My Editor Wants Me to Change What??

Mabry headshotGuest blogger: Richard Mabry, M.D. (@RichardMabry)

I had delivered my latest manuscript to my publisher, and a few weeks later received my revision notes from the editor. I was, to put it mildly, caught off guard.

The notes suggested some pretty big changes. As I read through them, I kept saying, “But that’s not what I had in mind.” I wondered why the editor wanted to rewrite my manuscript. Aren’t I the writer here? Isn’t my name on the book? I wasn’t happy.

But after sitting with it a few more days…

I noticed that my in-house editor, my substantive editor, and my beta reader (yes, my wife) had all made the same suggestion for the opening. Hmm.

I started rewriting, and amazingly enough, it was all coming together.  By the time I’d reached chapter 5, I’d thought of some ways to put the editor’s suggestions into practice — and was ready to repent in sackcloth and ashes.

Okay, I take back at least 70% of the things I said in that initial venting phone call to my agent. And I apologized to my wife for all the whining.

Moral: I can pout for a day or two, but I should try reworking a manuscript before I begin to fuss.

I’m just glad the only people to whom I complained were my wife and my agent, both of whom love me enough to forgive me. (At least I hope so.)

Have you ever had a hard time with feedback or editing? How did you handle it? If you haven’t been in this situation yet, how do you think you’ll do?

* * *

Stress Test Dr. Richard Mabry writes medical suspense and is the author of the Prescription for Trouble series  from Abingdon Press, as well as the upcoming Stress Test series from Thomas Nelson. Visit him at his blog or on Facebook.

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  2. I’ve about to finally release my debut novel, a YA Paranormal/TimeTravel/First Kiss romance, entitle “I Kissed a Ghost” in about two weeks.
    I know it came be a gut-wrenching experience to change, or even worse, to delete something you’ve given birth to.
    The feeling becomes worse when it is someone is doing it or telling you to do it.
    The most important thing you MUST REMEMBER is all of these changes are necessary if you truly want “this child” to become the success I’ve always hoped it would be.

  3. Jamie Chavez says:

    Krista, I think that was one of the nicest things I’ve ever heard! 🙂

  4. Mandi Lynn says:

    I used to never be able to take constructive criticism. Thankfully, now I ask my aunt (beta reader) to point out things she thinks is wrong and consider everything she has to say. I want my novel to be perfect (or close to it) before I send it out to agents again.

  5. Neil Larkins says:

    No, I haven’t been in your spot, Richard, but I think my initial reaction would have been similar. I’m very – too – defensive about my writing. What, I would have thought, does this guy know about my writing? If he’s so friggin’ good, why doesn’t he write his own book? Well, he – or she, as the case may be – may have written a book…or even THE book on editing. Best to settle down and give it thorough, thoughtful consideration – which you did and it came out OK. Great post, Richard. Thanks.

  6. Some of my best critique points have come from contests and the judges who gave me a low score but took the time to explain why. One judge told me my heroine did something that made her too stupid to live. And she was right. lol

  7. I actually look forward to getting my notes back from the editor. She’s very picky, which is why I work so well with her. I find having the right editor helps a writer elevate a novel to the best that it can be. Even a seemingly small suggestion can lead to big insights and breakthroughs.

  8. OK, Here’s what happened to me. I submitted an article to a peer-reviewed academic journal. My article came back with the 1st reviewers comments and I made the appropriate changes. Then, my article came back again with the 2nd reviewers comments. Once again, I adjusted my writing. When the third reviewer’s comments came, she made recommendations for changes that looked a whole lot like my original writing. Lol! I made the changes. The article was given a final edit in house and published.

  9. Great post, Richard. And quite timely, might I add.

    I received the second submission of developmental edits back from my editor and I’m almost finished with my second round. The first round was 237 “suggested” changes.

    After I allowed my ego to recover over a day or so, I began work on the changes. I can honestly say that the manuscript is so much better now having made those changes.

    There is wisdom in a multitude of many counselors. 😉

  10. Peter DeHaan says:

    I think it’s better to vent to someone you trust (as long as it doesn’t happen too often) because if you hold it inside, you run the risk of spewing angry words to the wrong person at the worst possible time.

  11. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    I love to do research and as a new writer, if I had to edit I’d go at it 100%. I also think the agent or editor would know more than I do about how to turn out a good product.

  12. Suzanne Vince says:

    I entered my latest WIP in a contest and the feedback confirmed my worst fear: The beginning of the book reads like a Young Adult novel.

