The changes you DON’T want to make, part II

Yesterday, I wrote about the various reasons that you might feel compelled, through forceful recommendations by an editor or agent, to make revisions to your manuscript that you feel might actually harm the work. Heaven forefend that this should happen to you. However, it is a common enough occurrence that I wanted to give you some guidelines for how to deal with it. Here are some practical steps to take — and do make them in order:

(1) Go through the requested changes, and make sure that you understand what you are being asked to do.

One of the problems with receiving a hostile editorial memo or other set of negative feedback from an agent or editor is that it is awfully easy for the writer to overreact, or at the very least, allow a few criticisms to burgeon mentally into a damnation of the entire work. Chances are, that’s not what your editor or agent meant to convey.

Give yourself a little time to cool down, then go through the requested changes one by one, highlighting those which seem reasonable.

Go back through the text (or the editorial memo, or the letter from the agent) again and highlight (either in a different color or not, as you choose) the requests about which your considered reaction (rather than your first one) is tepid. A LOT of editors have particular words that they like or dislike intensely; don’t take it personally if your critiquer crossed out a bunch of your words and replaced them with synonyms. Most of the time, accepting such alterations will make little difference to the quality of the manuscript overall. If you don’t care much one way or another, this is an easy concession to make.

Making two passes over the manuscript will help clarify in your mind whether the requested changes that so outraged you at first are worth a fight. If you are going to get into an argument with someone who has power over you and your work, it’s a good idea to narrow your focus down to what is truly objectionable, rather than the critique in its entirety.

(2) Make all of the OTHER requested changes.

This is the single best thing you can do to preserve your reputation as a hard-working, reasonable writer. Go through the text and make every change you highlighted. That way, you establish firmly that you are willing to revise the text; it is the CONTENT of certain changes that disturbs you, not the fact of being criticized.

Granted, it may take a little time to plow through them all, but if there was ever a moment in your career not to procrastinate, this is it. It’s tempting to set the work aside, hoping that your critiquer will change his mind. It’s tempting to think that if you sit on the manuscript for awhile, a magic solution that requires no effort will occur to you. Unfortunately, many, many writers before you have faced this temptation, too, and fallen before it. Agents and editors complain constantly about writers who suddenly disappear for half a year at a time, ostensibly revising. However good the writer’s reasons may be, in the publishing industry, such a delay is considered passive-aggressive and annoying.

(Allow that irony to sink in for a moment. In an industry where it routinely takes a month to respond to a query, several months to consider a manuscript for representation, and months on end to read a manuscript with a eye to purchasing it, the writer who goes mute upon being asked to revise work is singled out as passive-aggressive. Go figure.)

(3) Make a list of the remaining suggestions, ranked in order of distastefulness.

This step is really for you, as a preparation for discussion with your editor and/or agent. Write down a few specific arguments for each — text-based arguments, rather than merely the fact that you hate these suggestions. Ranking them will force you to reexamine just how much you actually object to each. Are there some changes that you would be willing to make if you did not have to make others?

(4) Ask your editor or agent for clarification of the contested points, mentioning first that you have already made the bulk of the requested changes.

Now that you have singled out a few specific points out of the array of suggested changes, it is time to approach your critiquer to negotiate. Make it non-confrontational, and do try, if at all possible, to single out one of the suggestions you already implemented for praise.

Say that you do not understand the purpose of some of the suggested changes, and ask for clarification on specific points. (You’d be surprised how often an editor miswrote a suggestion in the margins, asking for change A when he really wanted change H.)

I always advise making this request via e-mail, so you have a written record of the afterward. (If you are making this request of an editor, consider discussing the situation with your agent first, if you have one. Your agent may well want to handle this situation for you.)

(5) Reassess.

Carefully note any changes in what you are being asked to do, and make any subsequent changes that seem reasonable RIGHT AWAY. That way, you have demonstrated yet again that you are a reasonable author, willing to work with your editor or agent — which will place you in a stronger position in future negotiations on the remaining points.

Take another look at your list of unacceptable changes. Does anything on it still need to be addressed, or can you now finish revising your manuscript in peace? Have you won enough concessions that you could live with the rest of the changes?

Take a few days to linger on this step, deadlines permitting, because it is an extremely important one. You are deciding whether your remaining objections are worth a fight with your agent or editor, two people whom you really do want to be fond of you and your work. If you have any suspicion that your objections to the remaining points are based in your pride being hurt, rather than fear that your BOOK will be hurt, make sure you understand your own motivations.

Incidentally, if pride is the issue, I think it is perfectly acceptable for you to go back to your agent and editor and say, “You know, I really appeciated your feedback on the book, but I noticed that I had a hard time with the way it was presented. It may just be my personal pet peeve, but I hear constructive criticism much better if it’s put as X, rather than as Y.” This is not being whiny; it’s clarifying the conditions under which you work best. The more information you can give your agent and editor about how best to communicate with you, the less of everyone’s time and energy will be wasted on missed signals.

If you decide that the remaining point(s) are so detrimental to the book that they are worth a battle royale, now is the time to start the negotiation process. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll give some practical tips about that.

I have walked a lot of clients through this process, and I can tell you from experience that no matter whether you decide to push forward with your objections or not, if you have gone through the first five steps in a spirit of honesty, dedicated to the integrity of your manuscript, you will earn a reputation for being a level-headed, reasonable writer eager to revise. That’s no mean feat, considering that you began the process in fundamental disagreement with your agent or editor.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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