How I Edit

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Nov 07 2011

We’ve been having a discussion in the office about how we edit our clients’ work and, not surprisingly, we all have different techniques.

Since I just recently sent a 17-page revision letter to a client (yes, Jessica gasped as well) let me start by explaining how I edit manuscripts. I really like reading on my Kindle. It’s easy and I don’t have to print any pages out, but more important, it gives me a book-like reading experience, which I find is helpful to editing. The experience keeps me in a place where I read for pleasure, but with an editorial eye. In other words, I tend not to cross that line into forgetting the pleasure part and simply reading for editorial mistakes.

So typically I sit either at my desk on the couch, or wherever I happen to be, and read on the Kindle, but with my computer by my side. This way I can take notes as I go along. I typically take the notes right in the body of an email, and really, it’s a giant editorial vomit. My clients will attest to this. As I’m reading, I jot down every thought I have and I send every thought to the author. The thoughts could be major, “This prologue is really just confusing and I don’t think it’s needed,” to minor, “What if she actually wears the necklace in this scene?” They can be things like, “Check your commas, they seem a little scattered,” to “Don’t forget to build the world more, I think it will make this stronger.” They can be simple like, “I love this chapter” to “I really think this character is useless and could go.”

And I expand on things. In other words, you won’t just get “I think this character can go.” You’ll get my thoughts on why the character isn’t working and how she doesn’t add anything to the story. You’ll also get my own suggestions for how you can change or strengthen the story. In other words, could you make someone else the killer, or what if character Jack and character Frank are really one and the same? And as far as I’m concerned you can run with my suggestions or you can ignore them altogether and go off in your own way. I don’t care how you want to fix the problems I see, I just care that when I read it the next time those problems/my concerns are gone.

For me anyway, and for my authors, I find that jotting down every thought helps my clients see not just what I’m thinking, but why I’m thinking what I’m thinking. I also find that it helps us, hopefully, solve any major problems the book might have as well as smaller ones, and that by building both at the same time we’re creating, overall, a stronger book. And keep in mind that in 17 pages you might hear me repeat myself a lot. In other words, if I think a certain character isn’t working I might repeat over and over each time that character appears why that character isn’t working for me in that particular scene. Because, as you know, it’s an editorial vomit.

This year alone I’ve sent two massive revision letters like that and I’m happy to report both authors embraced them. I think, unless they lied to me, they saw much of what I was saying and enjoyed the back-and-forth the letter created. At least I hope they did.


24 responses to “How I Edit”

  1. Avatar Khanada says:

    I think I would like that sort of letter, too, after I got over the initial grumblings. I am working with an editor in a class now, and after more than a few negative comments, I have a hard time accepting the criticism. So I just read through them and let myself grumble about it for a couple days. By Day 3, though, I am usually calm and not only accept what she's saying but agree with it as well. And then I can really get to work.

    I may not warmly welcome an "editorial vomit" type letter at first, but I think the honesty in them is incredibly valuable for authors.

  2. Avatar Chro says:

    Think most of us would love to receive this kind of editing with our work, though perhaps we should avoid expressing our desires as 'yearning for vomit'.

  3. Avatar Nathan Rudy says:

    I'd love that kind of letter. The more comments I can get from others the better. I have a beta reader who gave notes on every page, and it made things much better.

  4. Avatar wry wryter says:

    I curtsey with respect because you are the expert.

    I would take into consideration each of your comments, implement your concerns, and basically clean up every little bit of editorial detritus spewed my way. (As I have done with all editors I have worked with.)

    Having said that โ€“ hereโ€™s a question which has been poking at me for some time.

    Have you ever worked with an author who has stared down your comments, and refused to budge, AND if the answer is yes, did you continue to represent that author with your original zeal?

  5. I received a couple of letters like this from friends who have offered to edit my work, and I absolutely loved them. It made me see weak places (where both had commented on the same things) and where I could expand/cut. It was amazing – and fun – to go through them and make my own notes on things that could be improved.

  6. I like editing like that as well, giving my exact thoughts even if something makes me giggle or scoff. It sounds like it works perfectly for you and really polishes the stories you're working on.

  7. Avatar Kendra says:

    When I first starting writing non-fiction as my day job, I had much the same reaction as Khanada. Editorial comments would blindside me, especially the snippy ones. I would have to walk away for a bit, then come back with my attitude in check (and yes, I would usually end up totally seeing their point – most of the time).

    With my fiction, however, it's quite the opposite. It's all about the story and anything that helps me tell the story better is a good thing. Right now I'm working closely with a couple of beta readers and I hang on their every comment. They're perfect representations of my target audience and if they think the third sentence on page 23 is a little wonky (actual comment I received last night) then that's something I definitely want to know – and have the opportunity to fix.

    Perhaps it's the experience with editors (some of whom could have done with a few lessons in etiquette) while writing non-fiction, but I would love, love, love to get an email of editor vomit about my fiction work. I think I'll add that to my Christmas wish list just to see the look on dear hubby's face! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks for another great post, Jessica!

  8. Avatar Stacy Green says:

    I would definitely embrace it. I want to learn, and having an agent that took so much time with my book would be awesome. My crit partners have been great, but there's always room for improvement, and it's amazing what fresh eyes can find.

