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.
On 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.
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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.