When You Have Editorial Differences


So you’ve signed the contract, the ink is dry, and now your book is in editing. Yay! Welllll…maybe. There are times when authors will have  differences of opinion with their editor, and this can either go well or make you want to mainline Drano. Let’s face it, there are few authors who agree with every suggestion their editors bring up. Ten years in the biz has afforded me all kinds of experiences in the editor chair, so I thought I’d offer some perspective that may help you when your manuscript is under the bright lights.

Is It OK to Disagree?

YES. There have been many times where I felt something wasn’t working, and recommended it be edited out, and the author didn’t agree with the suggestion…and there’s nothing wrong with that. On more than one occasion, I’ve had authors write back to say they were very married to a section I wanted to cut. We talk about it and reach some resolution. Sometime it turns out that the scene is a key piece, but simply needs further development.

I’m good with this because I can’t appreciate the importance of a scene if it isn’t fully developed. But if you disagree with me, we can talk further to where I may see that cutting a scene would be the wrong thing to do. If you’re too nervous to say anything, then your book may suffer for it. You know your book and its intent better than anyone, so you are its best advocate during the editing phase.

How to disagree

But this isn’t to say that disagreement should take on all sorts of ugly. The editing process is a very personal, emotional experience, and authors don’t always appreciate their words being futzed with. I’ve had times when it would have been easier to invert my belly button than continue editing a manuscript.

You don’t need to shout and stamp your feet to be heard. Every editor has her process, so learn what it is and how to use it to ensure the lines of communication remain open and professional. I’m a big fan of using the Comments/Balloons in the Track Changes feature in Word. I highlight a section that I want to edit out, delete it (the Track Changes feature will show up with that section crossed out and underlined). Then I’ll highlight part of that section and add a Comment in the margin, where I say something like, “Suggest editing this section out. The scene is way too long and doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t enhance the chapter.”

If the author wants to comment on that, she can highlight part of that section and add her comment below mine – where I’ll see it when the edits come back to me. “I really love this scene because it’s pivotal to the plot.” We can further discuss our options.

What I love about adding comments in the margin is that it keeps things clean and clear. You’re not likely to cuss out your editor in a comment balloon. Instead, you’ll stick to the facts. What I don’t appreciate is a hysterical phone call or email about editing a scene.

How vociferously to disagree

Many years ago, I wanted to make some editorial changes to an author’s manuscript (who is no longer with us), and he fired back a very heated email, insisting that I didn’t like him. Another author refused to perform any edits because she didn’t own Word, and insisted that we edit via hard copy. Oh hell no. She’s no longer with us, either. Such toolbaggery isn’t helpful to your relationship with your editor, or the entire publishing process.

Some of my editor buds tell me horror stories of screaming matches and threats…nightmare makin’ stuff. And people wonder why we have margarita-mixing beagles…

We realize this is a nervous time for you. You’ve worked hard on your stories and don’t want them futzed with. But that shouldn’t equate to tearing out your editor’s blackened heart and nailing it to a dartboard. Whether you’re a brand new writer or one who has many books out, you need editing. Everyone does. I’m sure that Mrs. Cosmic Muffin edits the Cosmic Muffin all the time, and you just can’t go to any higher authority than that.

Keep it simple, keep it professional. Editing isn’t a personal attack on you, but merely editorial suggestions by an experienced editor who sells books for a living. It’s about trust. The more you trust your editor, the easier it is to keep it professional. If you find yourself blowing a hole in the ozone layer, ask yourself if you’re frightened to be edited and whether you trust your editor.

Trust Your Editor

A loaded bullet, to be sure. Most of the time you don’t even know your editor, so how do you know if she’s any good? Simple. You have faith in your publisher. You’ve read their books (or you darn well should have), so you have a solid idea of their quality. It’s vital that you trust your editor because theirs is the final word. The better you work together, the better the product.

I had an odd experience a few years back. I wanted to sign an author, and she wanted me to sign her, so we met for lunch. Her book was very good, but it definitely needed a strong editorial hand. When I discussed this with her, she became very protective because she was terrified that editing meant completely changing her work into something unrecognizable. I assured her that this would not only be a huge waste of our time, but there would be no point to sign her. Her agent reinforced my claims.

She was still nervous, and I decided not to sign her. If she’s this nervous now, before we even begin editing, what is she going to be like once we begin the process? It boiled down to the fact that she didn’t trust me. Then again, she wouldn’t trust anyone – and that’s a dangerous position to be in. If you have designs on being well-published, you’re going to need to place your trust in your editor. Talk to her, discuss the kind of edits she has in mind for your book. There is nothing worse than working with an author who doesn’t trust you.

