a professional editor or agent — is subjective, and no story will please all readers. But note consistencies: If more than one reader or critiquer is telling you the same thing, you might be clinging to a darling.
In the above author’s case, she took the essence of my note — which was that a certain element wasn’t working as effectively for her story as it could — but effected the revision in her own way, rather than per my suggestion.
Remember Neil Gaiman’s advice about feedback: “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.” Meaning your story is your vision — readers may tell you (accurately) that you’re missing the mark, but how you redirect to hit it is up to you.
6. Problem-solve, but only with a plan.
Now it’s time to start problem-solving — but still not in the manuscript yet. Just as you wouldn’t add on to your house without drawing up blueprints, first you need to chart your course for diving back into the pages to do the actual revising.
Did your readers tell you that any of your characters didn’t feel fully believable or three-dimensional, or their motivations were unclear? Then do the work — outside of the manuscript — to more fully develop who your main players are and what they want.
Were there parts of the plot where readers were confused, or their investment in the story lagged? Create an outline or bullet list of every event that moves the story forward (what I call an X-ray) and finesse that plot till it’s airtight.
It’s easier and more productive to think about these big-picture story elements first outside the full manuscript before you start addressing them directly in your WIP — you’re creating the metaphorical blueprint for revisions before you plunge back in.
7. You are ready.
Now it’s time to start revising your manuscript. As I suggest in approaching early-draft revisions, start with the macroedit areas — character, plot, stakes — and once those are solid, circle in tighter to the microedit areas like suspense and tension, showing and telling, etc. And last, address the line-edit notes on the prose itself.
One final word for when it’s your turn to offer critique: Remember how painful it can be to receive even the most helpful of feedback, and make sure to offer yours kindly, constructively and positively. And taking time to call out what especially resonated with you as well as what might need a bit more development can go a long way — I can’t tell you how many authors I work with tell me that just my smiley faces sprinkled amid what’s often hundreds of embedded comments keep them going through the hard slog of revisions.
Remember the Golden Rule, and critique unto others as you would have them critique upon you.
Developmental editor Tiffany Yates Martin is privileged to help authors tell their stories as effectively, compellingly, and truthfully as possible. In more than 25 years in the publishing industry she’s worked both with major publishing houses and directly with authors (through her company FoxPrint Editorial), on titles by New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestsellers and award winners as well as newer authors. She presents editing and writing workshops for writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences and writes for numerous writers’ sites and publications.