Thursday, November 30, 2017

Editor's Notes #39: When the Red Ink Flows

With the love/hate relationship so many authors have with the editorial process, it's tough to do a good job without having someone's feelings hurt on occasion.

When I edit, I tend to leave a lot of margin notes, because it's often the only way I get to converse with the author, other than email. Margin notes allow me to talk where I want to, when the situation arises that I need to.

My margin notes can be for grammar rules, suggestions for a change, and explanations of why I removed something over there and kept it over here. I also use the margin to tell the author if a passage made me laugh or cry, because I think authors need to know their humor actually hits the spot they're aiming for, or if I felt them bleed their emotions onto the page.

After one of my authors told me he'd rather see less red, I changed my settings in Word so that anything I delete is in a nice, soothing blue, a.k.a. "Perhaps you may wish to rethink this." Anything I add is in red, a.k.a. "Do what I say because I know better in this instance."

Hmm. Maybe it's not exactly that way, but at least there is less red on the page, right? Goal achieved.

However, what happens when there's so much red on the page that every new comment feels like "the" comment? This is the one that's going to break him. This is the one that will put her over the edge. It's just too much.

I've had this happen on occasion, and I always feel terrible about it. But when all is said and done, I can't do less than the job I was hired to do, and if that means a lot of red, then that's what the manuscript needs. I try to be concise in my explanations, but I'm never sure how that goes over, since every time I think I'm being factual and neutral, my kids tell me I sound mean.

Not nearly as mean as some, apparently. I saw a Twitter post the other day, asking for authors to share the meanest thing someone ever told them about their writing. The "ouch"-worthy one that stood out to me was someone who said his editor asked him if he purposely wrote that way to make people think he was stupid.


Believe me, the goal is never to sound mean. In fact, if I've gone through a frustrating edit, I tend to wait a day or two before sending them off (barring any deadline issues), reread all my margin notes, "nice" them up a bit if needed, and then proceed with returning the MS.

What's the best way to deal with a lot of red ink? I have to admit that I still don't really know. All I can do is keep doing the job, explaining as I go, and hope the writer accepts that the changes are necessary if the book is to become its best.

So, authors, tell me about your experiences with editors. Have you had someone treat your manuscript as if it's their own, rewriting things the way they'd say them? Have you had an editor that made you feel inept? Or have your red-ink moments been a positive thing for you?


  1. I've never begrudged the red ink because most of the time, it's made the manuscript better and that's what I wanted.
    I've had a critique partner tell me I needed to make a radical change to the story, but when the other three made no such suggestion, I just ignored it.
    Most of my critique partners have a sense of humor, so rather than mean comments, I get a lot of funny ones.

    1. I usually try to handle things with humor when I can. I think it softens the blow and reminds people I'm human.

      Trust your gut when three of four CPs are in unison!

  2. I actually like seeing lots of comments coming back from betas (I haven't worked with an editor yet), because even if they're a bit hard to take at the time, they usually improve the story.

    And although not hurtful, the oddest one I've had was when an online magazine asked to run one of my stories. When they sent through the proof, I found they'd entirely changed the last paragraph! It didn't fit with the story or my style at all. They changed it back when I asked, but I just found it very strange that they never mentioned it.

    1. One of my authors always tells her betas and CPs to break her heart if they think it will make the story better.

      How weird that they changed THE ENDING of your story! I'm so glad you got them to change it back. Your stories are perfect just the way they are.

    2. Aw - thank you so much! That's such a lovely thing to say :)

      And yes - I'd rather be hurt a bit by my betas than be told everything's fine when it's not.

  3. My own experiences? Let's see...

    I once wrote a magazine article, and the editor made me delete a couple of smartass comments I made because she felt they might insult the reader(s).

    If I'm writing an article which reflects my personality and speech patterns (as in my blog) I generally end it with the phrase "Thanks for your time." Another editor deleted that line from an article I wrote for a fan club publication. I'd put it there in the first place because the article had "me" written all over it.

