Red pens and true selves

Humbled and irritated by the experience of receiving my publisher’s feedback on my novel, I dove (swooped? wallowed? waded? tiptoed?) into the revision process.

No matter how many years I have spent being edited—and knowing that editing is good for me and my work—I still struggle with the fundamental question: when does editing legitimately improve the text and when does it muck with my vision to a degree that I can’t accept?

Editing myself

I’m in the middle of that conflict now as I strive to figure out how to address my publisher’s concerns. I agree that I don’t want my book to be dense, difficult to get into, and confusing unless one has read it three times. On the other hand, I don’t want it to be vapid, facile, and completely spelled out. Somewhere between those two extremes lies the sweet spot that marries my vision for the book with a compelling narrative that grips—and holds—the attention of a large percentage of readers.

Wow, this should be a piece of cake.

ManuscriptI’m guessing that most of my blog readers aren’t in the middle of revising their fifth novels. So what does this process have to do with the average citizen?

We all have something we hold dear: a value, a principle, a way of being. We all have had those dear things challenged—by a boss, a child, a spouse, a friend. What’s tricky is when the immovable object of our conviction meets the unstoppable force of someone else’s faith. At worst, the result is a conflagration born of clashing values: terror at the barrel of a gun, a bomb. When we can access our better selves, what results is the discourse of civil society—and even a way to bring that society to a better place.

I’m opting for the latter approach with my publisher. Because I know she comes from a place of compassion and support, I can listen to her words and absorb them. The judgment I make about what to change and what to preserve in my writing will not be made blindly, but informed by the input of someone who shares my ultimate goal.

Editing others

Editing will be very much on my mind as I prepare to give a presentation with Lisa Meltzer Penn at next month’s meeting of our local California Writer’s Club branch. On February 21, we’ll present Red Pen Secrets: Editing Tips and Tricks. Our aim will be to help writers understand the editor’s perspective. What do we look for when we’re editing? What makes a compelling story? What are some things every writer can do before submitting a piece? Most of all, we want to convey that editors have writers’ best interests—and best writing—at heart.

Editing thine own self?

Initially I thought of titling this post “To thine own self be true.” Then I read these thoughts at I had interpreted the statement as meaning to thine own self be true, as opposed to being true to someone else’s self. Clearly, I had no idea the myriad interpretations that could spawn from six little words of Shakespeare.

Writers or readers, have you ever questioned what seemed to be the bedrock of your belief about yourself? Have you ever had to defend that belief?

12 thoughts on “Red pens and true selves

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  1. I think if you really know what your story is about, the real bottom line essence of it. then you know whether suggested edits are going to mess with that, or just clear the path a bit to make the essence come through more strongly. I prefer to edit other people’s work than my own 🙂


  2. I know what you mean. The tricky thing with editing is to make it better while retaining the author’s voice. Sometimes that last part is forgotten along the way. I’ve worked as a reporter and an editor so I can see it from both sides but that still doesn’t help much. It’s all a matter of style and opinion and sometimes we have to let the changes go even if they’re painful. Hopefully you’re able to reject any changes that might mess up the voice but then that could be a slow process. Good luck and don’t go too crazy! 🙂


  3. You put the quintessential writers’ dilemma well. What makes a story yours?

    That spins a new set of questions. Is the editor right? If it isn’t what people want to read, at least in current form, do you publish anyway because you know it is something true, and should be out in the world? Is the editor wrong? Is the editor trying to make the story his/hers?

    Sounds like you have a good perspective on your work and on the challenges the editor posed. Every step of the process is a leap of faith, isn’t it?

    By the way, I got side-tracked by your link to Big Think — cool site. The comments were as good as the essay. Thanks.


  4. Oh, yes. I was recently faced with making a decision regarding POV based on editorial comments from a critique group member. It would have required a major rewrite to have done what was being suggested, and this is in a finished work that I’m gearing up to self-publish. I decided I had to basically stick to my guns, although there was some validity to the criticism, because enough test readers have liked my story well enough as it is to get past the issue. I did make a significant tweak to my opening line, however, and I may make more as I go through final edits because my awareness has been raised. Ultimately, it’s your call as the author and you have to do the best you can.


    1. It sounds as if you have a good sense of what is vital to your writing. I think it’s even harder for those of us who self publish (and I have!) because then you essentially are writer, editor, AND publisher. There is no one else to blame!


  5. It must be interesting to read through outside editorial comments for your book when you yourself are an editor. Perhaps it gives you a keener eye, but maybe it also makes one more reluctant to change their own work. Or maybe it’s just the opposite–you can more quickly see what’s needed. Regardless, it’s always daunting to see the red pen, but the recommended changes usually make our story better. At least that’s the goal…

    Good luck with the workshop!


    1. The most interesting thing is that I find it nearly impossible to edit my own work from a big-picture perspective. I can wordsmith, massage sentences, get rid of excessive words–but when it comes to finding the essence of the story or the character, I find I need an outside eye. It makes me so appreciative of editors!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. In direct response to the question; every day. I’m as yet unpublished, other than on Kindle Road, but I’m currently wrestling with my sixth book and acutely aware I need an editor – or maybe a brain surgeon…

    I adhere to my vision of what I believe the reader wants. If I am ever lucky enough to pick up a publisher, I hope it will be because they see something in my writing, and they will disabuse me: they will show me what my reader really wants. Thus far, then, I should be prepared to go. But it stops at rape.


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