Another author refused to discuss working on the ending of the book. The story was wonderful, but the ending needed tweaking. He refused. He believed his way was better than ours. We let him go. Trust. Have it, or go home.

If you find yourself in the throes of editing, and things aren’t going smoothly, then here is some additional advice.

Effective Communication/Effective Listening

Effective Communication and Listening are key during every step of production, but none more so than during editing. When I was but a wee bairn, my dad used to quote this saying around the dinner table: “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Took me years to figure out what he was saying, but once the light bulb turned on, it has never failed to crack me up because it’s so true.

Email can screw that up faster than just about any other medium. If there is a sticking point during editing, for the love of Helvetica, schedule a Skype meeting or phone call. I adore Skype because we can go page by page and discuss questions or points. And it’s free!

Conversely, listening is an art. We get so caught up in getting our point across that we forget to listen to the other guy – and they may have very good ideas.  Say your piece, then actively listen to the other guy.

Choose Your Battles Wisely

There may come a time when you see your edits and consider throwing yourself under a Waste Management truck rather than face a very big task. It’s hard to look at a sea of red and not feel that your book has landed into an editorial mosh pit. “Do I really suck that much?” No…not at all! But you don’t see it that way. You think you’ve been ripped from stem to stern, so you dig your heels in and decide to  fight every single edit as a way of proving that you don’t suck. The fight really ain’t worth it because if you sucked, you wouldn’t have gotten the publishing deal in the first place.

Editing isn’t about give and take, or winning and losing; it’s about making your book fabulous. There are some edits that can be negotiated and others where there is zero wiggle room. I had an author plead with me to leave a very long scene in because it was meaningful to him. Problem is, it wasn’t meaningful to anyone else, and I insisted that it had to go. I know it hurt, but the author later told me that he never even missed the scene after reading the final edit. Yay…score one for Pricey.

The takeaway from this is to recognize the really big battles, the scenes that are hugely important. Deleting the overwritten bio of a throwaway character isn’t worth blowing a ventricle over.

Justify Yourself

Whenever I edit a scene out, I justify it in the margin comment, so the author understands my reasoning. If you want to fight for a scene or character, or backstory, then you need to justify it to your editor. “Because I really love it,” won’t fly. Won’t even float. You need to provide a solid foundation as to why you’re fighting for something to stay in. If your editor tells you it slows down the pace and doesn’t move the chapter along, then you have to justify why that isn’t the case.

That doesn’t mean she’ll buy it. Her word is final, so if you have a compelling reason for keeping something in, you gotta make sense. If you can’t, then your editor will probably rule against you and toss it. If so, let it go.

The Point of No Return

The one thing you want to avoid at all costs is arguing to the point where there’s no returning to the happy happy joy joy relationship. I guarantee that if you verbally abuse your editor (been there, done that), then you’re dead to her. Sure, she’ll edit your book to the very best of her abilities, but she will groan every time she sees your email address pop into her inbox. She won’t lift a finger to go above and beyond her regular duties…and you DON’T want that.

If you and your editor are at an impasse, then you both need to back away and cool off. Allowing things to escalate isn’t good for anyone, most of all your book. Don’t be afraid to apologize if you’ve stepped over the line. An apology is the great equalizer, and if you let your emotions run away with you, then you need to grow up, accept responsibility, and make things right. If your editor is the toolbag, then you’re going to have to grit your teeth and make the best of things. It’s very rare that the editing process is ever that contentious, but it does happen. Keep your head and emotions in check.

I’m unusually lucky. I have the most wonderful authors in the world. They are bright and talented, ask terrific questions, and make me think. But through the years, I’ve had some challenges – as any editor does – and I’ve had to swallow my tongue a few times just to keep from biting it (and the author’s head) off.

Rest assured, there will be editing differences, but it’s the author who knows how to play well with others in the sandbox who has a great time.

26 Responses to When You Have Editorial Differences

  1. Thank you for this post. I’m just signing on my first book and this clarifies the process for me.

  2. Fred Gustafson says:

    I would sooner self-publish, thank you very much.

  3. Anita Neuman says:

    Being edited is one of the most valuable learning tools in a writer’s toolbox! Yeah, it kind of hurts sometimes. But if we can choose to accept what is surely brilliant advice and learn from it instead of sulking over perceived insults or throwing an Oscar-worthy hissy-fit, then we emerge on the other side as better writers! The end certainly justifies the means here.