    After reading an article in the RWA monthy magazine about not using Backstory unless you know what you’re doing (I’m a new writer), I began to fear that I would never find the solution.

    I’m working on rewrite #3, starting the story from a different point in time, but it will require me to use backstory to fill in the very necessary early years.

    Thankfully I’m working with a really great freelance editor, so I’m confident that we’ll find the best solution.

  13. I think, just the fact that I had a book contract, would over-ride my whining. If the book is already contracted, I doubt I’d whine, I’d just start revising the story. Of course there are exceptions to what I just said, but, exceptions are few and far between.

  14. Dan Miller says:

    I agree we need to be open and teachable. But having been through the editing process multiple times I have observed that it is pretty subjective. As the relationship with the publisher is strengthened I find that the “editing” decreases dramatically.

    I totally believe that a lot of the editing is simply activity to justify the title and position, having little bearing on grammar, syntax – or marketability.

  15. It is so helpful to read stories like yours, Richard. I’ve not been through that situation (except for comments from beta readers), and I’m sure it would sting. We all want to be perfect the first time. But a part of me is looking forward to the learning process of editorial notes. To make my book a better reading experience is the real goal.

  16. Reba says:

    When changes are suggested, for me it all depends on who is suggesting them. I totally trust my editor and after we have discussed them, I will make her suggested changes 9 out of 10 times. If it is anyone else suggesting I make some changes, then I tend to get(on the inside)a little defensive and it is usually a no.

  17. My novel underwent serious overhaul. I had to cut 40,000 words, change the title, change the name of the town, eliminate all references to Scandinavia (for whatever reason)…and the publisher wanted me to move the setting from South Dakota to Colorado. I got to keep South Dakota, but I didn’t fight any of the rest. I was a good little foot soldier. And I got published. Later, they told me that another potential author fought them at every turn. She did not end up with a book contract. I think my finished product is stronger for having undergone editing. It’s a painful process, sure, but I considered them “growing pains”. 🙂

  18. Dissertation – now that’s some training in writing!

  19. I truly believe this is the way it works. Ideally, the sooner we can work through the process the better. And oh, for the spouse and agent who love you enough to understand and forgive, because vent we must.

  20. Kristin says:

    This was SO timely for me. My first book is in the hands of a professional proofreader right now and when she suggests taking out things or rearranging paragraphs or whole chapters, I kinda freak out. . .quietly. . .or with tears in front of my husband. But like you, once I get it out of my system, I start to see what she means. Now if she asks me to change the title of the book. . .Look Out People! 😉 (It really is helpful to have the perspective of someone else. . .especially one who knows what they’re doing. Thanks for sharing, I’m feeling better:)

  21. As both an editor and a writer, I sometimes switch hats on the same day. It can feel like onset vertigo to go from one one call explaining a critique to another defending a piece. But this perspective has helped tremendously, both as a person and as a writer. I understand the intent of the editor and that, in itself has thickened my skin.

    That, and beginning my writing career under the scathing lash of an old newsie who took one look at the draft of what would become my first ever published work and said:

    “Hmm. I see what you are trying to say here, but let me show you a column on the same topic I wrote about a year ago so you can see what this could be if it were any good.”


    Fortunately, there was enough potential behind my travesty of prose that he spent the next year helping me learn how to be a professional. That was nearly 16 years ago and I remember it every time I read something by an aspiring writer that doesn’t quite hit the mark.

  22. HG Ferguson says:

    When a Christian writer agrees to “take editorial direction,” that writer is making a solemn pledge and promise before God to do precisely that. It’s not a promise made to the editor or the house. It is a promise made to God Himself, with honesty and integrity in the balance whether we like the corrections or not. Ultimately this business of agreeing to accept editorial direction, criticism, rewrites, suggestions, ad infinitum et nauseam, is a real-world litmus test of how seriously we take our calling as writers and upon ourselves as Christians dedicated to professionalism, diligence and above all, integrity. This is a promise made to God first and foremost, not to man. This of course does not imply that we have no say in what happens or that we must always agree with our editors. Sometimes there are good hills to die on and we must pick our battles. But beyond all this, we make a promise before God to accept and work with editorial direction. Let us honor that promise and in so doing, honor Him.

  23. Joe Pote says:

    What a great story and question, Richard!

    Yes, I do struggle with criticism. It’s not so much that I take it personal (that does happen sometimes, but not always) as that I have a really hard time wrapping my mind around a change of direction, once I’ve begun work on a project.

