On Editors and Revisions

For the past two weeks or so, I have been revising the second book in my Thieftaker series, Thieves’ Quarry (written as D.B. Jackson). Revisions are an essential part of writing.  Every professional writer has to do them; every aspiring writer should.  I revise at several different points in the development of a novel:  I do some polishing as I write my first draft.  I edit heavily in the interval between the completion of that initial draft and my submission of the manuscript to my editor.  I probably do my most extensive revision work upon receiving the manuscript back from my editor (accompanied usually by a revision letter suggesting changes and responding to various aspects of the book).  And I do a good deal of last minute polishing in the copyediting and proofing stages of production.

One of the reasons so many of us here at SFNovelists still believe strongly in traditional publishing is the emphasis on editing, revising, and polishing that is built into the traditional model.  Working with a developmental editor, having a professional copyedit the book, having proof readers in the production department read through the typeset version of the book — all of these things help ensure that our books when published will be as cohesive, as clean, and as readable as possible.  Editing means far more than catching typos and syntactical problems — though copyedits and proofing can be enormously helpful in this regard.  Editing (developmental and copy) also means dealing with issues of character, narrative flow, pacing, setting, detail consistency and a host of other matters that a simple read-through for “mistakes” can’t possible catch.

I have been writing professionally for more than fifteen years; Thieves’ Quarry will be my fourteenth published novel.  And still, despite years of experience, I am still working to develop my internal editor.  Yes, I can anticipate some of what my editor will say about certain things, and I can make those edits on my own, without his help.  I can make substantial improvements in my work without relying on another reader.  But my editor always catches things that I miss.  So does the copyeditor.  So does the proofer.  Let me be clear.  I edit my own manuscripts.  I go over the copyedits and sometimes find things that the publisher’s copyeditor missed.  I proof the galleys for all my books.  This is all in addition to the work of the professional editors and proofers.  Redundancy is built into the system.

Because none of us is capable of editing with complete confidence our own work.  It can’t be done.  I put my manuscripts away for weeks at a time after completing that first draft and before reading it through for revision.  I print out the manuscript rather than reading it on the screen.  I sometimes read aloud my entire book.  I do all of these things to create some distance between my writing of the book and my reading of it, to make that reading experience different enough from the writing experience that I might see the book as if for the first time. This creative distance makes me a more effective editor of my own work.  But still, there is only so much distance I can create in this way.  In the end, I am still an author reading the words I have written.  I need other readers — and not just any readers.  I need professional editors.

The rewrites I am doing right now on Thieves’ Quarry are in response to the revision letter and margin comments I received from my editor a couple of weeks ago.  As I say, some of his comments I anticipated. I knew there were aspects of the manuscript that needed to be fixed; I just didn’t know how to fix them.  He was able to help with that.  He also saw problems that I hadn’t even considered.  And he confirmed for me something that I had suspected, but hadn’t known for certain:  This book is even better than Thieftaker, the first in the series.  Sometimes the benefits of professional editing include not just critiques, but also positive reinforcement.

That said, I will also admit that sometimes the revision process sucks.  As I have written before, I wish that once — just once — my editor would send back my manuscript with a note saying, “David, This is perfect. Don’t change a thing.” But that’s not going to happen in this lifetime.  Notwithstanding all I’ve said about the necessity of professional editing, I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who enjoys having all the flaws in her/his work highlighted in red ink and picked apart word by word.  This is not a fun process.  It is gratifying.  I do take great satisfaction in reworking a book and watching it come together into a polished, seamless whole.  But sometimes it really sucks reading my editor’s notes and realizing that he’s right, and I do, in fact, have to change that passage that I thought worked so well.

