Getting the Most Out of Your Editor’s Feedback
Heeding the Call to Revise
by Amy McElroy
Revising a work to its essence challenges writers of every genre and manuscript length. Hiring an excellent developmental editor remains a crucial step in the writing process. Yet even though an editor or unbiased reader can often see the need for editorial changes, writers themselves can examine the reasons behind many of these “blind spots” and look for new ways to reduce them at an earlier stage, thereby allowing others to address deeper issues in their work.
As a writer, there’s a gnawing that comes when there’s a problem in my work. Maybe it’s a treasured phrase—what Faulkner called the difficulty in “killing our darlings.” Often there’s a thread I know will cause major work to rewrite as a result. Sometimes, there’s a whole separate book or essay tangled in our manuscripts.
As writers, we try to avoid the revision or the cut, the shuffle or restructure. But deep down, we know when we give it to our editor our gut will be reaffirmed. We will have to do the dirty work.
Improving our ability to revise lies in learning to trust those instincts, so we can make those painful changes ourselves. Then we can allow the person who sees the material next to take it to yet another level instead of wasting time on what we knew needed to be done in the first place.
Of course, sometimes, we truly don’t know what needs attention—how, when, or why to make a change—and it’s ok to ask for a second opinion. But the more we can learn to trust ourselves, the better the final product will be.
Here are some tips for revising:
At First, Just Don’t
After you finish the latest draft, put it away! Give yourself a significant chunk of time between drafts. We all must learn what that means for us, depending on the length of the manuscript, how long and how much focus we’ve given to it, how much we’ve neglected the rest of our lives. Regain some perspective. Step away long enough for the myopic focus with which you’ve been working to develop into a broader view. The next step requires it
Don Roff said, “I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”
So, when you pull it out, edit with the critical eye you would give to someone else’s work. You wouldn’t even know it if you were killing someone else’s darlings; they’d just look like any other words on the page. Don’t you owe your own writing the honesty & quality you’d give someone .
Grab the Mic
Speak out loud the major point or points you are trying to get across in the work. “This work shows . . . ” or “This story is about . . . ” Not a summary precisely, but more of an elevator pitch, main idea, or thesis. Using an actual microphone will help capture each attempt at this distillation of the work for later reference. Once the essence of the manuscript has been captured, use it in the next step of revision.
Make an Extra “Copy”
You can do the “old school” method by making an actual hard copy to chop up with scissors and rearrange with tape, or save the manuscript under a different file name and go through and delete or condense anything extraneous to your point.
Deleting material in our own work becomes easier when we know it’s all still there under some other file if we need it. More often than not, we’re happily surprised to find the condensed version reads better.
If you’re really struggling with how much to cut, make two new versions. Ask yourself which one reads better, so you’re free to be ruthless with the scissors or the cut and paste functions.
While you’re revising with the extra copy method, try bringing the theme of your work to the forefront. Obviously, this doesn’t necessarily mean begin and end by outright stating the theme, but understand that readers put much stock in beginnings and endings—even subconsciously.
What to Do with the Darlings?
Save the darlings you cut for another work. Create a document entitled “Darlings” on your computer for these clips. Name longer sections with easy to find labels or in folders related to their work of origin or another system that makes sense to you.
What to Do When You’re Done
Then DO give it away for an objective opinion to someone you trust—preferably a professional editor, certainly someone who knows how to edit. Ask for particular feedback on whether the theme holds together or if there are extraneous, distracting side issues.
Read the comments, then, put the work BACK in the drawer and sit with them awhile. Again, what’s “awhile” depends on how long the works is, how long your deadline is, how you are feeling about the work and the comments, etc.
Then, you can begin to consider what part of the feedback to heed and what
Now, you’re finally ready to begin a round of revision based on another person’s feedback. Because of your preliminary work, the theme will pull together more tightly for the reader just like you’d originally hoped. And having first traveled this long and tedious road of revision alone will yield treasures that will shine brighter in the final product than any darlings that may have been sacrificed along the way. Good luck and happy revising!
Amy is the Editorial Director and a writer for the popular website sweatpantsandcoffee.com. Her work has also recently appeared in Billfold,Noodle, ReWireMe, BlogHer, The Mid, RoleReboot, elephant journal, and The Manifest-Station. On her website, amyjmcelroy.net, you can find her writing craft blog—which was republished on Joel Friedlander’s Carnival of the Indies—and a list of her editorial services.