On Being Edited

Being both a writer and an editor, I get to listen to writers bitching about editors, and to editors bitching about writers. I’ve been known to blow off some steam myself, sometimes wearing a writer’s hat, other times an editor’s. On the whole, though, I wish writers and editors would spend more time listening to each other instead of just bitching to their colleagues. So a few months ago a friend of mine, the mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, was on the receiving end of an Edit from Hell. (I saw the edited ms. As an editor, I was embarrassed. As a writer, I was outraged.) I asked if she’d be willing to write about the experience for this blog. This is what she wrote. — SJS

By Cynthia Riggs

Is it always the writer who’s being unreasonable? Or could it be the editor?

After ten books and the deft editing of Ruth Cavin, the doyenne of mystery editors, I and my eleventh book were turned over to an editorial assistant in her first real job out of college.

I understand the heady feeling of a first editing job. The more changes an editor makes, the better, right? That will show how conscientious one is. It takes a while for a new editor to recognize that less is more.

The paper manuscript for my eleventh book came to me through the mail, along with a two-page letter from Jane Doe (as I’ll call her). “I think if he [the serial killer] murders a few less people — perhaps 5 instead of 11,” she advised me, ” it would make the murders more meaningful.”

I promised myself to think about it.

stetOn to the manuscript itself. I am accustomed to electronic editing, so in order for me to work with Jane’s extensive comments, I transcribed the first 64 pages of her penciled notes from the paper copy to my computer. Once I got that far, I decided I’d better stop there and write my own comments. The first 153 edits took me up to page 58. Of the 153, I accepted three and rejected 150. I explained each and every one of the 150 I rejected.

She changed ellipses to em dashes, added adverbs, such as “said dismissively” and “snorted derisively,” confused its and it’s, turned sentences around, had my characters react in ways unlike them in past books, and, in general, trashed my manuscript.

Should I, the writer, be teaching Jane, the editor, how to edit?

The last straw was on page 58. Jane had changed my sentence, “The Steamship Authority would require a passenger ticket for the corpse, even one in this condition,” to “Even in it’s [sic] condition, the Steamship Authority would require a passenger ticket for the corpse.” (Actually, the Steamship Authority is in pretty good condition.)

That’s where I decided to quit.

Now, I’m not an inexperienced writer. Or editor. I have an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. I was tutored by editors at the National Geographic Society, where I worked for a time, and wrote two chapters in one of the NGS books, which I also edited. I was editor of the Marine Technology Society Journal, edited and wrote for Petroleum Today, the quarterly publication of the American Petroleum Institute, and have more than a hundred published articles and short stories to my credit. I have been teaching writing for 13 years, since Jane was ten years old.

There are things an editorial assistant in her first job can tell me that I can profit from, but not when she hasn’t read any of the previous books, doesn’t know grammar, doesn’t know the basics of copyediting, and is rewriting my work so it sounds comfortable to her.

We editors often can get defensive about a writer’s rejection of all the work we put into improving a manuscript. But more often than we editors like to think, the writer is right.

  * * *

Cynthia Riggs. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

Cynthia Riggs.
Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

Cynthia Riggs is the author of the Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series, whose protagonist, the indomitable Victoria Trumbull, is based on Cynthia’s mother, the late, equally indomitable Dionis Coffin Riggs.  She recently launched Martha’s Vineyard Mysteries, a lively blog about her life at Cleaveland House, which has been in her family since about 1750.



21 thoughts on “On Being Edited

  1. Ouch! That was a nasty edit, indeed. Like both Cynthia and Susanna, I am both a writer and editor. Editor first; writer second. But I’ve been on the receiving end in both roles. The experience has made me sensitive to the sensibilities of both, and as such I edit lightly, focusing on logistics of a story and reader comprehension instead of the textbook requirements of its prose. Even if I get carried away, and edit too heavily, I always inform the writer that they are free to reject every change. It’s their book.

    Among the editing community, we frequently remind each other to recite the mantra, “It’s not my book, it’s not my book…” and that content creation is a different function from content refinement. It’s a tricky balance to maintain, but imperative. Writing is an art as well as a craft, and hitting the right balance there is equally imperative.

    I’m curious to know the rest of the story, i.e., how you (Cynthia) handled this situation with the publisher, and whether the junior editor was taken to task by you or the in-house editorial manager. Was the book re-edited?


