3 Tips for Working with an Editor

Kathleen here with three tips for working with an editor. I think the aim of our prompt this week is to discuss our work with editors at publishing houses, and I’ll get there. But, really, my book (and all other books I know of) went through multiple rounds of editing before it was acquired for publication. 

Here’s what I think you should do to get ready for those last rounds with your “official” editor. 

1. Practice being Edited.

Share your work. Exchange feedback with other writers. Feel your feelings as you absorb the positive, the negative, and the nonsensical. When I started writing fiction, I took a couple of online classes through The Loft Literary Center. Class members shared excerpts of our work for group critique. Each time I hit “post,” I was terrified. I’d never offered up my prose for slaughter before.

I found that some of my classmates at The Loft were unfamiliar with my genre or just didn’t seem to have a taste for my writing. I learned to filter out and/or maintain a healthy skepticism about their feedback. But I also found two other writers whose skills I deeply admired and whose feedback, while honest and sometimes discouraging, mostly motivated me. These readers understood my intentions and wanted to help me fulfill them on the page. I latched on to them, and we’ve since become our own critique group.

The class feedback primed me for later work with a developmental editor, and then with my agent and my agency’s editorial director. And when I finally got my editorial letter from Kerry Donovan at Berkley, I’d already had so much practice and felt detached enough from the novel that cutting a sentence or even a whole character no longer felt like a death.

2. Experiment

I mentioned above that I filtered out some feedback that I thought was really off the mark. That said, if someone I trust offers something I’m not expecting, I force myself to give the revision an honest try.

When I signed with my agent, we went through two rounds of heavy revision that basically amounted to a complete rewrite of MINOR DRAMAS & OTHER CATASTROPHES. I changed the entire genesis of the conflict, wrote in new backstories for each of the characters, and adjusted my style to include more internal thinking amidst the mountains and mountains of dialogue I’d written. I’m pretty sure the exact note from my agency’s editorial director on that last point was, “Did you think you were writing a play?” 

In addition to making all of the massive changes I’ve mentioned, the agency editor also encouraged me to delete one or two or six references to people’s armpits or body odor from the text. I did it, but I also concluded that she’d never taught in a high school where body odor, armpits, and deodorant, are very real and very daily concerns. Still, the book is undeniably better for the incorporation of her suggestions, including the one about the pits.

3. Hold Your Ground

In the end, it’s your name on the book, so the final decisions are yours. My agent wanted a faster-paced ending (she was right about the need for that), but offered a solution (to cut a pivotal scene) that I didn’t like.

So, instead of blindly hacking away at the manuscript, I mulled her feedback over and found another way to increase the snappiness of the ending while preserving the scene. We were both happy with the result.

And that’s it!

Overall, being edited is really hard and humbling. But, a good editor makes my work shine and brings out my best. A good editor feels like a partner. We can’t really do it alone. Or we could, but it would all be much, much worse.

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.

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