More on Revising and Editing

I’m in the midst of rewrites.  I received a revision letter from my editor the other day and have been wading through his comments, trying to bring fresh thinking to a novel that I finished six months ago, the last book in a series that I was glad to finish.  Don’t get me wrong; I like the series very much, and I think that the three books taken together represent my best work to date.  But this trilogy followed a five book series set in the same world, and I.  Am.  Ready.  To.  Move.  On.  

And in fact I have moved on.  I’ve completed the first book in a new project that I love.  My mind is there, in that new world.  My head is filled with the stories of a whole new cast of characters.  Wrenching myself out of that world and back into this one is no small feat.

I find myself wishing that just this once my editor had said in his revision letter, “David, this is perfect.  Don’t change a word.”

Okay, I’m back now.  For a while there I was laughing too hard to type….  

I’ve described the revision process in a more methodical way elsewhere and I won’t bother going over it again here.  But I will say that, for me, it may be the most emotionally draining part of writing a novel and preparing it for publication.  I don’t mean this as a complaint.  Truly I don’t.  But going through my own 140,000 word manuscript reading comment after comment about all the things I did wrong isn’t easy.  This manuscript is actually pretty clean; few problems over all.  Still, there must be 300 comments in there, ranging from subtle changes in wording, to corrections of silly mistakes, to more substantial comments relating to character and plotting.  And though I love my editor, and though I’ve been through this many times before and have developed a fairly thick skin, I have to admit that some of my editor’s remarks raise my hackles.

I’m sure that anyone who has written knows what I’m talking about.  Even a simple change in wording can get those defensive juices flowing.  I mean it’s my book, right?  I’ve written many others, and if I chose this particular set of words for this particular sentence in this particular paragraph, I probably had my reasons.  Those are the moments when I want to call my editor on the phone and tell him that he’s full of crap and should leave my damn book alone.  I don’t, of course.  First of all, I want him to keep on buying books from me, and that kind of outburst might not endear me to him.  But more to the point, he’s been doing this longer than I have, and while I’ve written ten books, he’s probably edited a thousand.  If he bothered to comment on a word or phrase or scene that bothered him, chances are there’s a reason.  Just because it sounds right to me, just because I understand  what I’m saying with a particular passage, doesn’t mean that my readers will as well.  That’s why we have editors.  Because sometimes we just don’t get it right.

It all comes down to this simple fact:  As much as I’d like to think that my books are perfect, they’re not.  They have flaws before the editorial process begins, and even after my editor and I are done, some flaws will remain.  The humanity that makes fiction worth reading also keeps it from being perfect.

All that said, I know that his comments and my responses to them will ultimately make this a far better book than it was after that initial draft.  My editor is not my opponent in this process.  Even at this stage of my career I sometimes have to remind myself of that.  We are working together toward one goal:  the improvement of my novel.  When I manage to keep that in mind, this process changes, becomes something that is satisfying, at times exhilarating.  It’s a collaboration; we talk issues out, we argue, we compromise, and we wind up with a book that is mine, but that also has his imprint on it.

All writers complain about their editors at one time or another.  But a good editor is invaluable.  And I have a good editor.  He knows my writing, he knows the business, and he knows the English language.  So I’m going to get back to work on my manuscript.  When a comment ticks me off, I’ll scribble a nasty reply on a piece of paper as I usually do.  A few days from now I’ll revisit both the comment and the reply, and chances are I’ll agree with my editor and laugh at my foolishness.  And on the off chance that I don’t, that I still feel that my wording works better, I’ll talk to him about it, and together we’ll figure out how it should be phrased. That’s how this process is supposed to work.

David B. Coe 

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There are 9 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Adam Heine

    I am simultaneously encouraged and depressed to learn that receiving critiques is hard even after 8+ books. =)

  2. 2. glenda larke

    Absolutely agree, David – it never gets any better. I am about to send the next one off, and then the nail biting starts as I wait for editorial input.

    And don’t you love the way they always seem to start by saying, “Great book! Just a couple of small things…” and then attach what appears to be a lengthy novella – and is actually sheets of comments. Sigh.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Been on the road today or I would have replied to comments earlier. Adam, I think that despite my claims of being fairly thick-skinned, I might not be as much so as I’d like to believe. It may be that some of my colleagues handle this better than I do….

    Glenda, yes! “I really don’t have many comments, just a few small things.” That’s what he tells me. And then, Wham!! Hundreds of comments. Red ink all over the manuscript. But the vast majority of them are enormously helpful, so I really can’t complain.

  4. 4. CE Murphy

    Nah, David. I sulk for about three days after I get a revision letter, and I’ve barely even *looked* at it at that point. Eventually I have to suck it up and read it properly, and it’s never as bad as I thought after my first glance-and-sulk, but I don’t think many of us handle it well at all. :)

  5. 5. David B. Coe

    Right, Catie: it’s never as bad as that first glance makes us think. But as I say, I don’t handle it well even though I know that’s the case.

  6. 6. Clare K. R. Miller

    I like that idea of writing down a nasty response to an editorial comment, but not showing it to anyone. Gets it out of your system! I’m definitely going to try that from now on (with critique responses, of course, since I’m nowhere near publication…).

  7. 7. David B. Coe

    Yeah, Clare, I’ve used that one A LOT! After reading revision letters, after receiving less than overwhelming contract offers, when disappointed with production or publicity decisions. It’s a harmless but effective way of channeling anger that might otherwise undermine my career…

  8. 8. Raethe

    Hm. I actually find that really interesting, because I’m totally cavalier about getting critiques… I’m happy to hear whatever suggestions people have, even if I don’t always agree (I don’t).

    Of course, there’s an element of “easy for you to say” to that one, since I’m only submitting to workshop groups and not for publication; maybe I’ll feel differently once I’ve got something that I don’t think of as a work-in-progress. Still, though… Been in workshop groups for four years, they’re fantastic about saying exactly what they think, and I can’t remember ever getting a comment that I was angry or unhappy to receive…

    To each their own, I guess.


  1. Yet More on Editing and Revision at SF Novelists

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe ( is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (, and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.



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