Second-guessing an edit

If you’ve ever hit “send” on an edit and then immediately had self-doubt about your work, you’re not alone. Second-guessing an edit is an occupational hazard. What should you do if that happens?

Worrying About an Edit You’ve Sent

First, it’s common to think, “Gosh, I should have phrased that differently” or “Now that I think about it, the real problem isn’t the character development, it’s the POV the author chose to use.” But in most cases it is best, and wisest, to sit on your hands after you’ve sent the edit. If the author has questions, they will ask and you can expand on your thinking at that time. I find that trying to refine the edit after it has been submitted just confuses everyone. Chalk it up to a lesson learned. To steal a line from Paul Valery, dev editing is sort of like writing a poem: it’s never finished, only abandoned.

Second, to help reduce the possibility of second-guessing, I always schedule time in my edit to let the edit sit for a day or two. Then I review my queries, manuscript edits, and edit letter. I can’t tell you how many times this final review has helped me catch a typo, an unnecessary query, an unclear query, or one query that contradicts another.

Third, you will do less second-guessing as you get more comfortable with the process of identifying and explaining dev problems. It will become easier to spot dev problems and you won’t wonder what to do about them. So give yourself permission to learn! It will take time and practice. Learn from the second-guessing. Is there something you should have done differently? Okay, do it differently next time. Maybe add it to your editorial checklist if it makes sense to do so. Then move on. Don’t dwell.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the exact phrasing you use or even the exact diagnosis you arrive at doesn’t matter as much as careful reading does. If you’ve given the author a thorough and insightful look at how a reader experiences her work, you’ve provided an important service.

Remember, editors can legitimately disagree on what works or doesn’t work in any particular manuscript. So you will never be right or wrong about an edit. You can be more or less effective, but that’s a somewhat different thing.

Here’s an example of what I mean. In a class I teach, students edit a manuscript that has a lot of digressions—basically, we’re stuck in the protagonist’s head while she thinks about times past, most of which have little or no bearing on the forward action of the manuscript. Most of the time we will call digressions like that a pacing problem. So, the developmental problem is, the digressions are slowing the pacing. Readers will lose interest. Therefore, the author should delete or minimize at least some of these digressions.

But I have had some students who conceive of this as a perspective problem—“this is not what this character would be thinking at this time.” And that’s not wrong. When the mugger flashes a gun, the protagonist is not going to be thinking, “The gun was steel blue like the swing set we had when I was a kid. I must have been about eight or so the summer my parents could finally afford to buy one . . . .” When the mugger flashes a gun, the protagonist may hand over their wallet, scream, or kick the mugger in the balls, but they are not going to pause for a lengthy reminiscence.

So both diagnoses are correct.

In either case, the author will need to prune back the digressions, and in either case, the story will be improved. We’re just taking different routes to get there—and that’s okay.

Worrying During the Edit

When the second-guessing comes before I have submitted the edit—for example, I’m undecided about suggesting a certain course of action—then I’ll sleep on it. I’ll set the ms aside and turn to another project for a day or two. If I’m still undecided when I come back then in general I will not do the thing I’m thinking about, instead defaulting to what the author has chosen to do. My reasoning is the author knows their intention and purpose better than I do, and if I can’t be sure about an edit, I won’t mention it. In most cases, I have enough suggestions for an author that skipping a few won’t matter!


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