  4. Pelotard says:

    Question: what sort of relations would you find between publisher and editor? In your case, it’s “they’ve got the same Social Security number”, but would there be instances where the publisher has a pool of trusted freelance editors, or a smaller number of in-house editors? What I’m getting at here is: suppose there is a situation where the author/editor relation works well enough to produce a result that everyone’s happy with, but there’s a mutual feeling that the chemistry doesn’t quite work out. Provided there’s no name-calling, provided sales figures are up to spec, provided the author/publisher relation works like a charm, &c: would the publisher consider asking a different editor?

    Maybe the question is better put as “Under which circumstances would the publisher consider trying a different editor, rather than dropping the author?”

    Not that I’m planning to be difficult with anyone. I’m a translator, nothing I translate ever sees print without half a dozen people changing it, and they don’t even ask me my opinion. 🙂

  5. Pelo, things work differently in the large houses. You have acquisition editors, and they buy projects. They may have a staff of editors under them, and they’ll assign the author to a specific editor. The acquisitions editor will work on the really big books they sign, and let their staff editors handle the “lesser” books.

    Production times are really tight, so it’s rare that an author will be assigned a new editor if there’s a clash of personalities. Everyone is expected to behave and act like adults. Of course, we know that doesn’t always happen. I would imagine that if the author threatened to walk away from the book, the editorial director would get inovlved and try to work out a compromise.

    Even small fries like us do everything we can to prevent an editing crisis (because I do have a very small pool of trusted editors I use on a freelance basis).

  6. Julie Rowe says:

    I adore my editor. I adore her because she puts a ton of comments in the margins via track changes. Her job is to make my book great. She’s there to suggest the what-if questions, the ideas that will up the conflict or to show me where the prose drags a little. I’m often too close to the book to see those things. She’s the fresh eyes and the objective voice the book needs to achieve its true potential.

  7. ericjbaker says:

    This blog is jammed with great advice every time. I hope I have a good (professional) reason to refer back to it someday.

    I think the most likely reason authors get defensive is because they feel very vulnerable. It’s like standing there, naked, and having someone point out all the flaws.

  8. Pelotard says:

    Ah, I was unclear. (The reply still very informative though!) I was trying to describe a situation where the first book was successfully put on shelves, and now it was time for the sequel. Say it’s a big house and you have one of the Lesser Editors; could author and/or Lesser Editor walk up to High Mighty Acquisition Editor and say that for the next project, maybe she’d consider a swift re-assignment to a different Lesser Editor? Have you yourself ever had a situation where, say, the author is in many ways OK to work with, but has an annoying tendency to phone you and discuss all the changes, even the ones she agrees with, at such great length that you never have time to mix margueritas, or whatever quirk you’d find far-from-fatal but still too-annoying-to-ignore, so you suggested one of your freelance editors for the next project?

  9. I’ll take this in two sections, Pelo. The author will have the same editor (more than likely) as she did for Book1…unless there was a real clash of personalities. Then the editor may beg her boss, the acquiring editor, to pass the author off to someone else. It may or may not happen, depending on everyone’s schedules, since they have more than one manuscript at any given time. The reason it may not happen is that the editor already knows the author’s writing style, etc., and can work more quickly.

    With the large imprints, editors work their way up to acquiring their own authors, and have no staff of editors under them. In those cases, she will edit those manuscripts she has purchased. If there is a personality conflict, tough toenails. The author (and sometimes the editor) are stuck with each other. Same goes if it’s a multi-book deal.

    You asked if I’d ever had experiences with a very needy author (phone calls, emails) that I found so annoying that I passed them off to one of my freelancers, and the answer is yes, I’ve had them, but no, I’ve never passed them off to anyone else. I understand that they’re very hands-on and nervous. While it can be frustrating, I cut them some slack. I’ve never had it become so intense that I had to say something. Ironically enough, those who fit that category are no longer with us.

    In fact, one of the authors signed with another publisher, and the editor called me to ask about my experience with the author. All I could do is chuckle to myself and suggest the editor up her daily dose of vodka.

  10. Mirka Breen says:

    My goodness.
    Some of the situations described above^ sound downright loony. I can’t imagine getting into this sort of mega-huff/bad behavior in any setting, let alone a professional one.
    This is the editor’s perspective, and you did it justice. I have no doubt you are a wonderful editor. (And a good blog-post writer, if I may add.)
    But I just want to add one un-trivial point from the writer’s POV: whose name will be on the cover for perpetuity? Just that.
    Trust goes both ways, and writers aren’t just emotional basket cases when it comes to the way they craft their stories.
    My perennial wish is to work with a good editor, and I got to do that a few times. A very happy thing.

