The Editorial Process

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jun 12 2009

You hear stories all the time about editors working with authors on books, maybe change an ending, add this, take out that, etc. Is this after they’ve bought the book? I guess what I’m after is, does an editor say, I like this book, but author is going to have to revise the first section, then I’ll take it, or I’ll take it now, and we’ll continue to work on it?

The revisions your editor suggests and works on with you can vary greatly from book to book, editor to editor, and project to project. Like many of the answers I give on the blog, there is no real answer to this question.

The ideal is that all of you will end up with an editor who will ask for some sort of revisions. To quote the reader directly, to ask you to “add this, take out that, etc.” should be normal and expected of an editor. Presumably every single book that’s sold could use a little buffing up. Even if it’s removing one small scene that seems unnecessary.

How this is presented to the author depends on the situation. I’ve had editors call to tell me that they really want to make an offer, but need to know first if the author is willing to change such and such. The changes aren’t required at that time, but they want a sense of how open the author would be to them. In other instances I have actually had editors call and request changes just to the synopsis (this is on a partial submission). For some reason the editor, or editorial staff, felt they needed to see the revised synopsis before the offer came in, and of course I’ve had deals made and finalized and suddenly the author receives an extremely detailed revision letter with no real warning up front. I haven’t been the author of those letters in any of these situations, but my feeling is neither is better or worse than the other. Typically a revision letter will come whether there’s warning or not, and typically that revision letter will be surprising, painful, and hopefully wonderful all at the same time.

I think the best way for an author to look at the editorial process is to assume that an editor is expecting perfection, because even though revisions will always be requested, perfection is what she’s looking for. When being interviewed by potentially new clients I’m always asked whether or not I do editorial work with my clients and my answer is always yes. I will never send a book out on submission until I feel it’s as perfect as we’re going to get it. I never, ever want to receive a rejection letter back from an editor and think that I knew that was a problem, but was trying to get it by anyway. Revisions will only be requested when the editor sees them as minor in comparison to the success she envisions for the book.


17 responses to “The Editorial Process”

  1. Avatar Fawn Neun says:

    Robert Heinlein once said something about editors and how much more they enjoyed the taste of something after they got a chance to pee in it; but you know, Robert Heinlein can get away with saying things like that. 🙂 Personally, I think a few extra sets of eyes on a piece is a good thing and it's nice to know that editors do look at a proposal with an open eye to necessity for revision, just as they want writers to be open to changes.

    Thanks for the post – very enlightening.

  2. I just sent in a partial glimpse of my next book to my editor, so she could get a sneek peek! She loved it (thank god!) but pointed out one small thing. It was amazing really and once I spent maybe 5 mins tooling around with it, well…what a difference. I love my editor! Revisions, at least for me, are fun and almost like a validation. It means my book is going to come out and be the best that it can be!
    I did revisions with my agent and then a small round with my editor and my first book is so much stronger because of it! I think its how you approach the idea. Take a deep breath and dig in.

  3. Avatar Rick Daley says:

    This is a refreshing topic. We all spend a lot of time talking about queries since it's the first real step in the process of selling your work (assuming, of course, you have completed your manuscript…that really the first step).

    Gaining insight into the latter stages of publication helps aspiring novelists like me round out our dreams a little more.

  4. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I've had revisions requested several times on manuscripts before any mention of a sale is made.

    I asked one editor why she does this and her reply was interesting. Yes, the revisions are sent because she saw promise in the story, but it needed more development. But, the revisions were also a test to see what it would be like to work with the writer.

  5. Avatar ryan field says:

    And all editors are different. They all have different approaches and different styles. The good thing is that when you know you're working with a specific editor again, you can usually predict what's going to come in the revision e-mail.

  6. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I'm just curious. JK Rowlings books all have ties together that only she realized in the first book. What happens if the editor asks you to cut something that is important for a future novel?

  7. Avatar Liana Brooks says:

    It's always frustrating to know your own editing isn't good enough. I want a MS perfect before I query. But I also know I miss things that are straight in my head, and that I've explained to beta-readers, that an agent or editor will catch.

