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Rejecting Editorial Suggestions

October 6, 2014

Recently a comment in an online forum for editors I participate in provoked much discussion, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting for you writers to be privy to something editors  talk about when you’re not around.

An editor new to the business wondered what other editors do when their editorial comments and revision suggestions are rejected by the author.

Whether or not the writer incorporates suggested revisions seemed to be a big concern for the in-house editors in the forum (and freelance editors hired by publishing houses to work with their authors). The job of those editors is to communicate house style and ensure the work meets house standards.

When an author is uncooperative, the in-house editor may have no recourse other than to give up and  turn the manuscript back to the acquisition editor with a list of recommendations.  You usually can’t fight house style and direction, and as a writer, you should know that when you turn the revision process into a fight with an in-house editor, the magazine or publishing company you thought would be publishing your work may not publish it after all.

The relationship between an independent freelance editor and a self-publishing author is different. Editors in the forum told about writers (no names were used!) who rejected their suggestions and produced books riddled with errors or who rushed to self-publish books that were clearly not ready. Every editor, it seems, has stories like that. It became clear that the original poster and some others worried about how their client’s work would affect their reputations as editors.

As the forum discussion progressed, there seemed to be some consensus that the reading public understands the author is responsible for the book’s contents, not the editor. Experienced editors know that once they’ve given the writer thoughtful advice—and backed it up with standard guides  like the Chicago Manual of Style along with conversations with the writer about how their choices affect the reader—that what to do with editorial remarks is the author’s decision.

One experienced editor on the forum wrote that “editing is a diplomatic awareness-raising exercise, not a battle of wills,” and I agree with that. I actually enjoy working with a writer who will push back on my suggestions. It keeps me on my toes when I have to explain myself, and my experience has shown me that conversation between editor and author can help the writer clarify her vision.

I think my job as an editor is to offer suggestions and other information that enables the writer to make good choices more confidently. My goal, the goal of any editor, should be to help the writer achieve her vision for the work. I don’t think my job is to give orders or impose my style or vision on the work. I believe editing is two-way conversation, not a sermon from the mount. Maybe you’ll work with an incompetent editor or one with a God complex, but they are not as common as the movies and New Yorker cartoons would have you believe. Editors want to help, not hinder, the writer.

So back to the original question the forum member posed. What do editors do when their editorial comments and revision suggestions are rejected by the author? The fact is, we cannot do anything but cringe when our names appear in the book’s acknowledgements and the reviews comment negatively on the editing or problems we know could have been avoided had the author adopted our suggestions and taken more time with her work. But it’s the author’s name on the front of the book, not the editor’s.

Editors have no control over the self-published author’s output, nor should we. Some of the saddest words in the world are, “My editor made me do it.” The author is the decider and should remain in control of the work.

We editors can offer the best of our experience and knowledge to our clients. We can explain the reasoning behind our revisions and suggestions. But after that, we can only hope writers will  truly listen and carefully consider our advice before they decide to act on it or reject it. We hope our suggestions will not be dismissed out of hand, and we hope that writers will give their work all the time and effort it deserves. But we cannot do anything to make sure that happens. So what do editors do when their editorial comments and revision suggestions are rejected by the author? Ultimately, we let it go.

Mary Ann de StefanoMary Ann de Stefano is the editor of The Florida Writer (the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association) and MAD’s Monday Muse. She is also a writer, editor, and organizer of writing workshops with 30+ years experience in publishing and writing consulting. Besides working one-on-one with writers who are developing books, she designs author websites. Mary Ann does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.

  1. October 6, 2014 10:01 am

    Based on your insightful comments, Mary Ann, I essentially shelved the ms I sent you some time ago. It became a totally different book. I’m on a third draft now, and never would have been there without your input. So I, for one, vote to accept change.

    • Mary Ann de Stefano permalink*
      October 8, 2014 7:52 am

      Often writers already know what they should do, and the editorial review just confirms it for them.

  2. Lyn Hill permalink
    October 6, 2014 5:03 pm

    I believe it’s best to accept the editor’s suggestions, but sometimes, a word change can be out of character.

    • Mary Ann de Stefano permalink*
      October 8, 2014 7:57 am

      And that’s why the author should not blinding accept what an editor says. The author should always process editorial suggestions through her own filter before accepting or rejecting them. Listen, but make up your own mind.

  3. October 8, 2014 9:47 am

    Thanks for sharing this editors’ conversation, Mary Ann. I love the way you expressed “Most editors want to help, not antagonize, the writer.”

    As a writer I know how hard it is to hand my “ink baby” over to someone else’s care and inspection. I want my creation returned whole and healthy! As an editor, my goal isn’t to replace, reprogram, or make over the writer’s verbal offspring. My job is to ready the “ink baby” for picture day by cleaning the sticky and murky stuff from her hands, face, and hair. I get her photo-ready (sometimes suggesting wardrobe adjustments). It’s the author’s choice whether to change the child’s attire (and serve Milk Duds along with a grape juice box) before the photographer immortalizes her image.

    ~Teresa Bruce

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