    I once worked for a small comic company that didn't really have an editor, and the publisher didn't proofread anything. The script, co-written with my former writing partner, called for a character who wore a fedora, and that fact was mentioned in the dialog. The artist drew a man wearing a derby, and the story was published that way. That same artist also lettered the comic, and without consulting anyone, he changed the line "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" (Remember that?) to "What's the frequency, Ken?" because his (the artist's) name was Ken, and he hated being called "Kenneth"... although of course, the line was a reference to the then-recent Dan Rather "Kenneth" incident and had absolutely nothing to do with the artist personally! That same artist/letterer also spelled the word "disc" interchangeably as both "disc" and "disk," although our script only spelled it as "disc." Naturally, the readers caught all of these mistakes. The one that upset me the most was the disc/disk thing, because a review of the comic assumed that the scripters had made that error!

    1. I should add that the word "disc" was correct, because every usage referred to a CD, and not a computer disk.

    2. That would drive me crazy. I suppose it's good that I only write blog posts (and even so, my post-checker, S.K. Anthony, always has something to add or subtract that makes them better).

      Readers are smart. They'll pick up on all the mistakes and then some. I wish there were some way to defend what we've tried to fix, even when those who are last in the production line don't take our advice.

  4. I try very hard not to hurt anyone's feelings. I can't imagine making that "stupid" comment.


    1. I was astounded at that! I can't imagine anyone writing that and thinking the recipient would be fine with hearing it.

  5. Okay, that "stupid" comment made me laugh out loud. I would never say that to anyone, and it's horrific, but still darkly funny.

    I think thick skin has a lot to do with it. If you edit my work I don't care if the pen is red or blue, if the comments are sandwiched by compliments to make me feel good, if the wording is chosen just right to 'soften the blow'; this is work. I'm paying to ensure I have the best novel possible, not to ensure my feelings aren't hurt. I know there's such thing as tact, but if red pen hurts someone's feelings, I can't help but wonder what they'll feel like when they get their first 1 star review on Amazon.

    For me personally, I say bring it on. I would even give you permission to call me stupid, just so long as I was being justifiably stupid in that moment. Cater to my work, I say. Not to my ego.

    1. I laughed when I first saw it, too, but realized it was so unnecessarily cruel that I'd never respect the person who said it.

      Thick skin is the key. Things I get the most bothered about are usually the things I know to be true, if I'm honest with myself. Either that, or the person saying them is an idiot, and I can usually tell which is which. But when it comes to me giving constructive criticism to someone else, I love to be encouraging but have to be honest no matter what. I'm not very good about the "soft-tough-soft" approach (and now, because it's you, I'm thinking of the Simpsons movie with the tough guy-soft guy lineup).

      If these people are paying me money to edit, then they deserve my worst! I mean, my best. Or at least, my most thorough-est.

  6. Hi Lynda - all good points raised as we want to improve our writing - yet I wonder what people would say of my writing if I put it through ... it's English - so the approach is different, my style is different ... and one needs to appreciate where the author is coming from with their tale - if I was formally making an approach to publication - then I'd be ready for criticism ...

    Thanks for highlighting these things - cheers Hilary

    1. Editing UK English is so different than editing US English in so many ways, Hilary. I recently edited a short story by an author who is Aussie, and therefore uses UK English. It was good writing, but I had to double-check a few things to make sure I was following the correct and acceptable style for that—not just the spelling but the punctuation differences.

      I did an eval years ago for a British gentleman who was living in France and looking for an editor. In the end, he liked my work but went with an editor from France because he felt that his idioms and style might be better served with someone who was immersed in the same culture. His manuscript was great, too, and I would have loved to work with him, but I completely understood. I follow a lot of bloggers/authors who are from all over the world, and I love that I'm slowly but surely becoming acclimated to a variety of writing styles and speech patterns. I feel it's making me a better editor in general.

      Thanks for the visit and comment! I always appreciate it.


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