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Editorial Advice: To Listen Or Not To Listen?

Dec 13, 2007
Whether you're an author publishing through traditional means or delving into self-publishing, you are going to want the feedback of a good editor or perhaps more than one. The difficulty for authors, especially those choosing self-publishing is when do you take an editor's advice and make changes and when do you determine you've gotten enough feedback? This can be a tough call, and it often comes down to the author finding a happy medium.

The first thing writers need to consider is how many editors are too many? In writing and researching Shades of Darkness, Shades of Grace, over the duration of the project seven editors reviewed the manuscript. Some of them were extremely helpful, taking an objective approach and offering suggestions that made for a better book. Others seemed to check objectivity at the door, letting their personal likes and dislikes influence how they felt the story should develop. By the time the book was completed, I felt as though I had let too many cooks into the kitchen, all fussing over the same pot, either adding spices or removing them.

What I learned from the editors I consulted were two simple things. One, you cannot make everyone happy. It's just not possible, so you write the best work you can, one that as many reader's as possible can relate to. Number two, as an author you ultimately have to decide if the suggestions editors make are enhancing your work, or turning it into the work of someone else. Again, it goes back to the idea of authors finding a happy medium that improves the work, but is still your own.

The first editor I contacted was probably the most beneficial. Prudy loved the book, but thought it should begin with the wedding because she believed this was where the story truly started. She also suggested plotting the story on a calendar over the specific number of years the novel took place. In this way, real life events could be woven throughout the narrative, giving the reader not only a sense of place and time, but information that might arouse their interest in other areas related to the story.

Another editor's feedback was more helpful regarding ways to improve my writing, rather than this particular story. She pointed out little tics in my style - for example using the same word too often, advice which I didn't just apply to the novel, but every other piece I've written. Her observation helped me expand my vocabulary and fine-tune my work. Two suggestions I took issue with was the fact that in the novel Kay and Tim don't have any children, and that as a minister's wife, this editor felt Kay should be shown in church more. I thought both points had nothing to do with the story and verged on stereotyping. I made this decision from my own experience of knowing childless couples where a spouse works in ministry.

One positive aspect of consulting multiple editors is that enough voices may convince an author to make a significant change. Out of seven editors, six wanted to see the ending beefed up providing the reader with an enhanced sense of satisfaction and closure. The one holdout was a good friend and her argument was that by expanding the ending, the author was taking the reader by the hand, when she felt their imagination could do the rest. Of all the decisions I made regarding Shades of Darkness, this was by far the toughest. Eventually I relented and significantly revised the ending.

Authors may also find themselves confronted with one editor who changes something, only to encounter another who changed it back. This was particularly true when dealing with the grammatical aspects of the book. The second editor was an old-school English major, so her placement of commas was more extensive. The fifth editor removed what she believed were too many commas and thus we had a full-scale "Comma War." When the last editor reviewed the manuscript, edited commas were being replaced. What I strongly recommend is authors select a specific grammatical style (such as the Chicago Manual of Style or Modern Language Association) and stick to it.

Ultimately, regardless of what an editor suggests, as the author you need to remember this is a subjective process. The final editor made a suggestion that would have entailed rewriting the entire manuscript in a way that I felt was not beneficial to the story. But because I thought the suggestion had some merit, I compromised and trimmed the scene to a point where I felt comfortable, thereby finding a happy medium.
About the Author
Catherine Johnson is the author of Shade of Darkness, Shades of Grace published through iUniverse. For more about the novel, visit Catherine Johnson Novels .
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