Handling the Editorial Process

Many of you are working on your first contracted book. (Yeah!) Prior to your publishing deal, you may have been through countless edits and revisions of your book (or books). But you’ve never had to do it under deadline, and you’ve never done it with the input of your own publishing house editor. So this is something new, and I thought I’d address it a little more fully than I have before.

I explained the editorial process in another post. Beyond the basics, I wanted to talk about the emotional aspect. As a writer, you obviously care deeply about your words and you’ve tried to get them just right. So your first encounter with an editor might be a little daunting. When they send you pages and pages of notes for revisions, you might be overwhelmed, depressed, and demoralized. Take heart… this is normal.

As a new author, the best approach is to enter the editorial process with a humble and teachable spirit. Okay, not the advice you wanted, I know. But just remember that this editing process is your best chance to learn more than you ever have about improving your writing.

One of the questions writers ask me is: How do you tactfully interact with your editor when there are differences of opinion about the revision process? In other words, your editor is requesting changes with which you disagree. The answer may vary depending on who you are, i.e. if you’re a bestselling author versus a first-timer and a risk for the publishing house. One guess as to who has more leverage?

My advice is, in a situation where you don’t understand the editorial request or you disagree with it, ask a lot of questions of your editor. Try to get their perspective. Get them to explain their reasoning, and keep your mind open, considering the possibility that they may be right. If you feel the need, gently explain your side. But realize you may not understand what they’re saying until you actually do what they say. Most times, authors end up agreeing that the changes improved the book. In any case, once again the key is communication. Be courteous in your disagreement and try to negotiate a win-win with your editor.

You are always going to hear a few random stories from authors who feel an editor ruined their book, totally didn’t get it, etc. Take my word for it, that scenario is not the norm.

Now sometimes an author deeply, seriously disagrees with certain changes an editor requests. And sometimes, the editor has strong reasons, and they won’t back down. In this situation, you have to decide if this is a hill you want to die on. In the last six years, I’ve been involved in two cases where the author so strenuously disagreed with the editorial changes that the author and publisher agreed to cancel the contract. And yes, the author paid back the advance. So, consider how important it is that you get your way in the editorial process. Are you willing to give up the contract for it?

I hope you see that everyone has the same goal in mind: The very best book possible from you!

Send me any more questions you have about the publisher editorial process, or share stories about your experience in this.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Stephanie Reed on September 30, 2008 at 6:36 PM

    >Loved Sushi for One. I enjoy knowing the background. My first editorial letter was a shock since I knew nothing at all about what to expect. Interspersed with all the advice was some much-needed reassurrance and a sprinkle of compliments to the effect that the editor thought I was up to the challenge. You have to trust!

  2. Gloria McQueen Stockstill on September 30, 2008 at 6:10 PM

    >My published books have been children’s books. However, the editor with whom I worked was great. She did not suggest much change but there were a few times we disagreed but she graciously allowed me to have input and explain why I felt the way I did. One had to do with the title of one of the books. I sent her a number of other title suggestions and she was kind enough to choose one of those. Other times I bent to her wisdom. I just hope I have as good an experience with other ediors when my other books are published. Note I did not say “if.” Ah, optimism!

  3. Camille Cannon (Eide) on September 30, 2008 at 10:33 AM

    >I must be really weird, but I look forward to the whole editing process. I love to learn to write! If the reasons for the changes are explained, I find I learn that concept quickly and don’t (usually) have to be told twice. Must be why I love to write – everything about the craft fascinates me. Bring it on!!

  4. Inspire on September 30, 2008 at 10:02 AM

    >Thank you, Rachelle, for this post. I’ll be getting the first round of edits from my publisher soon, and I’ve been nervous about it. I sat down and wrote out points for me to keep in mind, and I taped it to my computer.

    1. My editor will carefully prune away the dead wood.

    2. She will sweep errors away.

    3. She will polish my book to a high sheen.

    4. She will leave my tone intact.

    5. She will bring focus and flow together.

    6. She will edit my book and work alongside me to produce a great novel that readers will love.

    I’ve been blogging about my publishing journey and will add a link to yours. This is important information that aspiring writers need to know, including those of us who are publishing our break out novels.

  5. Anne L.B. on September 30, 2008 at 9:13 AM

    >One of the most encouraging remarks I received at the ACFW conference was when speaking to someone from a publisher considering my work who said, “Your writing is good. With so-and-so’s editing, it would be great.”

    The remarks are nothing to hang a hat on yet, but they are full of promise. If editing pushes my work from good to great, I’m all for it.

