A Sea of Red: Being Edited

Book Editing
Wouldn’t it be fun to be edited on paper? Alas, it’s all done on computer now.

A few years ago, I had an essay accepted at a literary journal. I was over the moon that they wanted my work, and when they informed me I’d be receiving edits, I figured it was no big deal; plenty of journals had tweaked my work, fixing grammatical errors or asking me to clarify a sentence or two.

When this literary journal sent me back my work with edits, they
accidentally attached the wrong piece, a different essay going into the journal. I, being the Nosey Nellie I am, of course took a peek. The essay looked interesting. There were a few copyedit changes. One query. No big deal.

After I pointed out the error, the editor sent my piece with many apologies. Knowing the editor had a light touch, I didn’t hurry to get to work, but let it sit for a couple of days. Finally, it was time to open the essay.

In front of me was a sea of red tracking marks. I was devastated.

To check my memory, I just went back and looked at the document again, something I hadn’t done in years. To be fair to myself, many of the changes were punctuation (putting foreign words into italics) and minor grammatical points. But there were a decent number of queries that required thought and word change on my part.

At the time, I made each change grudgingly. I could have fought the changes, but—call it laziness or foresight, though I’m loathe to give myself that much credit—I made most of the edits. Looking back now, I see they were the right changes to make. Reading the piece with fresh eyes, I can’t even remember what I tweaked.

When it was time to receive my editorial insights on MODERN GIRLS, I felt prepared. However, unlike Louise, I didn’t get a big editorial letter. Instead, after my book sold, my editor, agent, and I had an extensive phone call in which we discussed a number of the plot points. We talked about what worked and what didn’t. I thoroughly enjoyed the back and forth, as it allowed me to say what I was going for and it allowed my editor to explore with me how to make it work. My agent chimed in with many ideas as well. I took detailed notes. Like Louise, I also had to trim my novel, though I had to go from a full-figured 119,000 words to under 110,000.

By the time this revision was finished, there wasn’t a need for an editorial letter. My editor line edited the manuscript and gave me just a handful of suggestions. One of her suggestions was a little unclear to me, but over a lunch, we hashed it out and I saw her point exactly, and I ran from that meeting to my computer where I excitedly created a new scene. From that revision, we went straight to copyedit.

Having a conversation worked well for my style. When she suggested beefing up some of the historical/political aspects, I immediately began throwing out ideas that I had had, but had pulled back on for fear that it was too much. How validating that my editor’s suggestions so closely jibbed with my style. Every now and then, she made a point that I didn’t necessarily agree with. By talking it out, we came to a place where we were both satisfied and I’m thrilled to say that the revision I wrote after our conversation took the novel so much deeper into places I was intrigued to go.

Writing is a solitary act. It’s putting the words on a page all by yourself. But making that writing into a cohesive story that will capture the interest of others is a often a group effort. MODERN GIRLS is my novel. But my agent and editor are the ones who helped me make it so.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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