  11. I don’t think there is an editor alive who isn’t forever mindful whose name is on the cover of the book. It’s the very reason editors take as much care with their jobs as they do. They are not only the interior decorators of an author’s book, but they are also the face of the publishing company they work for. It’s a fine line for everyone, and exactly why I wrote this post in the first place.

    Editors edit books every day, and they don’t have the emotional ties to the books they edit – certainly not like the author’s – but they try very hard to be sensitive and listen to their author’s comments and requests. Sadly, it doesn’t always go well, and I hoped that my blog post would help authors understand the editing process in order to work with a clearer head.

  12. I love my editor and we work together well. She ‘gets’ my style and so doesn’t try to change my voice but she also let me know what isn’t working.

    Excellent article. One added bit – sometimes it takes a search to find a good match.

  13. laurieboris says:

    Marvelous article, Lynn. I’m an author and an editor, so I can see this from both sides. Developing a working relationship is so important, and trust and communication go both ways. The author trusts me with his or her work; I trust that the author will see the potential in the suggestions I make. And we are both united in a common goal: to make the best possible product for potential readers. Sometimes seeing this perspective can take out the negative feelings. Thank you for posting this!

  14. Thanks for your comments, Laurie.

  15. Interesting article! Since I’m mostly working with writers directly, not with or for publishers, I can only stress again how important trust and a good match are. It is not my job to change the writer’s voice, but to help him improve his story so much that it can shine.

  16. katyasozaeva says:

    To Fred above: even self-published authors need to have their books edited, and here is why. No matter how many times you go over your manuscript, you WILL NOT SEE the errors. They will fly right on by, because you KNOW what you MEANT to say, but that does not mean anyone else does. I edit freelance, and work with independently published authors, and there is NOTHING I would rather do. It is the most amazing, fulfilling thing.

    Fred, even if you self-publish, I highly recommend you follow these steps so your finished product is the best it can be. First, while you’re writing, work with a writing group. Exchange chapters, listen to their advice, and that will help you polish your first manuscript. Once you have finished and run it through at least one editing pass, send it out to some beta readers for their comments and advice. Once you have implemented their ideas and suggested changes and done ANOTHER editing pass, find yourself a really good content editor, who will then proceed to tear the entire thing apart and help you put it together even better. Edit it again. Find a good line editor (that is what I do), who will go through, word-by-word, to find misspelled words, incorrect homonyms, incorrectly placed commas, poor word choices, and maybe even notice weird things that were somehow missed. After you implement those changes and do another editing pass, then find someone to do a final, polishing proofread on it to find those last few stubborn problems. Edit again. Publish.

    Then you’ll STILL find errors, but it won’t be nearly as much your fault. Even the major publishers don’t catch them all. 🙂 but do not insist you can do it all yourself. You can’t. The sooner you realize that, the happier you will be.

    Great advice to the editor who wrote this! You must be ecstatic to be working for a major publisher! I always wanted to, but can no longer hold down a full-time job due to my health. I enjoy the freelancing because I can work at my pace when I want.

  17. Carradee says:

    I’m both a line editor and a writer, so I’m familiar with both sides of the fence.

    One of the small presses I edit for has some specific content guidelines. For items pertaining to the publisher guidelines, I do believe that the editor has a right to put her foot down. If the editor doesn’t, it can cost her job.

    I also believe a publisher can have a right to put a foot down on what they are or are not willing to publish, and an editor is the face on that.

    But I do believe that there are limits to what an editor can demand—and I believe that an author should make sure his or her contract leaves an option to walk away if the required edits aren’t to his or her liking.

    When I edit for self-publishers, my attitude for some things is “I recommend you do this” or “You really should do this,” but if the author insists even after I do my best to make certain that he or she gets my point, I shrug and move on. My clients tell me that they appreciate my persistance.

    Another small press I edit for, the owner hates towards and related words (including the presumably US-form toward). Personally, I and many other US natives that I know use the presumably UK form (towards), but when I edit for that company, I adhere to the owner’s preferences.

    Personally, I have an explicable but fairly irrational hate of the phrase “couple of”. Every book I edit, my default action is to replace it with “few”. But I’m fully aware that it’s a personal preference, so I have no problem with a client insisting on “couple of”.

