Red ink everywhere. If you’ve ever had your writing edited professionally, you’ve experienced the dread of opening the revised document for the first time. All the markup can be discouraging and overwhelming.
Writers are fiercely protective of their paper babies. A critique can feel like a personal attack, and the slightest tweak might seem to ruin your story. If you’re writing for fun and keeping your creations private, you can get away with that attitude. But if you’re seeking publication or sharing your work with others, you need to handle criticism calmly and use discernment when choosing whether to accept an edit or fight for the original.
So what can you do to reduce editing trauma, and how should you address changes you’re unhappy with? Red ink shouldn’t signify the spilled lifeblood of your manuscript. Instead, it can represent a phoenix, rising out of the ashes into splendid new life. All you need is a shift in mindset.
1. Brace Yourself
When an editor returns my piece, I read through all of her comments and corrections in one sitting, then I close the document for the day. This distance allows me to process my emotions. I mull over the revisions, and even start planning how to apply them, but without the document in front of me, I can’t analyze and fret over every red blotch.
Several major changes to a story or article can be a huge emotional trigger. You might worry that the editor doesn’t like it, so neither will anyone else. You could be angry and convinced that she missed the point entirely. Whatever your reaction, it’s normal and okay. The key is to move past it. Don’t stew in your misery.
That’s why I give myself twenty-four hours to vent and fume all I want. But I need to recover before I open that document again, or I’ll never be able to produce the best story I can, which is the purpose of editing. Through the pain, stories are refined. So, embrace your frustration, battle through it until you have a level head, and then set it aside. You have work to do.
2. Don’t Fear Change
I think one of the reasons that writers resist editing is because they’re afraid of change. What if the first version was better? What if you revise your story only to hate the results? Don’t let doubts paralyze you. As a precaution, save a copy of the original, or cut and paste segments into a separate document so you can retrieve them if necessary. But make the changes.
Editors aren’t out to wreck your life. Their feedback is not a personal insult to you or your writing. They’re trying to help you grow as a writer and polish your manuscript so it shines.
Some edits you’ll love, and others you won’t. But be sure to weigh every suggestion before discarding it. Is it valid at all? Is it stemming from something the editor misunderstood? If so, maybe you need to clarify your intent. Editors won’t toss random ideas at you. If they flag an area, it’s for a reason. Ferret it out and see how you can improve your story because of it.
Some writers are terrified that editing will erase their style. But that’s unrealistic. Go to the library or bookstore and grab a handful of books. Read the first page. Each one will be distinct. All those books were extensively edited, yet you can readily identify the differences in the voices of Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Alexandra Bracken.
Here at Story Embers, once my articles have cycled through two rounds of developmental critiques and revisions, our managing editor, Brianna, performs the line edit. She does the usual grammar corrections, but also edits for flow. The first time she sent back an article, I was shocked. She changed all the words. It didn’t even sound like me. Or so I thought.
After my initial reaction (remember, writers get one day to revolt against the red ink), I reread it and realized that my personality and ideas were still there. Brianna had just made my writing understandable. I’m from Nebraska, and sometimes slang sneaks into my articles, so Brianna substitutes more recognizable terms to avoid confusing readers. Or when I run on with fifty comma splices, she trims out the unnecessary words and presents me with a concise, sensible sentence. By the time she’s finished, my article is altered, but readers can still distinguish mine from the posts written by other team members.
Imagine that your writing is your favorite outfit. When you hand your manuscript to an editor, it displays your style—whether a cute floral sundress or a punk-rock shirt and boots. The editor won’t chop up the material and replace it with a pair of ugly, red corduroy pants. Her job is to iron out the wrinkles so your style shows through beautifully when you wear the outfit. Editing won’t kill your voice, it will enhance it.
3. Know How to Say No
You’ll inevitably face a moment when an editor requests a change you’re opposed to. Depending on the stage you’re in and the terms of your contract, you might not get full control. But typically you can at least propose a compromise.
When turning down or negotiating an edit, be courteous. Don’t just insist that you prefer yours. That’s unprofessional, and you don’t want to burn any bridges. Choose your battles. If you challenge every tweak that bugs you, the editor will be less willing to listen to your bigger concerns.
The editing team for my Red as Blood novella requested that I add a romantic subplot between the protagonist and the princess. I immediately disliked the idea, but I forced myself to consider how it would affect the story before deciding against it. Instead of bluntly refusing, I explained that Zaig, an assassin hired to kill the princess, wouldn’t have time to develop any romantic feelings for her in the two days they interact. He rescues her out of compassion, not attraction. The team was understanding and dropped the idea of a romantic thread.
On the other hand, when I received the final edits, I didn’t like that the team had changed a scene so Zaig slows down for safety while running away. But it didn’t harm the story or my characters, so I didn’t argue. Focusing on the major issues helped ensure that the editors were receptive to my input, and they went along with me in almost every case.
Editors aren’t always right, and you as the writer have the most influence on your story. Trust your gut when a revision feels wrong, but phrase your concerns with grace and tact. Recognize that your story might still need strengthened in another way. Discuss the problem and be respectful until you have a masterpiece you can both be proud of.
You’re Not Alone
Dealing with edits is hard, even when you and your editor get along great and frequently agree. It requires a lot of work, and admitting that your piece isn’t perfect can be discouraging. But don’t lose heart! No matter how many red slashes cover the page, know that pushing through will hone your skills, and critique is an integral part of writing.
Even if family members are the only people who read your writing, they’ll have opinions on it. Then come alpha and beta readers, editors, ARC reviewers, and readers. Not all of the comments will be positive. A writer needs a thick skin to withstand criticism and not lose hope. Learning to do that in the privacy of your document, where only you and your editor see, is better than trying to cope with scathing reviews on Amazon.
So don’t view red ink as the end of the world. Each deletion and addition is opening a door for you to take your writing to the next level. Have the courage to step through.
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and son. Her gaslight short story, “Red as Blood,” won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.