Making the Most of Your Editor’s Feedback

Nassau Hedron,—Updated 23 January 2015

Working with an Editor

What Do You Get From Your Editor?

The exact format and content of your editor’s work will vary depending on the type of editing you’ve requested and your editor’s personal working style. That said, it will probably fit a general profile.

Some editors deal with clients in person or over the telephone, but these days it’s more common to communicate by email. Your editor may live far away and may not even be in the same time zone as you, which makes email a convenient way to exchange information.

So you’ll most likely get an email with your editor’s notes, which will contain two main types of entry, suggested edits and queries.

Suggested edits may be very specific. For instance, your editor may reword a specific sentence on page 65 in a way that they believe makes it clearer, or gives it more impact, or in some other way improves it. Or a suggestion may be more general. For example, the editor might point out that you mention what a character sees and hears, but never what they smell or feel or taste, leaving it up to you as to which points in the story would be appropriate spots to add in the other senses. Whether or not you act on a suggested edit is entirely up to you. Your editor is offering you tools to choose from—whether, and how, you use them is up to you.

Queries are questions that the editor needs answered in order to do their work. For instance, if your fantasy book includes an animal called a “camole,” and if you never describe it, your editor might query whether this is a misspelling of “camel” or a fictional creature. If it’s a misspelling, the editor will correct it. If it’s a fictional animal, they’ll leave the word as it is. Without sending you a query, they don’t know which to do.

What Do I Do When My Editors Notes Arrive?

Here’s a common scenario.

You get your editor’s notes. There’s a daunting list of suggestions and queries, with headings and subheadings.

You decide to dive into it and read the first point. You don’t entirely agree your editor’s suggestion, so you open up your manuscript and read the relevant section. Then you re-read their point and start thinking about what it might be like if you tried it their way. You also think about different ways of making the type of change they’ve suggested, because there’s usually more than one way to get from A to B.

This takes a while. You make lunch, thinking more about that first point on the long list. You eat, then sit down again. Suddenly you feel tired. You’ve only looked at the first thing in the document and you already feel exhausted. How the heck are you ever going to get through the rest of this shopping list of possible changes? You get discouraged and decide to do something else for a while to recharge, but the feeling of being bogged down doesn’t go away.

Obviously, this isn’t the experience you’re looking for. Try this instead.

Sit down, get comfortable, and read through the entire list from beginning to end. Don’t look at your manuscript. Don’t think through the various ideas to see how they might work. And if you can help it, do this once without taking notes (if you get a really great idea that you think you might lose track of then jot it down—but make a brief note without slowing down).

Reading it all at once will give you an overview of the terrain you’re going to be navigating.

Now, pick the easiest, quickest things to deal with first. Let’s say you agree with your editor about three minor changes. Go make them and cross them off the list. Next? If you more or less agree with a couple more, try them out and see how they work. If one definitely works, use it. If you have another one that’s iffy, don’t decide—set it aside and keep moving forward. You can always come back to it later. Try another.

Following this method will let you winnow the list, which will give you momentum and help you feel optimistic about the more demanding parts of the list. By the time you hit those, you’ll be all warmed up.

Be Prepared

If you’re not used to the editing process, you may be surprised by how much of an emotional reaction you have to first seeing your editor’s comments.

Copy editing will sting the least, but suggestions for substantive changes may trigger a strong reaction, ranging from anger (“... but, but... I worked for six freakin’ days to get that just perfect, and now you want to change it?...”) to wounded self-doubt (“... if she’s making that many changes, I must suck as a writer...”).

Your reaction will be minimized if you’re ready for it, and easier still if you remember: it’ll pass. You will slowly return to your senses and remember that even things you worked on at length may still have room for improvement. You’ll realize that the fact that your editor suggested quite a few changes doesn’t mean you suck—even established writers go through this—but it does mean you’ve got quite a few opportunities to improve your book before you release it on an unsuspecting world, and that’s a good thing.

Don’t Trip Over Your Ego, Part 1: Accepting Input

Unlike filmmaking or playing music in a band, writing is a largely a solitary art. As a result, writers (with the possible exception of screenwriters, who are in a category of their own) are often less used to collaboration than other people in creative activities. Sometimes this means getting too used to going it alone, which can make it hard to accept input from an editor.

But the simple fact is that someone approaching your book from a new vantage point will see things you won’t. You are still in control, but their perspective gives you new tools to work with as you improve your book. What they do empowers you, so give their ideas a chance. Think about them. Try experimenting with them to see if they work or not. In the end, you will be the one who decides what, if anything, gets changed, so let your guard down and make their perspective work for you as you polish your book.

Protect Your Reputation

It’s important to remember that your editor is also a safeguard against a sometimes hostile world.

For indie authors, publicity through word of mouth is critical, and these days word of mouth travels far and fast. It’s all over online booksellers like Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble in the customer reviews. It proliferates on book sites like Goodreads. And if your book falls into a particular genre, word of mouth can also get around to the community that loves that particular genre—your potential readers—through online forums and the comment sections of popular web pages.

The internet can work for you, but it can also bite back. If someone posts a negative comment or reader review there’s often no way to respond, so if they misunderstood something about your book you can’t reply and tell them so.