  18. katyasozaeva says:

    I use fairly strict Chicago style, including maintaining the stylistic uses applicable to the country of origin of the writer. I have several clients from England and Canada, and for them, “towards” is perfectly acceptable; however, to be correct in US usage, it must be “toward.” Exceptions are made for dialogue. I dislike “got/get” and the forms as usually superfluous and often unnecessary and change that as often as I am able. I also find “stood to his/her feet” on too many distressing occasions. Redundant!! I’m slowly training “my” authors… 🙂

  19. Carradee, you make a very good point about there being just “so much” that an editor/publisher can demand of an author. The problem is that “so much” is a moving target depending on the author’s willingness to agree. For some, they might balk at rewriting a character – others might be amenable. The end result is that both names go on the cover as author and publisher, so both parties must be in agreement.

    I don’t know of any publishers who would include a provision in their contract that would allow the author to walk away if the author doesn’t like the editing process. Publishers spend thousands on production, and they are going to protect their investment to the hilt. Again, this is why I wrote this post – to prevent situations from degrading to that point where everyone wants to walk away. There are no winners in that scenario.

    Indie editors are godsends, but at the end of the day, they have no vested interest because they’ll get paid whether their client takes their advice or not. The editor who’s hired by a publisher is in a different position because she is the face of her employer. If an author and editor vehemently disagree over some key piece of editing, then bigger, cooler heads should get involved in order to deflate the tension. The publisher has to sell the book, so they have to have a product they believe will sell. Hopefully, that finished prodcuct is something that both parties agree upon.

    Lastly, most editors discuss the manuscript with the author before they ever sign a contract. They discuss the strong points and where they feel the story needs more work. We do this to avoid surprises…but they happen anyway because authors…mainly new authors…are nervous and scared, and this can give way to some big surprises for the editor. The most important thing is for the lines of communication to remain open, so everyone feels free to respectfully voice their opinions.

  20. akismet-ee2ef51a5637bcfc6f601d669bd56bca says:

    Like several other commenters here, I’m both a writer and an editor. @AnitaNeuman says that being edited is a great experience for a writer – even if it takes a while to sink in! (I’m talking developmental editing here, big-picture.)

    And @MirkaBreen makes the point that the work has the writer’s name on it, not the editor’s… excellent point, as there’s no one who gets what the work is about better than the writer. If the blending of editorial skill and a fresh eye can help translate the writer’s passion into a better work overall, then that’s the best of all possible worlds.

    Nicely detailed article – thanks for this.

  21. akismet-ee2ef51a5637bcfc6f601d669bd56bca says:

    And I have zero idea why the login calls me akismet-ee2 etc….. yeesh. Martha, here, signing off!

  22. I do trust my editor very very much. We go bac and forth and its okay. He has so much more experience and insight into the whole industry than I do. I would not be where I am today without my trusty editor!

  23. awaskyc says:

    Pelotard, I used to work in the editorial department at a major trade publisher. My boss once had to give another editor one of his authors and it was a Major F’ing Deal.

    At a big imprint, as lynnpricewrites said, the acquiring editor and the content editor are the same person. An acquiring editor’s job performance is evaluated based on the sales of his/her author’s books. At the end of the year, they go over their P&L’s (profit and loss statements) with the editor-in-chief and publisher–how much was spent on each book, how much it made for the company. Whether this is net positive or negative for the editor determines if they get promoted, if they get a bonus and how much…and if they continue to be employed.

    So each of their authors that makes the company money is a little engine for their career advancement. They fought hard to get every one of them. And if they go to another editor, that editor gets the benefit of those sales in their end-of-year evaluation. Like in any other industry–handing an author to another editor is the equivalent of handing off one of your projects. Editors are very territorial about it. So unless there are monumental issues, it’s not going to happen.

    In this case, it was the author who couldn’t stand my boss and demanded a new editor, and had enough clout to get it. I doubt an editor would do similar–they’d probably just suck it up, and then hand most of their interaction with that person to their assistant if they could get away with it.

    (Came here via kriswrites.com. Hi!)

  24. Becky Black says:

    Great post. I’ve learned so much from my editor the last few years and we’ve always managed to work out any changes we disagree on.The very first time I went though that professional editing process was pretty scary! But I was determined to learn what I could from it, so none of the subsequent ones have been so bad.

  25. Carradee says:

    @Lynn—an author can often walk away if they cancel/buy out the contract.

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