Jeri Mills M.D.

Finding the Right Editor

Adventures in Editing: Finding the Right Editor
When I began writing professionally, it was like stepping into a different world, a world where myths have created images of agents and editors as larger than life beings with the attributes of Greek gods. My own experiences with editors have varied from the ridiculous to the sublime. Each has taught me some valuable lesson.
My first editorial adventure came with the first article I submitted to a newspaper. The lesson I learned is that editors feel they must change something. After all, that’s what they get paid for.
The piece was an autobiographical lead in to a column I’d been asked to write about women’s health issues. I mentioned in the article that I had received my Ob-Gyn residency training at SUNY Buffalo (the State University of New York at Buffalo). Unwilling to waste her valuable time with a clarifying phone call, and apparently feeling the need to change something, the editor changed SUNY to “sunny” Buffalo. To this day I’m not sure if she thought I was trying to make a funny or if she honestly had no idea what the climate is like in western New York.
After completing the first draft of my first book, “Tapestry of Healing: Where Reiki and Medicine Intertwine”, I asked a number of friends to read through the manuscript and tell me if anything was unclear, boring, or incomplete.
 “Does it even sound like a real book?” I asked.
Many typos and misspellings too subtle to be identified by spell check were discovered, but everyone “loved the book”, thought it was “just fine”. I knew there were things that needed to be fixed in the manuscript, but didn’t have the experience to identify them myself. I had yet to learn that most friends, even if they know enough to offer constructive criticism, won’t, because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
The week before attending my first writers’ conference where I had signed up for interviews with a “real agent” and a “real editor” I anxiously spoke with one of my friends who already wore the laurels of a published author. She kindly offered to edit the first chapter of my manuscript so it would be perfect when I presented it at the interviews.
Days before the conference, she returned the chapter. Glancing through the pages, I was horrified to find big red slashes though every “I”, “and”, and “but”. My book was written in the fist person. How do you do that without saying “I”??
My first notion that perhaps the problem was not entirely with my writing came when I got to the fourth page. I had written, “I bought a small house on top of a big hill.” She changed the sentence to, “A house atop a hill captured my fancy.” I laughed till the tears ran down my face. Nothing had ever “captured my fancy” in my entire life. I began to understand that the editor must speak the same language as the writer.
I phoned my friend Jan who was also a professional writer, laughingly told her about my experiences with our mutual friend, and asked if she might find the time to offer some constructive criticism.
When Jan called to review the manuscript with me she was so contrite I began to fear she was about to tell me to chuck the whole thing and stick to doctoring.
“Jeri, I went through the chapter. I don’t want to hurt your feelings. I’m afraid you’re going to hate me. You have to understand that editing is not a personal judgment…”
“Jan,” I reassured her, “this is my least favorite chapter in the whole manuscript. I’ve re-written it at least ten times and it still feels wrong to me. I’m just not sure how to make it right. I really need some advice on how to fix it.”
Reassured, Jan proceeded to discuss the chapter, suggesting places where rearranging paragraphs might improve the rhythm of the piece, and pointing out other sections that might be rewritten in more detail. She interspersed her criticisms with positive reinforcement, “You’re really a very good writer… I like this turn of phrase… It’s an interesting piece…” When we reached the end of the last page she timidly asked, “Are you OK? I hope you’re not mad at me?”
Laughing I replied, “Finally, some constructive criticism! I knew the piece felt wrong and I wasn’t sure how to fix it. Thank you! Now I can make it better.”
She gave a huge sigh of relief.
At the conference, I attended a lecture being given by a “real” editor, from a “real” magazine. I didn’t know what magazine, or if it was any good, but I was still impressed. He helped me understand one of the major qualities of a good editor when he said, “When I edit a piece, I try to get into the author’s head so that any changes I make are in her voice, in her language. When words have been changed by a good editor, the reader should never be able to tell that the author didn’t write every word herself.”
A few months later, I enrolled in a self-publishing course that was to include two hours of manuscript coaching. Before the workshop I re-edited my entire manuscript, determined to receive kudos from my coach. Looking back through the criticism I’d received so far, I reviewed everyone’s comments with an eye to learn from them. Going back to editor number two, I realized that though the words “I” and “and” could not be removed from the piece, there were perhaps more interesting ways to present some of the action. Over and over again, sentences with first person verbs were changed to clauses with adverbs. “I walked into the room and said…” became “Walking into the room I said…” Surely now I sounded like a more polished writer!
The first thing he said at the start of the manuscript coaching session was, “Why are you afraid to use the word “I”?”
I burst out laughing and told him about my previous editorial experience. That was the last time I laughed for two hours. He spent the rest of the session telling me what was wrong with my manuscript, never once identifying even a word or phrase worthy of praise. He repeatedly pointed out passages that had been written as pure narrative and suggested they be re-written in more detail. “Show don’t tell,” he said over and over again. All good advice, but each comment was preceded with comments like, “This is no good because,” or “You people keep making the same mistakes…” When I tried to justify something I had written he barked, “Just shut up and listen or this session is over right now.”
He was right about many of the changes that needed to be made in my manuscript, but his manner was abrupt and hurtful. The same suggestions could have been made with kindness and reassurance (or at least common courtesy). That was not his way. He was a small man who made himself feel taller by cutting his students off at the knees.
At the end of the session I phoned my friend Jan. With tears streaming down my face, bathed in the overwhelming knowledge that I was a worthless human being and an incompetent writer, I recounted the session.
Jan spent the next hour-and-a-half trying to convince me that what I had written did have value, and that my coach was a power crazed misogynist.