    Up until I actually begin the project, everything’s fair game, and I am very open to input.

    Once decisions have been made and I’ve begun working toward the goal (yes, I’m very goal oriented), I have a really hard time reversing decisions and going a different direction.

    BUT…I also realize that the primary purpose of any writing project is to connect and communicate with the reader…and only another reader can tell me whether or not I’ve achieved that goal.

    Thanks for the great post!

  24. LOL! Love that line “I take back at least 70 percent of the things I said.” I have sooooo been there. How do I handle it? Much like you said. Not always good at first. I mean, how dare they slay my baby? But then I discover, in way too many cases, my crit partners know their stuff. I NEVER delete my crit files in case I need to go back and look at them again for the things I ignored that I now need to heed. However, in most cases, their advice haunts me like a spectre until I finally give in … and make the manuscript better.

  25. Jeanne says:

    Loved this, Richard. Don’t we all have to come to terms with constructive feedback/major edits of our stories? 🙂 I haven’t queried mine yet, but I’ve entered a few contests. At this stage of the writing game, judges’ comments are suggestions that can improve my writing. I can see that, and be grateful for the time they’ve taken to help me improve my ms.

    I can imagine it’s more difficult when you turn in a completed book knowing you’ve poured all you had into it and then having it come back with major “suggestions” for improvement. A humble attitude is probably even more important in that situation.

    I think I’d probably respond similarly to the way you did–getting the frustration out and then getting to work. I’ll take a note from you, and try to keep them (mostly) to myself–maybe just venting to hubby and my writing mentor. 🙂

  26. When I first got my manuscript back from my editor and saw all the suggestions (of course after an opening statement of, “I really like this book,” I was physically sick. (I’ll spare you the details.) It was registering the amount of work looming before me that caught me off guard. But the suggestions really made a difference in the quality of the story. And I am grateful to have a beta-reader who is not only my best friend, but such a good friend that she’s not afraid to knock my socks off. (She always says, “Just nitpicking again!”)

  27. Roxanne Sherwood Gray says:

    Feedback from contests has taught me take objective criticism from others–and made my skin a bit thicker. I may not always like it, and it make take of few days to process. (And definitely includes the indulgence of a decadent dessert. Chocolate, anyone?) But I take their comments seriously and try to change my manuscript if possible because the judges represent editors, agents and potential readers. I want to win them all over. 🙂

  28. The first time I received “constructive” feedback I crumpled into a heaping bag of sobs. But…once the last guest left my one-woman pity party I saw how spot-on the suggestions were and started making serious revisions. The hardest part, at least for me, was cutting superfluous characters. Slicing and dicing adjectives, scenes, even hard-crafted dialogue was tough, but losing entire characters felt like the age old “it’s not you, it’s me” break up line. In the end, the MS flowed better sans Characters X, Y, and Z, but boy, it hurt to let them go.

  29. Rachelle, thanks for giving me an opportunity to share my experience here. Your readers may be interested to know that I suggested the title, You Want Cheese With That Whine?

    In the interest of fair and balanced reporting (and where have we heard that before?), my editor, my substantive editor, and my beta-reader all were extremely complimentary of the work, in addition to suggesting that it could be even better if I changed the opening and deepened the main character’s motivation. Of course, that meant more work for me, and I suspect that was part of my frustration. After all, when we finish a manuscript, that should be it. Right? Unfortunately…not even close.

  30. My former agent (and now friend) has always given me amazing advice. She has a terrific eye. So when she offers a suggestion, I take it very seriously, even if I don’t agree with it at first. In the end, her input has made BABY GRAND a stronger book.

  31. Firm but kind feedback is really important if one wants to be seen as a professional. Accepting that feedback is just as important.
    My crit peeps are a varied group. My initial experience with feedback came from a fellow writer who knew alot more than I did and did his best to bring me up to speed. The fact that he loved Monty Python was an added bonus!
    My husband went thermo-nuclear when he realized I was sharing my MS, but after a month or two, he actually believed that no one was stealing my work. Like, in those early stages, who would??
    I can only say good things about any people who’ve read my work and given me feedback. Each of them made valid points that I took to heart.
    Well, most of them. There were one or two suggestions that made me laugh. But I won’t name names. That would make the man in the castle all weepy.


  32. I’ve often wondered how a ‘real, live editor’ would treat my manuscript. At first I used to fear the dissection, but after learning the lesson IT HELPS MAKE IT STRONGER, I shut up and stopped freaking out. There’s a reason we trust these people. They see what we can’t.