Even on sites where you can reply, it’s not always a good idea. If you publish your science fiction opus, and someone points out flaws in it (real or imagined) in a science fiction forum, you might be able to join the forum and post a response, but you risk looking like a touchy author who simply can’t accept criticism of their work, and rather than defusing the comments you may actually draw more attention to them.

If a really damning review appears, you might wish you could have it taken down, but this usually isn’t an option. For instance, on Amazon a review won’t be removed unless the person has violated Amazon’s rules. The rules prohibit things like profanity, but they do not require a reviewer to say exclusively nice things about your book or to give it five stars.

The bottom line is that preventing negative comments is a much more effective strategy than responding to them. There’s no way to avoid them completely, but one way to minimize them is to take your editor’s suggestions to heart. In the end you will likely accept some of them and reject others—as the author, that’s your job. But if your editor has spotted a genuine problem in your book, or even just an area that can be improved, it’s a golden opportunity to make your book stronger before you release it out into the wild, at which point it’s too late to fix them.

Be Confident

Sometimes what gets in the way of accepting an editor’s suggestion isn’t an author’s reluctance to accept advice, it’s their worry that they won’t be able to act on it effectively. And sometimes writers can’t admit this, even to themselves.

If you think this concern might be holding you back, there’s only one thing to do. Whatever editorial suggestion you’re finding hard to accept, sit down and give it a try. If you think you can’t produce the change your editor’s suggested, this is really the only way to find out.

In the process of trying the change a few things can happen, all of them useful:

Don’t Trip Over Your Ego, Part 2: If In Doubt, Ask

Ideally, an editor (of all people) should be able to communicate their thoughts clearly. But realistically they may sometimes fall short like anyone else. Or it may be that their explanation of something simply isn’t suited to your way of understanding things—an explanation that works perfectly for Author A may not work well for Author B.

No one likes to risk looking foolish by admitting that they don’t understand something, but this is not time to let your ego stand in your way. Your goal is to get to the best possible version of your book, and you’re paying your editor to help you get there, so make sure you get everything you can out of their advice.

If there’s something you aren’t perfectly clear on, ask your editor to explain it. Believe me, they’ve been through this before and they’re used to it. Be as specific as you can about what’s not making sense to you—this will make it easier for your editor to clarify their point.

Know What You Know

Any editor worth his or her salt knows a fair bit about writing. What they may not know about is the particular subject matter of your book.

Whether you’ve written a novel set amongst hippies in San Francisco in the 1960s, or a non-fiction book about Turkish pop music, or a biography about a scientific genius, your editor may well be unfamiliar with many factual elements in the book. You’ve spent months or years immersing yourself in the hippie scene of forty years ago, or the culture of 21st century dance clubs in Istanbul, or the abstract world of higher mathematics, but your editor hasn’t.

In one way, this is good, because many (possibly most) of your readers haven’t either. It means that your editor can read your book with more or less the same knowledge base as anyone else. If you haven’t explained something about the subject matter clearly enough for a non-specialist reader, they’ll be able to tell you. Even better, they can tell you in the most useful way possible, because while they may know little about the topics in your particular book, they know a lot about good writing in general and about how to communicate specialist knowledge to general readers, whether in a non-fiction book or as part of a fictional story.

In another way, this does put some limits on what your editor can do. When their advice is about writing in general, it’s likely to be based on solid insights, and whether you end up agreeing with a particular thing they’ve said or not, their opinion should carry weight. At other times, when their advice deals with the actual substance of the narrative—the hippies and the Turkish pop stars and the math—you probably know far more than they do, so while you should still carefully consider their advice, understand that it has limits and in these areas you may have to follow your own instincts.

The Style Sheet

A competent, professional editor—meaning someone with training, professional experience, or both—will create a style sheet as they edit your work. A style sheet is a list of terms that appear in a particular work, along with notes on how those terms are used, how they’re formatted, what they mean, and so on. It’s a way the editor has of keeping track of anything unusual they come across in your manuscript in case it comes up again.

A style sheet can also be an invaluable tool for the author in certain circumstances. For instance, if you’re writing a series then the style sheet from book one can be a handy reference for you when you’re writing later installments. And if you change editors after the first book—for instance, if your original editor isn’t available—then it will be a huge help to the new editor if you can pass along the style sheet created for the first book.

Normally, an editor creates the style sheet just for their own use. If you think it might also be useful to you, though, don’t hesitate to ask for a copy.

The style sheet won’t be available until the editing is done, but best time to ask for it is in advance. A style sheet that’s exclusively for the editor’s use may include shorthand terms that only they understand, or be organized in a way that’s great for a professional editor but not as helpful as it could be for an author. Asking in advance may allow your editor to make the style sheet more author-friendly (although it may still be more functional than pretty).

Recognize Good Work

Finally, if your editor helps you make your book stronger, say so. Just like indie authors, editors rely on word of mouth to be successful.

It’s not only good manners to acknowledge your editor’s work, it’s good business. You may use the same editor again for your next book. No competent editor will ever do a substandard job on book two just because you didn’t acknowledge their hard work on book one, but if you show that you appreciate their effort it makes it a lot easier for them to go above and beyond the call of duty when working on your writing next time.

Consider doing any or all of the following:


This article should help you get the most out of the experience of working with an editor. If you haven’t read the first two parts of Working With An Editor, find them here:

Do you have a question about editing?
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