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Your Words or Your Editor’s?

This month’s fiction therapy is a reply to a question from a member of the WU community, Nanette J. Purcigliotti.

I had edited some of Nanette’s work, and she had some questions afterwards, with concerns that I think many writers have about working with an editor. Here’s what she wrote:

“I thank you again for your revised suggestions. But they are your words, not mine. That doesn’t make me comfortable. How do I get around that?”

A fair question, I think, and I completely understand Nanette’s concern. Working with an editor means that some of that person’s suggestions, and even words, could make their way into your work, a work that is deeply personal to you. And this can be done to the point that it doesn’t feel like your words. I can get that, and I can understand that an author would be uncomfortable with that.

Here are a couple of sentences from Nanette’s text as an example of where she had this feeling. Please realize that these sentences are taken out of the context of the whole story, so they’re difficult to judge on their own:

Amanda’s mother appeared[1] in the bedroom’s oak-wood doorframe. She tapped the right heel of her Jimmy Choo shoes, said to her fourteen-year-old daughter[2], “This is no time to daydream. You’re beginning a new term in a new school.”

And here are two of the revision suggestions I made.

[1] The word “appeared” is a little passive. This seems to be a no-nonsense character. I think she’d wake Amanda from her dream with a hard rap on the doorframe, making Amanda turn to see her mother.

[2] The phrase “said to her fourteen-year-old daughter” here looks like exposition, like this is information the author wants to tell the readers. It would be better to let this detail come out in the story more naturally. And the next sentence has the perfect opportunity as you could revise that to: “You’re starting eighth grade at a new school.” Or: “You’re fourteen now. You won’t be able to dream your way through your new school.”

Here is Nanette’s latest draft of these sentences after my suggestions:

There was a loud knock on the door. Amanda spun around. Her mother’s blunt haircut highlighted the clean lines of her Donna Karen power suit. Her Gucci portfolio was tucked under her arm. Wearing her Jimmy Choo shoes, she tapped the sole of her right shoe. “Daydreaming again?”

And here is what Nanette says about those changes:

 The first version of my book was in first person. When I changed to close third person, I wrote Mother “appeared in the doorway.” But I was never satisfied with “appeared.” When Jim pointed out that it sounded passive, I cut it. I changed the suggested “rap” on the door to “loud knock.” In an earlier version, I had the mother say, “Daydreaming again?” It felt right. I wanted the mother’s words to whiplash, so I put it back into current version.

As I read over Nanette’s revisions based on my suggestions – and it’s important to remember that these were only suggestions – it’s clear she’s changed the text to make it her own. She knows Amanda’s mother so much better than me, which means that she knows her voice, that her words whiplash, and she changed that to suit.

Author’s choice

In the end, Nanette didn’t change the text in the way I suggested. She made her own revisions. Yes, those revisions might have been based on my suggestions, but the point of those suggestions is more to let the author see where a reader might have problems and to think about another way of saying the same thing.

It’s the author who makes the final choice of which words go into the sentence in which order. Even if those words are the same as those I suggested, it’s still the author’s choice to include them, not mine. And I feel that makes it the author’s work.

In this case, I had made these suggestion as part of a free sample edit that I provide to all authors. The point of the sample is to give authors a chance to see what works for you and what doesn’t. If you think that these suggestions are intruding too much – in the cases where I actually suggest how the sentence should be rewritten – then we can work with that. That’s great feedback. Some people like rewrite suggestions, others don’t. And so, if the author prefers, I could point out what I think doesn’t work in the sentence and how to revise it without offering a rewrite of the words.

In the above example, rather than suggest how to rewrite the sentence, I could say instead:

[2] This is the perfect opportunity to have the mother mention Amanda’s age or what grade she’d be going into, which would help this information to sound like it’s come more organically from the story. It would then be the character saying it, not the author/narrator.

This is your book, and the author and editor have to work together to make this the best book that you can make it.

Taking the credit

The author could then decide to credit the editor when the book is finally published. I never ask for a credit in a book I’ve worked on. It’s great when I get them, and pretty much every author does give me credit, but I also understand when they don’t, and they maybe don’t for a multitude of reasons. That’s their personal choice too because it is their book. I also don’t think anybody takes a credit to an editor as that meaning it’s partly that person’s work. I’ve certainly never thought about it that way, either of my own work or when I read a credit in another novel. I always love to read the finished book that I’ve worked on because it’s such a huge moment for that author, but I’ve never read over the book again and thought, “Oh, yes, that line was mine.” And that’s because it never is mine. The author always makes it their own.

The bottom line is that I work for the author, and that has to be in a way that suits the author. I can understand that it can feel intrusive at times, and so such sample edits give an opportunity for us to work out the best way to give my feedback, in a way that works for the author. And all good editors will do that. So, if you feel your editor is getting in the way, tell them so, and make them work for you. After all, you, the customer, is always right.

Have you ever felt like some words in your book didn’t come from you? If so, how did you feel about it? How do you reconcile the idea of accepting input from an editor, beta readers or early reviewers into your work? Do you feel you still own it?

 Nanette J. Purcigliotti is currently writing her first novel. She is also working on a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, with computer art illustrations, and she has book of her computer art available in the Apple Books store, The Myth of Cyber City [1].

About Jim Dempsey [2]

Jim Dempsey is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing [3]. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading [4] and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation [5]. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [6] website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist [7].