5 steps to coping with a content edit

Every writer dreams of being published one day. Deep down inside some part of them daydreams of an interview on national television, planning the best way to answer antagonistic questions and come off looking like a genius. But between finishing that first manuscript and your interview on the Today Show, there are quite a few things you need to experience. Among them: A Content Edit.

For new writers or non-writers, a content edit is a superbly painful process for both writer and editor, where an editor takes a manuscript and murders it with a red pen.

I’m only partly joking. Like a sculptor with a chisel who sees a raw block of marble and pounds the crap out of it until the beautiful statue inside becomes apparent, an editor brings out the real beauty of a manuscript. But it’s a difficult process for the editor, who has to read a half-formed manuscript, and for the writer, who thought the manuscript didn’t need much work.

When you get your manuscript back, here are a couple of things to remember.

1. Don’t review it when you’re tired.

If any of you are like me, you don’t get to write fiction for a living yet. You probably have a day job. For me, when I got my content edit back, I had just come off a horrible day. But the week was going to be busy, and I had time that evening to review the content edit. So I valued efficiency over my brain’s need to rest, thinking: “It can’t be that bad, can it?”

Oh, yes, it can. A content edit worth anything will take your beloved manuscript and tear it limb from limb. The trunk of the story will still be there, but everything else will likely end up stripped away so you as the writer can step back and truly evaluate what you are trying to accomplish on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

Already mentally and emotionally exhausted, I read that content edit and had a meltdown. Not one of my finer moments. I wasn’t upset at my editor, though. Not one bit. I was angry at myself for thinking my book was ready. So I did what anyone should do in this circumstance: I took a shower and went down and watched Doctor Who. And then I went to bed. The whole thing looked much better in the morning.

2. Trust your editor.

Your editor has a gift that you don’t: he’s not as close to your story as you are. He can see it in a light that you can’t. That’s why you need an editor, another set of eyes. You’ve got to have someone read it who understands you, who understands your story, who understands your style. And if you can find that person, trust what he says because he can see things you can’t in your story.

Now, that doesn’t mean he’s always going to be right. Maintain open communication about aspects of a manuscript that you may not want to change. But don’t go into a content edit automatically assuming that your editor doesn’t know anything. That’s just dumb.

3. You are not your story.

Your manuscript is precious to you. You’ve labored and sacrificed to create it, and when anyone tells you that it’s not perfect, it’s like telling a new mom that her baby is ugly. Our automatic response is to get angry and defensive. But you can’t do that. Recognize that your editor wants your story to be the best it can be. It might already be good, but do you really want to stop at just good? Don’t you want the best story possible? Good doesn’t make the bestseller list. Good doesn’t endure. If you’ve got an editor who wants your manuscript to suceed, listen to him, and don’t take his comments personally.

Now if he wants you to change something that will enormously affect the direction of your story (in the case of a series), communicate that. Work through it. Find a solution. But just remember that your editor wouldn’t have spent so much time on your story if he didn’t believe in it. Now, maybe your editor is someone you hired, so the dynamic might be a little different. But whether through a publisher or an editing service, an editor is going to want to do a good job on a story so that he can keep working.

4. Be willing to take advice.

You don’t know everything. Did you realize that? I struggle with it sometimes. And I’m extremely fortunate to have an editor who is also enormously patient with my stubbornness. I don’t like advice. I’m a performance-driven perfectionist, and that means I already know all the answers, even if I don’t. Taking advice means I’m not perfect. But reading through my content edit showed me just how much work my story still needed, and they weren’t little things either. They were big, obvious things that I should have noticed for myself.

Taking my editor’s advice has allowed me to turn my manuscript from good to WOW. She caught things I’d never thought of, and she did more than just notice them–she gave me advice on how to fix them too. Her advice is golden, and if I hadn’t been willing to listen to it, I’m not sure that my novel would actually be worth reading. I mean, you might like it okay enough, but would you like it enough to buy the next one? And the one after that? And recommend it to all your friends?

5. Don’t take yourself so seriously.

This is one I have to deal with on a daily basis and not just in my writing. I can’t rest if there’s something wrong. I can’t focus if I’ve made a mistake. I can’t move on when I’ve let someone down. And life is just too short for that. Yes, of course, do your best. Don’t let people down on purpose, and do everything you can to make things right. But realize that you’re not perfect. Nobody is. I mean, we say that all the time, but how many of us performance-driven perfectionists really understand it on a heart level? We say we’re not perfect, but deep inside we expect ourselves to be, and when we fail, we fall into a dark pit of discouragement.

Well–stop it.

You finished a manuscript. A whole manuscript. You got it to the point where you can have a copy edit done! That’s huge! That’s enormous! Wrap your head around the fact that not many writers get there.

Your editor is going to have some stern things to say about what you’ve written, and that’s awesome. That’s a gift. Listen. Pay attention. Be willing to take his advice. It doesn’t mean you’re not a good writer. It doesn’t mean your whole manuscript sucks. It just means it needs some polish, and doesn’t everything?

Nothing you write is ever going to be perfect. That’s why you need an editor. You can’t make everyone happy, especially not yourself. You can only do the best you can with what you have, and working together with an editor you trust will help you take your manuscript from good to great.

It’s not easy. On the contrary, it’s probably one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, but nothing worth having was easy to get. The harder you fight for it, the more you’ll believe in it.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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  1. This is great! I’ve just signed a publishing contract and am booked to begin working with an editor within the next few weeks so it was fabulous to stumble across this post. Thanks heaps for sharing!

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