    • Carolyn:

      Thanks for your comment, it’s spot on. A great mantra for every editor to recite.

      I didn’t want to get into a pissing match with my editor, and turned the first 50 edited pages over to my agent, who’d been telling me, “Just accept the edits. No big deal.”

      When she saw what was essentially an amateurish rewrite, she wrote to the boss of the editorial assistant who’d been assigned my manuscript: “I don’t know if you have seen either the electronic file or the hard-copy edits, but together they constitute the most exhaustive and picayune editing I’ve ever seen–and I spent thirty years as an editor before becoming an agent. Given the nature and sheer volume (168 comments in the first 50 pages alone) of the edits, I can understand why Cynthia is upset–so upset that she is ready to return her advance and walk away from the contract. I’ve assured Cynthia that this should not be necessary.”

      To which the editor replied, “If Cynthia does not want to make the edits, I will not require her to. . . . I hope she understands that we only want to make the novel the best that it can be—that is our job. And I wish Cynthia were more open to editing. ”

      I have a two-book contract with the publisher, same editor, and I must say, I dread working with her.



      • Thanks, Cynthia. That says it all, but I’m going to add my $0.02 anyway. I’ve been in a writers’ group with Cynthia for several years, and I’ve edited two of her books. In my experience, she’s very “open to editing” — open, that is, to editing that improves the work. When I hear of a capable writer who is said to resist editing, I always wonder what that writer’s previous experience with editors has been like.


        • “One strike and you’re out” seems a little harsh to me. 🙂 I think the editorial assistant deserved clearer instructions and closer supervision than she apparently got. I hope she and her boss both learn something from the experience.


        • @Susanna: Perhaps you’re right. The editor certainly should have been more closely supervised. On the other hand, if she’s making that many mistakes, there’s a good chance she’s not cut out for this kind of work.


        • True. The errors are a big warning sign, and so is the lack of tact and discretion. I think good editors are at least a little bit psychic: once we get into a job, we can usually suss out what the author intended even when it’s not 100% clear, and we can fix it in a way that the seams don’t show. This editorial assistant has a long way to go before she gets to that point.


  2. As both a professional writer and an editor, I relate to this post so much. I don’t mind if someone edits my work — it’s good to have another set of eyes go over it and make a suggestion that improves the work.

    What I DO mind is when the editing is of poor quality (such as when the correction is misspelled or grammatically incorrect) or an item is marked as wrong when the editor doesn’t bother to double-check that it actually IS wrong. Sheesh..


    • It does occur to me that “First, do no harm” works as well for editors as for doctors! I’ve got my version of the serenity prayer posted on a wall: “Grant me the serenity to recognize the prose I should not change, the ability to improve the prose I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When I worked in production, part of my job was to defend the editor, even if the edit was bad. After that, however, I tried to teach the editor what they needed to know. In this case, it sounds like this assistant editor was thrown into the job first without any training at all. Is it possible for you to arrange for a more experienced editor to do you other books? I’m also a bit curious as to why the assistant editor used paper instead of a computer.


    • I’m curious about the use of paper too; however, it’s only within the last three years or so that most of the major U.S. trade publishers have finally switched to electronic editing, and the switch still isn’t total: I did a paper edit earlier this year. The other thing is that this didn’t happen on the production side; it happened in editorial. The editor in charge is the one who bought the three books. Changing acquisitions editors is more complicated than just requesting a different copyeditor.


  4. I work on both sides of this issue as well. And I am appalled. APPALLED.

    While some of it could, I guess, boil down to being new to the field with little training, confusing simple things like it’s and its has nothing to do with training. That’s a sign of someone who is clearly in the wrong profession. Yikes! I hope the situation somehow works itself out.


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  8. Yikes! Before I became a freelance copy-editor, I was an editorial assistant at a large publishing house. In my experience, editorial assistants are NOT qualified to do copy-editing work. The nature of their jobs is hugely different. I’m shocked that an EA was given this task to do, to be honest. What a horrible experience for you!


    • Sophie, my experience as a freelancer confirms yours working in-house. Copyediting is done after the ms. has gone into production, and not by the same editor(s) who did the substantive editing. My strong hunch here is that the editorial assistant wasn’t given enough direction or enough supervision. What remains to be seen is whether the EA and, especially, her immediate superior have learned from the experience. Here’s hoping — because this was the first book of a three-book contract.


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