The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of editing

Years ago, in a time I was still considered to be young with potential, I covered the police beat for The Phoenix Gazette, working the morning shift for the (now dearly departed) afternoon daily. One day I dashed out a story about burglars who tossed out stolen items as they were chased by police.

That afternoon I was surprised by two things – it was on the front page, and the story that appeared below my byline was not my story. There were some common words, but that was purely coincidental.

What truly horrified me was that it was a much better story, playing the chase as if a scene from a Hollywood movie.

Still, that was some ugly editing. The editor should have done me the courtesy of letting me know he was rewriting the entire thing, making sure to remove my name from the story.

In my 35 years as a journalist, I’ve been lucky to have many extremely talented editors who collaborated with me to improve my stories. And I’ve had a few who took it upon themselves to make wholesale changes without so much as a heads-up (leaving me to answer for errors because they assumed facts not in evidence).

But the most egregious editing is aggressive editing, when the editor inserts his or her voice in the story, believing the tone is an improvement. Most of the time, however, it’s not better, just different.

Having thousands of stories under my (very old, unfashionable) belt, I’m a huge fan of editing. Wait, strike that. I am a huge fan of quality, collaborative editing, and fortunately that is what I’ve received more often than not.

Not long after my agent and I signed with Month9Books to publish Dead Jed, I had a conference call with the soon-to-be editor, Courtney.

Having no idea how other authors felt about their words (I never forgot mine appeared on cheap paper often used to potty-train pups or as filler in parcels), I made only one request of my new editor. If a rewrite is called for, please allow me the first stab (or two) at it.

A few months later Courtney sent me a lengthy cover letter telling me all that was wrong with Dead Jed, attaching the manuscript with suggested changes. I skipped right over her first paragraph that said something along of the lines of “I really like this book” and got right to the, “That being said …” part.

Due to a communications snafu, I had only two weeks to finish (four weeks fewer than planned). I added a chapter here, moved another one there. I strengthened a character, punched up some of the jokes, whittled down the (un)dead passages.

It was a lot of work, way more than I expected. And Dead Jed is a much better book for it. Courtney’s changes were excellent, and she let me do all the heavy lifting. There was still much fine-tuning along the way, but I am indebted to Courtney and look forward to working with her on the second book (which is in her hands right now, and no matter how much I liked the manuscript, I know Courtney will give me much more work to do – at least that’s what I’m hoping).


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