Your marked-up manuscript has arrived, and someone seems to have bled all over the damned thing. Deletions, additions—holy cow, look at all those comments! Who could blame you if the thought of facing this mess—and deciding what you’re going to do with all those suggestions—seems a little daunting?
Here’s something it will help to bear in mind: the manuscript is not the story. This, along with mutual respect and professional attitude, lies at the very heart of the writer-editor relationship. The manuscript is the delivery system for your story. It’s the vehicle your story uses to get from your mind to the mind of a reader. It transported your story from you to an editor, and then it was your editor’s job to pick up her tools and tinker with the vehicle so that it could do the best possible job of taking your story where it’s going next. Good editing makes your story stand a little taller, your plot and characters feel stronger, and your storytelling style shine through.
Over years of confronting many of my own manuscripts marked up by editors, I’ve developed a method that works for me and might work for you. I offer it in hope that it may spare you a lot of unnecessary work and more than a few headaches.
I like to divide a novel-length copy-edited manuscript into four stages. You should feel free to take a day for each stage and more for any that need it. That may seem like a long time, but you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor in the long run if you pace yourself. When you finish one section, give yourself a break and don’t start on the next until the next day. You’ll do better work that way.
You’ll want to take breaks as you work. An hour to an hour and a half is about as long as you can do this kind of thing efficiently without getting up and doing something completely different for at least a few minutes.
Important: for the first two stages of the job, do not read the book. That’s what you’ll be doing in the third stage, and you want to be able to approach it with a fresh set of eyeballs. So for now, only read the passages to which corrections have been made.
Look over the changes your editor suggested.
Taking one chapter or section of your choosing at a time, look at the edited bits once with the markup visible, then with markup hidden. Consider how the editor’s suggested changes are going to read if you make them.
If you can, print out the manuscript for the initial review of the changes because that’s going to give you a really fresh look at the material.
You’ll be dividing suggested changes into three basic groups: Yes changes, Maybe changes, and NFW changes (also known as No Fucking Way what-was-she-thinking utterly unacceptable changes). “Yes” changes are the most obvious ones you can make without quibbling. “Maybe” changes are going to take some thinking about, and NFW changes are ones you really don’t want to make. At least not at first glance.
On this first run, accept the Yes changes and mark the others with color highlights, Post-It notes, or comments so you can consider them during a later stage of the process.
Read any comments your editor made about the changes. Do you have questions? Are there changes you can’t see the reason for, or comments that need explanation? Save them to discuss with your editor via email or chat.
This first stage may take more than a single day, depending on the length of your manuscript, the number of changes and comments, and the time you have available. Take your time and conserve your energy.
On your next revision day, revisit the Maybe changes and see if any have changed to Yes or NFW. Accept the new Yes changes.
Now revisit the rest of the Maybe and NFW changes, and see if any feel different after you’ve had time to reflect on them. You may disagree with any particular change your editor suggests, but bear in mind you hired him to do a job to the best of his professional capability, so take some time to reflect on the suggestions you disagree with before rejecting them out of hand.
It’s always safest to assume that if your editor suggested a change, it was to solve a problem. If you’re not sure you understand the problem, ask. Or you may see the problem but not agree with your editor’s solution. If you have a better solution of your own, go for it. If not, discuss it with your editor and see if you can come up with something between you.
If you agree on second or third consideration that a particular change works for you, make it. If you’ve looked at the change in place (viewed with no markup visible) and it’s still not right, reject it. It’s your book, and the buck stops with you.
Having made or rejected your editor’s suggested changes on the previous day, it’s time to read the manuscript. If you’ve avoided the temptation to read it thus far, your time away from it will have given you fresh eyes for your story and your writing. Sit down and relax with it.
Imagine, if you can, that you’re seeing it for the first time as a reader would. Be prepared to briefly highlight or comment places you want to mark for change as you go. Your editor may not have caught every possible problem, and by this time you’ll have learned a lot about the writing habits that were getting in the way of telling your story, so you’ll see more things that can be improved upon. Mark the places you want to come back to, and keep reading.
You might end up writing new material—even whole new scenes. Flag these for the editor’s second pass, if you’re getting one. At Editing McKennas, we sometimes look over clients’ manuscripts one more time after rewrites, and this helps us to know when we’re encountering new or extensively re-written material.
If you’re getting a second editorial pass, send it back to your editor. Congratulate yourself on a job well done. The second editing pass will be quicker and easier.
By taking your time, pacing yourself, asking questions, and keeping your mind fresh each step along the way, you’ll have done your very best job on manuscript corrections. You’re on your way to a book you’ll be proud to publish.