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How Do You Edit a Manuscript You Dislike?

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by Kelly Lynne, editor

Sometimes the first look at an unpublished manuscript forms a negative opinion, especially if we editors only get to see a sample of 25 pages before deciding to work with an author. If our pocketbook gives us little choice about taking on a project, we are forced to look deeper into writing we might have otherwise overlooked. I, for one, enjoy the challenge. Many manuscripts that at first made me cringe have turned out to be favorites I’ve worked on and memorable experiences.

In early October, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with nine other authors at a small gathering a few hours’ drive from my home. I’d been invited to their monthly party for having been editor for three of the authors present. Each of them had been published, either independently or small press or even major publishers. As a small press and independently-published author myself, I fit right in and felt at home with the group. I shared with my clients in the group how odd it felt to have seen inside their minds and only now to put faces onto their personas. Like judging a book by its cover, I had guessed incorrectly what these ladies might look like. This is easy when evaluating a “bad” manuscript too.

October meant a Halloween theme to their informal potluck. Over apple-spice spider cake (with marshmallow webbing—yummy), brownies, and longan/blueberry “eyeballs,” they were curious to learn how I deal with manuscripts I don’t enjoy reading. I didn’t fully get to answer this for them (conversation shifted and rolled with amazing speed—one would think authors never get to speak to other people, LOL) and I will attempt to do so here.

My editing is one-third of the way my family puts food on the table, so I must occasionally work on books that don’t thrill me, needing to fill my calendar. I look upon it as a test of skill and professionalism.

I have found that unpublished manuscripts fit on a bell curve of skill. I have worked on manuscripts that are nearly perfect and some real clunkers, although most fall in the middle-of-the-road. My view is that even the most poorly-written manuscript has value hidden within it. A writer who puts together a vision from his or her mind intending to share it with others already shows the passion needed to be a good storyteller. Seeking help from a professional editor shows further commitment toward that passion.

My role as developmental editor is not only critique of what the author does well or could do better within that single manuscript but is also to teach stronger technique. My hope is that every manuscript writers produce from then forward will incorporate at least some of what they learn from this experience.

Two great triumphs of the past five years stand out for me when thinking of stories I didn’t like at first. One author reached out to me with a suffering manuscript full of grammar, syntax and spelling errors and plot issues. It looked hopeless. I fought my way through the drek to read the full story. Emerging in the background was the character arc of the protagonist; her transformation and growth was inspiring to anyone with low self-esteem and needed to see the light of day. We worked together to streamline the mechanics of the manuscript to showcase this character arc and then the author self-published the novel. To this day, I enjoy looking at the dozens of 5-star reviews it received from readers confirming my beliefs about the charm of this story.

A second book I’m proud of was a sequel written by one of my repeat authors, the fourth I worked on with him. The first book of the now 3-part series had a fascinating premise and great structure. Frankly, the second manuscript was terrible. I was in tears by the end, wondering how I would tell my author how much I disliked this piece of trash. Normally I loved his storytelling, so this one had thrown me. It started well but took a wrong turn and went off on a tangent no reader would tolerate. I composed my arguments against moving forward with this book, outlining how readers were likely to react, trying to be objective despite some material that triggered painful personal memories. I hit send and crossed my fingers.

He thanked me profusely and said his wife had said much the same thing about it LOL. He relies on me to tell him when his writing goes off-track. Using my notes, he rewrote the entire manuscript and re-submitted it within a few weeks—and the second version was brilliant. The reviews of this book as well confirm his ability to take direction and improve. Many reviewers said this book outshone the first of the series and they can’t wait to embrace book three. I am sure they’ll love it as much as I did.

I fight through manuscripts I don’t like at first glance because the satisfaction of polishing the author’s vision is why I am an editor. If I do my job correctly, my work is invisible to the reader. But I’ll know, and when I read the reviews, I’ll smile.

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Kelly Lynne edits multiple genres of both adult and YA fiction.

One comment

  1. karla says:

    I count on my editor to be honest with me. I have a very tough critic group, and I use the editing process to affirm their comments, or to affirm my position. Anyone who is serious about their writing expects honest feedback, even if it isn’t what they want to hear 🙂

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