The Editor is Never Wrong, Mostly:

Well, hardly ever

In the summer I covered the subject of revising on spec, and more or less concluded that there are times you shouldn’t revise, even if an editor suggests it. So when should you revise your manuscript?

I’m a member of two writing groups and I find their advice invaluable—but there are also times that I blow them off. How do you judge whether someone’s suggestions are right for your story, or dead wrong?

For me, revision suggestions usually fall into one of three categories. With category A, I hear the suggestion, slap my forehead and exclaim, “Why didn’t I think of that!” They’re absolutely right and I know it instantly. Then there’s category B, suggestions that are interesting, but I’m not sure if I want to take my story in that direction. And finally category C, where they’ve totally missed the point, and they’re absolutely wrong. When I encounter category C suggestions, I smile at my critiquer and say, “Hm. That’s interesting. I’ll think about that.” (Anyone who takes the time to read your work and critique it is doing you a favor—they deserve your sincere thanks, no matter how far off base their advice might be.)

Suggestions in category A, of course I take. I consider category B suggestions, but I usually don’t use them. Category C I ignore with no hard feelings. Sometimes people just plain miss the point, and that’s OK. If everyone liked the same books, the literary world would be sadly diminished. So I figure it’s perfectly OK for me to blow off category C…unless it’s a big category. If everyone in two writers’ groups is trying to tell me that my main character is too superficial, or that my beginning is too slow, then I start making changes whether I see the problem or not. In fact, I’ve codified my personal revision policy into:

Bell’s rule of three out of three. If one person tells me something is wrong, and I disagree, I ignore it. If two people, working independently, find the same flaw in my story, then I think very hard about what they say, but if I disagree, I can still ignore it. But if three independent readers all pinpoint the same problem, I fix it.

This is why getting multiple critiques is so important—the consensus lets you get a feel for what’s actually wrong, and what’s just one person’s bad taste, bad mood, or bad hair day. If you only have one or two critiquers, you tend to pay too much attention to their opinions. But if just one critiquer hates your protagonist, or title, or plot structure, and nineteen others are fine with it, you know who to ignore.

OK, that works for writers’ groups, and family or friends. But what about the editorial revision letter that arrives once you’ve sold the book? When someone who’s actually paid you, and who’s going to publish your book, sends you seven pages of single-spaced requests?

The editor really is hardly ever wrong. The editor is a skilled, professional reader—and even more, a skilled professional editor. There’s a book that everyone who hopes to work with an editor should read. It’s a collection of essays published by Grove Press, Editors on Editing. Because it’s a collection of essays, the specific subjects hop around, but as you read those essays, one after the other, you start to understand how editors see their own jobs. Editors regard editing as an art that is every bit as creative, and as vital, as the writer’s art. And eventually you come to realize that they’re right.

I’ve been very fortunate in my editors—I’ve worked with three so far—and they’ve made my books much stronger than they would have been without editorial assistance. They see the things I’ve missed, because I’m too close to the work. They see possibilities that I haven’t explored. They notice the problems that even my writers’ groups missed. And one way or the other, I make about 98% of the changes they ask for. Sometimes I find a different way of solving a problem than the one they’ve suggested, but they’re almost always right that a problem exists. Almost always. Which leads me to:

Bell’s three editorial revision rules: If the editor is right, change it. If it’s not really important, even if you think the editor is wrong, change it. But if it’s vital to the story, and you think the editor is wrong, that’s when you stick to your guns.

This isn’t easy—I’m still grateful that anyone is willing to publish my books at all. But in the course of five editorial revisions, I’ve learned that caving in on something that’s important to the story twitches in my subconscious until I change it back. That’s another way to tell if it’s something you need to go to the mat for. If you change it, and four days later you don’t remember whether you did it or not, you can go with the editor. But when you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, thinking, “But that’s not what I wanted to say,” that’s when you draft a very polite letter to your editor explaining that you’ve done 98% of what she asked, and the story is much better for it, but… You explain your reasons politely, and without acrimony, and if you’re as lucky with your editors as I’ve been with mine, you get back a note saying “Great job on the 98%, and as for the rest, well, it’s your story.”

Part of being a really great editor is knowing when to yield to the author. Just as part of being a good author, is knowing when to yield to the editor, or to other critiquers. Because the object of all this work, for editor and author alike, is to make the story as strong as it can be. And that’s worth pushing your ego out of the way, and it’s worth standing up to your editor when you need to. It’s the story that counts. I’m not sure that learning this makes revision less painful (no, I’m not one of those peculiar writers who just adores revision) but it does become more bearable, because it’s one more step along the road to holding a book in your hands, that has your words inside it—and that makes everything worthwhile.

Fall 2002