  6. Marla Taviano on September 30, 2008 at 9:11 AM

    >I’ve had wonderful experiences with editors (Harvest House and Howard). I’ve worked with three different ones, and they were all easy-going, totally open to what I had to say. Nothing went in (or was kept out of) my books that disappointed me or made me cringe. I’m a very happy customer.

    Bless you, Gene, Paul, and Rebecca!

  7. Lisa Jordan on September 30, 2008 at 8:49 AM

    >This line jumped out at me:

    As a new author, the best approach is to enter the editorial process with a humble and teachable spirit.

    I think that’s great advice for any area of our lives. God wants us to be humble before Him so he can teach us in a way that yields to his Word.

  8. Timothy Fish on September 30, 2008 at 8:35 AM

    >A preacher friend of mine used to say, “There are two things I hate. I hate when people tell me I’m wrong when I’m right and I hate when people tell me I’m wrong when I’m wrong.” We all know that editors will generally improve our work, but what we want is for people to pat us on the back and say “Great Job!”

    Authors should consider that editors like that pat on the back too. What they would like to hear is, “I’m glad you spotted that” not “Are you blind? There’s nothing wrong with that!”

  9. Pam Halter on September 30, 2008 at 8:31 AM

    >Going through the editing process is not only for novelists. I went through it with my picture books. It was hard, at first, and my editor and I had quite a few back and forth emails. But she was patient and I learned.

    Now I’m hoping to have the experience with a novel …

  10. Dan Case on September 30, 2008 at 8:25 AM

    >Thanks for your insights, Rachelle.

    A magazine editor, while thrashing upon what I thought was a perfectly good, well-written article, once told me, “It’s a good article. When we’re done it will be a GREAT article.” She went on to say that her job as an editor is “to make you look fabulous and make your words sparkle.”

    She did her job, and did it well–and in that process I learned a great deal about writing great magazine articles. I’m looking forward to the day when I go through the same painful but positive growing experience with a book editor.


  11. Anonymous on September 30, 2008 at 8:21 AM

    >This is a great post Rachelle!

    I’ve seen this mentioned elsewhere before, from other publishing blogs, but I think it’s also important to keep in mind that a “humble, teachable spirit” is also just the kind of spirit that will help your writing career. No editor likes to work with difficult writers, but an editor will go way out of their way for a writer who is eager to learn, hits deadlines, understands revisions, writes well, and is loyal. This is the kind of writer whose name pops up when the publishing company wants to launch a new line and needs to find a few good writers to help launch …

    And I totally agree: if your editor is good, they will only improve your work.

  12. Erastes on September 30, 2008 at 7:56 AM

    >This came at a very good time, as I am today sitting down with the first 100 pages of the first edit with a new publisher and a new editor. I can’t say that I was looking forward to it, partly because this book was written about three years ago and needs SO much rewriting, but because the last major edit of a novel was a very hard experience.

    It was my first experience of editing – as up to then I’d only been selling short stories to anthologies where they did edits without bothering me(!)- and when I got the book back covered in red marks I nearly cried.

    However, when I really looked at it, most of it was punctuation (which I will always suck at) and out of the 500 or so comments, most of them were easily solved. When it came down to the crunch there were probably 50 or so things that I need to negotiate, which I did by explaining why things were like that. (An example was one comment the editor made that in the 1820’s men weren’t wearing powdered wigs. I had to explain that no, not in public or in fashion but “workers” did such as servants and some professions such as lawyers.)

    What one needs to do is to work out what’s important and what can be easily passed and concentrate on compromise. When I finished there were only about three things that I wouldn’t budge on – two of them the publisher let me have, the other they changed. Compromise.

    Anyway, now I have this second novel in editing it’s not so scary and I’m – as I did with novel one – learning a lot as I go, which is the main thing!

  13. Rosslyn Elliott on September 30, 2008 at 7:50 AM

    >Is that ten pages of notes single-spaced or double-spaced? 🙂 Because your post on the “Red Pen Blues” mentioned that the average memo is 25 pages, I’m hoping for the poor editor’s sake that it’s double-spaced!

  14. lynnrush on September 30, 2008 at 7:03 AM

    >I couldn’t imagine going against a publisher’s editor on revisions. Like Kim said, it’s about making a good book great, right?

    I’ve gotten some seriously hard crits from my crit groups before. Sure initially I wanted to balk at making changes, but after I thought and prayed on the changes, they were better for the story. I’m too close to the novel, so a distant perspective is very helpful in making a good book great.

    Thanks for the insight, Rachelle.
    God Bless.

  15. Kim Kasch on September 30, 2008 at 1:20 AM

    >”. . . but you can make a good book great.”

    Isn’t that what writers all hope for?

    And, what a gift to have someone willing to help us reach our goals.