Editors and Authors

Editors and AuthorsA writer I know complained to me about the editing on her latest book. “Too much!” she said. “The editor changed my style!”

I commiserated. As H. G. Wells noted, the urge to rewrite someone else’s words can be irresistible. I always remember the advice my first boss in publishing, the woman who taught me how to line edit, gave me: When a book is well edited, the author shouldn’t be able to tell which words are hers and which are the editor’s. In other words, editorial changes should be seamless, invisible.

Of course, they may be invisible to the reader of the finished book, but they won’t really be to the author who knows her own book and writing style so well. No author—at least none that I’ve ever met—wants her book published with errors, either in grammar or spelling or facts, or have a character start the book with blue eyes and end up with brown ones halfway through. On the other hand, an author may not understand why an editor changed a certain descriptive phrase that the author thought was perfect—but the editor noticed that the author used exactly the same language twenty pages earlier. There has to be a level of trust between editors and authors, which generally has to be built over time, as well as clear communication about changes that are recommended versus changes that are essential.

I know whenever I’ve received a line- and copy-edited manuscript back from an editor, I steel myself as I sit down to go through it. Most of us have a hard time being corrected, or being told that something we’ve done wasn’t as good as it could be; and this can be especially tough when a writer has spent a few years working on a book, living with the characters, knotting and unknotting difficult plot complications, and agonizing over the writing, sometimes spending an hour working on a single sentence to make sure it is as perfect as possible. How, we think, could the editor have possibly found anything to edit?

So it’s tough seeing those corrections in blue or red or green. Obviously, I’m grateful that mistakes have been fixed, that someone noticed I typed red instead of read, and that all of the facts have been gone over. But did that particular convoluted sentence, which I considered poetic, really need to be simplified? Stepping away from the work, viewing it objectively and not subjectively, I can see that, yes, that sentence did need to be edited. What I thought was poetic was actually confusing, and you never want to confuse a reader. Generally, I have found the editors I’ve worked with have done a good job, and that they are also willing to reinstate my original prose if I give them a good reason.

Two editorial changes have always stuck with me. In one case, the editor prevailed; in the other, I did. The book took place mostly in Paris, and toward the end I had the protagonist, Lindsay, packing to go home to Maine. I wrote that she packed her bathroom bag. When I was going over the manuscript after the line and copy editors had done their work, I saw that the line editor had changed bathroom bag to cosmetics bag. That struck me as wrong. First, to me it really was a bathroom bag, holding Lindsay’s toothbrush, toothpaste, and the like; and second, Lindsay wore very little makeup. She wouldn’t have a “cosmetics bag.” I changed it back to bathroom and wrote a little note to the editor.

At the end of the book, Lindsay is cooking a lobster dinner. She holds up a live lobster and, as I wrote, its claws were flailing and its tail was snapping. I wasn’t particularly surprised to see that the line editor had reversed that and had the claws snapping and the tail flailing. Anyone who has ever held a live lobster knows that this is not correct. (Well, the claws could be snapping, but the claws are always banded when you buy a lobster.) I stetted my original description and again left an explanatory note.

When I received the galleys, the final step in the publishing process before a manuscript becomes a book, I saw that Lindsay was still packing a cosmetics bag. Unnecessary changes to galleys are not recommended, since it can get expensive, and one change might result in unintended errors, so I let it go. After all, it was one word out of 60,000, and I doubted many readers would think anything of it. However, the editor had not agreed to my change back to the original description of the struggling lobster. Again, I had to correct the snapping claws and flailing tail, and I left an adamant note on the galley. Lobster tails don’t flail! They snap! And lobsters do wave their claws in the air.

The correction was made, and I was spared letters from readers who knew their lobsters.

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In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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