I cried myself to sleep that night. While sleeping, my subconscious was able to sort out the useful criticism from the abuse. I woke at midnight with words flying through my brain, ran to my computer, and re-wrote the first chapter.
Before reviewing the rest of the manuscript, I decided some research was in order and re-read two of my favorite books that were written in first person paying attention to HOW they were written. Then I re-wrote the entire manuscript; breathing life into the stories, adding detail to descriptions, daring to write dialogue, and ended up with a piece that even I was beginning to be satisfied with.
My book was infinitely better because of my session with Coach. Would I hire him to do a final edit? NO WAY. If I had learned nothing else over the years, it was that I could learn more through kindness than through abuse. I was grateful for the lessons I had learned, but knew I needed to find an editor who could offer constructive criticism without destroying my ego.
You can’t write (or do anything) to the best of your ability if you are made to feel worthless and inferior. Goodness knows poor Jan didn’t have the time to do a counseling session and put the pieces of my shattered ego back together after every session, so the search for the right editor continued.
Jan suggested I contact a friend of hers. The woman edited a newsletter and was, according to Jan, a “good editor”. We met and I found her to be a nice lady. The “good editor” part I took on faith. I told her my main concern was content editing. There were places where I knew the flow of the piece wasn’t right, but couldn’t figure out how to fix them.
“That’s what I do best,” she reassured me.
The following week we sat down together and reviewed the short passage I’d asked her to edit to see if we could work together. The session was fun and the changes she suggested made sense, so I hired her.
She charged by the hour, not the page. Another lesson was about to be learned. We met the following week to go through the edited portion of the manuscript.
“I wanted to do a really good job, so I went through everything three times,” she informed me with a satisfied smile on her face.
Thinking of her hourly fee, my stomach twisted as the “Ka –chinnng” of a cash register reverberated in my head.
As we reviewed the manuscript, we came to passages that I knew didn’t work. She had made no constructive changes. Other than inserting a word here and there, all she had done was to correct the punctuation. Still willing to give her a chance, I pointed out the passages that felt wrong to me and voiced my concerns.
“It’s fine,” she assured me over and over again. “I like it.”
She wasn’t being dishonest. She didn’t have the ability or the insight to know the difference. She may have put out a lovely community newsletter, but she was out of her depth when attempting to edit a book. I’d spent much of my medical career trying to convince patients that all doctors are not equivalent. I was being rudely awakened to the fact that neither are all editors.
I may not have been an experienced enough writer to know how to fix the problems, but I was an experienced enough reader to know when a problem existed. Six hundred dollars later, she was fired and I still needed an editor.
I spent most of the next 48 hours re-editing the manuscript. It still wasn’t perfect, but I had finally figured out what to do with many of the passages that didn’t seem to work. Not uncommonly, I read though a passage or paragraph I’d originally felt was terribly well written, but that didn’t quite fit into the flow of things, muttered to myself, “That’s pedantic crap,” and mercilessly deleted whole thing. The result was a much more readable manuscript. Even I, often my own harshest critic, was beginning to feel that I finally had the makings of a “real book” on my computer.
After interviewing a couple more editors and getting a deep visceral sense that, however good they might be at their jobs, they were not people I would be comfortable working with, I approached my friend Marsha. Marsha was a nurse and also one of my Reiki students, so she understood where I was going with “Tapestry”. She had edited many medical papers and wasn’t afraid to offer criticisms. The comments she scribbled in the margins of my manuscript were occasionally irreverent as only the comments of a trusted friend could be, but they were also precise and insightful. I went through the entire manuscript for perhaps the twentieth time taking all her suggestions into account, revising and re-writing as seemed fit. After a weekend marathon at the computer, I finally had a manuscript that felt finished to me.
The manuscript was sent for a final copy edit to a creative writing professor who had edited several books. I told her the piece was pretty clean, but she was experienced enough not to take me at my word when she quoted her fee. She corrected punctuation, made a couple of very appropriated suggestions in sections she thought were unclear, and ultimately charged me HALF of her original estimated price.
“It really was a pretty clean manuscript,” she said. “I never know till I work with an author, so I always protect myself when I estimate time.” (Yes, I had walked into the “per hour” lane again, but this woman had quoted me a maximum price based on the word count of the manuscript, and the quote was in writing.)
Since that time, I’ve had the privilege of working with some wonderful editors, people who not only helped me to “fix” the piece I was working on, but who taught me valuable lessons that have helped me to grow as a writer. I’ve also endured the torture of working with an editor who was so anxious to put his signature on everything in his magazine that he transformed what I felt to be the best piece I’d ever written into an article I was mortified to see attached to my name.
And so the gods of editing have descended from the peaks of mighty Olympus and joined the ranks of mere mortals. Working with these valued colleagues has helped me to grow as a writer, to begin to understand more about business and contracts, and to know a whole lot more about myself.
Things to look for when hiring an editor:
1.) ALWAYS get a sample edit to determine whether you and editor are a good match.
2.) Settle on a price up front. If the editor charges by the hour, have him/her guarantee a maximum price. (The editor can do this based on the sample edit and the word count)
3.) Get the terms in writing.
4.) If you really don’t like the person and feel he will be hard to work with, DON’T HIRE HIM no matter how good someone else says he is.
5.) If, upon receipt of the finished product, you notice something amiss, fix it. If you don’t know how to fix it yourself, CALL YOUR EDITOR. You wouldn’t dream of not calling a plumber to tell him the faucet he repaired for you is still leaking. Editors are human. Sometimes they make mistakes. Work with your editor until you believe the piece is as perfect as you can possibly make it.