    The proofie I’m using at the moment can be brutal, but oh she is SO right. Her notes on the page are like gold to me, and I love it even more when there’s pages with no notes on them at all. Makes me feel like I did something right. The further I go (and I’ve been going a while), the more I learn, and who knows? Maybe the next MS will come back with very few ‘golden’ red bits.

    A friend of mine has been published more than 30 times by the likes of Bethany, Multnomah and Waterbrook. She was so pleased when one of her last replies came back with “no revisions needed”. Imagine that 🙂

  33. Iola says:

    You might also want to spare a thought for the editor, who sent that red manuscript and long letter back while thinking and praying “please, let him/her take this in the right spirit and not want to kill anyone”.

    • Elissa says:

      Yes! Criticism is much easier to take when we remember it’s coming from someone who wants to help.

  34. J.M. Bray says:

    Though I am in the pre-representation stage of my editing, I have been open to my critique partners and beta readers. Hopefully that will continue to be the case. Maybe 26 years in professional ministry has been good training ground for working well with criticism.

    • I’ve been in ministry a long time too. The fresh criticism in the literary world took me by surprise. It took a while to get acclimated. I feel less like a pastor taking shots from laypeople and more like a seminarian who can’t land a job. Thank the Lord I’m not dependent on this for my livelihood.

      • To say one needs a thick skin is an understatement!

        A lot of criticism (from agents) seems to come from the desire 9and need) to find the Next Big Thing. I’d postulate that books are not judged solely on their quality or marketability within a genre, but also on their “groundbreaking” quality.

  35. I guess I was lucky in that I wrote a 500-page doctoral dissertation before I started writing novels.

    In that monster, my advisors demanded a seemingly endless – and arbitrary – string of revisions. I had to adapt, or lose my sanity.

    Now…well, I don’t like extensive revisions, but I recognize that I will always be too close to the work to see it in the best form it can take.

    • That really is the point. We’re alway too close to see the mistakes. I love having extra eyes, even if they see things differently…or better–especially if they see things differently.

    • My husband had someone wail on him at his thesis defense over “verses” and “versus”. He went on and ON. John finally barked “Look buddy, it’s just a typo!”. The atmosphere in the room, over this twit, was along the lines of “shut up and get a life”.

  36. Negative feedback is always hard to swallow, but I’ve found when it’s peppered with a few positive notes, I’m able to accept it a little easier. Sometimes it’s more helpful when I know what’s working, instead of what’s not working, but both are important as I try to make my story the best it can be. I try hard to accept criticism with a humble spirit, but I’ve found there are certain people I can take criticism from over others. I had three writer friends read my first manuscript and I was able to take their feedback without batting an eye, but when my mom read it – it was a different experience! 🙂

    • When mom read it: Yep, mom and spouse are suppose to say “Oh my word, you wrote a book? Give it here. I have to read it now!” Then they’re supposed to say (with tears in their eyes, right?) “That was awesome, honey!” We take what they say and downgrade it a bit because, after all, they’re suppose to sprinkle sunshine.
      We need to give these people a memo so they get with the program. 😀

    • My mom took my MS and served it over an open fire. It was not fun. NOW I see how correct her assessment were…but….sniff.

    • Jeanne says:

      “I try hard to accept criticism with a humble spirit, but I’ve found there are certain people I can take criticism from over others.” I have definitely been in this place before. Learning to have a humble spirit in all situations will probably be a life long growing process in me. 😉

    • After the initial sting, I was able to see that my mom actually gave me the best critique I’d received, I think because she gets me more than most people and she knew that I had even more to offer. But, you’re right, Jim, I wasn’t expecting: “So, your whole first chapter was a bit black and white and the characters were like ghosts.” I was expecting: “Oh, my goodness! I can’t wait for the rest of the world to read this!” That’s actually what she’s saying now, after I added color and flesh to my characters. 🙂

    • What? You ALL had courage to let your MOM read it? What were you thinkin’?

  37. Honestly, I think that initial fussing is helpful.

    It’s kinda like venting. Once you get rid of the fuss by venting it to wonderful, safe people like your spouse or super-cool agent, then you can get to the work of seeing how wrong you were.


    That’s what I did anyway! And let me tell you, that first one (and only one to date) was brutal.

    The word “overhaul” was used.

    But in the end, they were right, and my debut novel was tremendously better for all the scalpel incisions and blood transfusions and transplants it received. (puns were totally intended for your benefit!)

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