  9. Avatar LynnRush says:

    I'm a kindle/nook reader/editor as well. I learned that in an editing class I took. It helps with the "book experience" like you said. So, after I think I've edited it enough and my crit partners have hashed it up enough, I throw it on my Nook and read it while making notes. Then, I fix and one last time, I listen to the novel. That helps, too. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks for sharing your techniques. This is great!!

  10. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Jessica–Fun to read this because I can see your process in the editorial revision letters I've gotten from you. What's interesting is that the things you comment on and suggestions you make don't always send me in the direction I imagine you're pointing, but they always bring up a response that will, I hope, strengthen the story.

    FWIW, I don't send everything to my agent–generally it's the proposals or possibly the first book in a new series, but I do use beta readers to pick things apart before I revise and submit to my editor. I really believe it takes a village to write a book. As the creator of a story, I freely admit I have tunnel vision and don't always see the broader picture. That editorial input is essential to my writing.

  11. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Khanada–I'm laughing at your comment because I often have the same response. I can't count the number of phone conversations I've had with Jessica where she's tossed out ideas and I've said (or thought) NO WAY, it WON'T WORK. And then, a couple of days later after I've thought about it for a while, I realize that yes, it works just fine. I've eaten a lot of crow over the years.

  12. "I think, unless they lied to me, they saw much of what I was saying and enjoyed the back-and-forth the letter created."

    No, fiction writers never lie. Never, ever. Everything we write is the truth. ๐Ÿ™‚

    In truth, what you describe is much the same as what I got from my editor (for a much larger check than what your authors likely paid you). It was about 20 pages (I ain't sayin' exactly) of editorial vomit combined with page by page specifics. Quite useful, that.

  13. Avatar Kristan says:

    I edit 2 different ways for my crit partners:

    1) Just like you described, using my Kindle and then emailing notes. I do try to include bookend comments before and after, to offer a big picture view (and encouragement) along with the more detailed observations. But pretty much it happens just like you said.

    2) Line editing. I'll either mark up a printout (if it's provided) or use Track Changes in a Word doc to do detailed editing and commenting. It's a LOT more time consuming, and it tends to focus on a micro rather than macro view, so it's probably not the best approach for a first draft, but it can be a lot easier to follow than the emailed comments.

  14. Avatar Standback says:

    Like Kristan, I like commenting in Word documents (and Critters trained me to use a line quote –> comment format…). I think these kinds of notes jotted down as you read are immensely helpful, because they can really help the author see how the reader responds to every point in his work. He sees where the problems start to show; he sees whether the lines he wanted to have effect actually did. It's really intuitive and very useful

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    "I don't care how you want to fix the problems I see, I just care that when I read it the next time those problems/my concerns are gone."

    It seems unlikely that both parts of this are true.

  16. Avatar SnarkyMommy says:

    Now I'm REALLY excited to send you my draft — bring on the vomit feedback. ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. What an interesting post. I am search of a Kindle but there are too many to pick from. Which one do you have and do you recommend it?

    I know the ne Kindle Fire is going to be releasing soon.

  18. I've only worked with critique partners at this point, but I find this kind of editing useful, even if at first I am filled with an overwhelming sensation of failure due to the length of the letter. Even if some of the issues are resolved later–a seemingly useless character becomes useful near the end or something–it alerts me to a problem the reader might have and urges me to reconsider how I am presenting that character and whether there might be a better way. Some readers will judge on their experience as they read along and not wait until the conclusion to see if their dissatisfaction is justified. If I can fix the issue beforehand, I can possibly prevent someone putting my hypothetical future book down out of disgust, boredom, or, worse, apathy.

  19. My husband is my first critic. He often wonders how much feedback an agent or editor would give. He'd like to give me the right amount. So, this was an informative post.

  20. Avatar girlseeksplace says:

    Fun post. I hope one day I have an agent read my book and does the same thing for me.

    @ Nathan: That's the kind of reader I am, too. I edit each page individually.

  21. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Sorry, if my 300 page novel needs 20 pages of 'revisions' it is not worth it. In the time it takes to do pages of revisions, I can write another book.

    Rewriting of an editor (they pay for your book) is one thing. Rewriting for a chance that someone MIGHT send it to an editor is how you encourage the 'starving writer' lifestyle.

    Rewriting is a waste of time to thatt extent. Send your book on to next agent/editor. If it still gets rejected/revision suggestions to that magnitude, be humane, kill it, and move on to the next project.

    It's one book. Not your whole life. The next story is waiting and you;ll have another 90,000 words of practice behind you to make it better than the one that died in the query process.

  22. Part of the reason I parted ways with my agent is because I wasn't getting enough editorial feedback. I love the agent/author relationship and value the advice agents give. Working together, the book gets better. In the long run, everyone wins.

  23. Avatar ryan field says:

    When it comes to editing, whatever works best is what you should do. I've never met two editors who do it the same way. I know an agent who edits in hard copy with a red pen…even in this day and age. But it works for him.

    For me, it's more about copyediting. I truly rely on the copyeditor as the most important person before a book goes to print. And I take every word the copyeditor says very seriously.

  24. This is the kind of "editing" I do for others, so I would love it to pieces if someone did it for me, too. ๐Ÿ˜€ Thanks for the excellent post.