My comments before about the traditional publishing model were not intended to provoke a “traditional publishing versus self-publishing” debate.  Not even a little.  Rather, my point is this:  No matter what route to publication you might be taking, you need to revise your own work AND you should make every effort to work with a professional editor.  As writers, we don’t need to abide by every suggested change an editor sends our way.  In the end, my book is just that:  mine. Actually, my editor is usually the first person to remind me of this.  But I do force myself to consider every comment he gives me, to look beyond any natural defensiveness about my work and see the issue from his point of view.  More often than not, I find that he’s right, that there is an issue there that I need to address.

And in the end, the work he does on my book — the revision work we do together — always improves the project, which, of course, is the point.

David B. Coe
http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com

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  1. 1. Angela Korra'ti

    I’ve got a foot in traditional (albeit digital) publishing and a foot in self-pub, and I’ve just got to say, I love every word of this post. :) I’m very grateful for the awesome editor I’ve got working with me on the next book I have coming out, and at the same time, I was very happy to be able to engage a professional editor to work with me when my next self-pub book is ready, too.

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment, Angela. Glad you liked the post. It sounds as though you’re handling both sides of your career with a solid commitment to putting out the best book possible. Best of luck on all your projects.

  3. 3. Lauren 'Scribe' Harris

    Nice post, David. I’m leaning more and more toward hiring a professional editor for my book if I don’t manage to get agented in the next round of queries since revising. I’ve always had beta readers, but the one time I was on revise/resub with an agent, her comments blew me out of the water and really made me think about the structure of the book and the characters’ personal journeys.

    Great post. :)

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the great comment, Scribe. Experienced, professional readers really do bring so much to a manuscript. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of working with a professional editor, I really do recommend it — you will learn so much about your own work

  5. 5. Wolf Lahti

    I’ve always regarded the work of editors (developmental, copy, and proof) as essential and invaluable — it is performed.

    But from the evidence I see in books published using the traditional model, these jobs have been taken over by accountants who care and know nothing about language whatsoever. I continuously see grammatical and spelling errors that a sixth-grader would not make, not to mention lapses in plot logic and story development.

    I have to wonder where these editors have gone, ’cause they sure aren’t remedying the errors in many of the books I’ve been reading. I would be embarrassed to be associated with a publishing house that shoveled these out onto the bookstore shelves — and the worst part is that most readers do not appear to notice or to care.

  6. 6. Wolf Lahti

    Er… that is, “*when* it is performed” in the first sentence.

    I should have had a proofreader look at that before I posted it.

  7. 7. David B. Coe

    Wolf, I don’t know what books you’re reading, obviously, and I won’t make a general statement about all editors. But I do know that with regard to the editors at Tor, and the editors of my writing colleagues who publish with Roc, Baen, Daw, Penguin, Harper Collins, Pyr, and other big fantasy imprints, your comments are off-base. My editor is not an accountant. He has devoted his entire professional life to the written word, and he is damn good at his job. I know of lots of other editors about whom I can say the same thing. Again, I don’t know what books you’re reading, but I do a great deal of reading in our genre, and your experience is nothing at all like mine.

  8. 8. Susan Kaye Quinn

    Great post! I’ve published with a small press that had very minimal editorial input (sadly). And I’ve self-published, using critique partners in lieu of a developmental editor (and copyeditors and proofreaders on top of that). I’ve had lots of compliments on the quality of editing in my self-pub novels, and they’re selling well, so something is going right there. But I’ve recently contracted with a free-lance developmental editor for my next (to be self-published) series – she comes highly recommended, has great experience, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she can bring to the process.

    However, I still plan to seek input from my critique partners as well. I’m finding that readers come in lots of different flavors, and any one editor (whether paid in money or in-kind swap of services) only has one viewpoint. I get a better sense of what my reader response will be when I have several critique partners read the story first. For example, one CP can be counted on to be focused on the SF elements, finding all my world-building holes and tech snafus. Another will always be focused predominantly on the love interest storyline, making sure the heart of the story is there. Having these different viewpoints strengthens the story, I believe, more than any single developmental editor could, no matter how awesome.

    Again, great post – I’ve tweeted it out! :)

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) 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 (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), 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 (http://magicalwords.net), 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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