    As perfect as I want to be, I'm just running on the assumption that I'll have a few more layers of editing to do after I find an agent and an editor.

  8. Avatar Sheila Deeth says:

    Still dreaming one day I'll find an agent, and I'll be happy to be edited. I finally got a short story accepted for a book last week, and they've made a few small changes. I'm so over the moon I'd agree to almost anything.

  9. Avatar Christina says:

    Is it odd that I actually like the revision process?

    Maybe its because everytime I revise something it gets better. Different aspects of the story appear all of a sudden and I feel like I'm having a V-8 moment, but in a good way.

  10. The truth is..when your novel is in the hands of someone else…they have all the power. Unless you self-publish—you give up all your rights. For me personally, I don't care as long as it gets published but for someone people it will be a cold in hell before someone tells them how to write THEIR NOVEL.

  11. Anonymous 11:30: I don't know from personal experience in fiction, but I do know that in nonfiction, revision can be a kind of negotiation.

    So if you were working with an editor on a fiction project, and the editor had committed to sequels, you might say something like, "Thanks for the feedback, Editor Beth. I did want to talk to you about the scene in Chapter Eight that you wanted me to cut; I think it's important to keep it, because in Book Three, (whatever you have planned)." Now here's the important part: "I understand why it's not quite working for you; how can I revise it so that we can keep it?"

    Also, I don't know if epic fiction authors have it all planned out as much as it looks like at the end. They probably write the last book well after the first book is published, so it's possible that they're making decisions to catch all the balls they've put in the air–not necessarily decisions that they've known about since Page One.

  12. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I'm in the process of revision with my agent and am grateful to have the opportunity. Having someone who knows what they're doing and can comment intelligently on the big picture of my novel–after I've been at it for so long-It brings yet another level of mastery to what I'm trying to accomplish. And I welcome it. I fully expect (when I have an editor) to do more editing. Whatever makes my book the best it can be– bring it on.

  13. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Rejection queen– I don't believe that is true. In my experience, the editing process has been totally rewarding–almost always a clarification of what I'm trying to say, what I'm trying to get at– the editor shares my vision for the book and is trying to work with me in accord with that.

  14. I spent some time at the Montreal Playwright's Workshop, hanging around, pretending I had some purpose being there. Mostly I paid attention, and so, was privileged to see a number of committee style editing sessions (which is common with dramatic productions). The basic idea is that the director, dramaturge, writer, and sometimes a producer or lead actors sit around editing the script. They bat around ideas for bringing it to life on stage and criticizing the script. There is little time for tenderness. Criticism is furious. Edits are made on the spot. It's a sinister place where egos go to die.

    One quickly realizes that the work is an object, not a person or appendage; and its critics are collaborators, not assassins. The whole point of working with someone is to react to their concerns. You deserve a good editor, or at least one you think is good – you tasteless narcissist you. So, if you don't respect the concerns of your editor, you should move on.

    When new editors suggest revisions, I think of it as them trying to impress me with their acumen. I review their criticisms as if I were grading their suggestions, then decide whether or not this editor is competent enough for me to take seriously. If I'm impressed (I almost always am), I'm profoundly humbled, and eagerly attack the offending passages. Yes, I'll even thank them. I'm that sick.

    If I'm not impressed; well, it's a big world.

  15. I have to second the anons, Rejection Queen, that would only be the case if you were working with a very bad editor. A great editor or agent works with the author to make the book the best that it can be. both my agent and editor helped me in that regard and I have to confess I was a great student. I wanted to learn and do my best. I can guarantee my second book will not need as much tooling because of what I learned from my go round with my first book. IMHO

  16. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Thanks, that was my original question I wrote on March 7. I had been away from the blog for a while and just checked back and I thought the question sounded familiar. By the way, I am publishing my book (story collection) with a university press and my agent was turned down by more than a dozen major and indy publishers.

  17. Avatar Phil Bolsta says:

    Mystified that your terrific manuscript hasn’t been snapped up by a high-powered literary agent? Guess what, it’s not them, it’s you.

    Phil Bolsta
    Author of "Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything" (