Your Path to Publication: Get Out the Red Pen

February 25, 2013

Life After Art is a mere five weeks away, and today’s entry in our Path to Publication series was the toughest chapter for me in getting BookEditingpublished.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how some parents don’t want their children’s teachers to use red pens, because having mistakes pointed out is stressful…

Well, it’s true, turning over your hard work to an editor is stressful.  For me, it was the most stressful, anxiety inducing part of readying Life After Art to see the light of day.

But…it was certainly worth it.

So, what can you expect, and how should you prepare for the editor to put red ink all over your hard work?

Seeing Red

For months, the only eyes who had seen Life After Art were my own, and those of my dedicated literary agents.

I honestly didn’t know if the book was any good.  I mean, I liked it.  But every parent thinks their own baby is cute, right?

My agent liked it.  But I still couldn’t be sure.  Even when Moody offered a contract, I just wouldn’t let myself believe that the manuscript was actually, objectively good.  

So when Brandon finally emailed me to introduce himself as my editor, I told him not to hold back.  Now was not the time for sugarcoating, tiptoeing or pussyfooting around whatever needed to be changed in the manuscript.  I did not want false praise.

The manuscript came back a few weeks later…and I saw red.

A Massacre of Red Ink

Scanning through my manuscript, my baby, covered in red comments was gut wrenching.  It was like a massacre.  Red, red everywhere.  

Now, it wasn’t like there were massive, seismic changes that needed to be made.  My original manuscript as I submitted it to Moody came out the other side in tact, which is better than many authors can claim.  This indicated that overall, the manuscript was good.  This was more like death by a thousand paper cuts.

It literally took me about two weeks just to get through the manuscript, to read the comments, to make the changes, to approve the edits.  I couldn’t stand it for more than about fifteen minutes at a time before I’d have to give up and watch some Netflix.


I finally felt embarrassed.  I felt embarrassed that someone had found my mistakes, so many mistakes.  There were a lot of mistakes that now seemed obvious. There were mistakes that I committed repeatedly.  Criticism, even when it is constructive, is tough to handle.  It was like reading a hundred one-star Amazon reviews.  I was all too glad to get it over with.

But I am sure grateful for my editor, as much as his work pained me.

Hand Someone A Red Pen

I could tell Brandon was feeling me out with his introductory email.  He needed to know what kind of a person I am, and how I would react to someone whose job it is to criticize others’ work.

So, I gave him permission to not hold back, to let the red ink flow with abandon and no consideration of my feelings. Why?

Because his eyes were the first to get a pure reading of Life After Art, without the benefit of a proposal or verbal explanation from me.  For the first time, I had the chance to find out of my book was actually coherent, if it was actually good.  I couldn’t afford to let his insight go to waste to protect my ego.  That wouldn’t make the book any better.

After the job was done, I asked Brandon about this.  He confirmed that he has to practice some diplomacy when trying to edits many writers’ work.  He also said that my permission worked.  He actually was more thorough, more careful, more attentive to my work because I gave him permission to do his job.  I couldn’t have been happier with that news.

That’s the takeaway, and really it’s applicable to everyone.  Take constructive criticism.  Give people permission to pick your work apart.  Hand them the red pen.  Don’t make them feel like they have to protect your feelings.  Your writing is not scripture.  It can be changed.  And if you go with it, your writing will come out a hundred times better.

Have you ever been edited, critiqued or criticized before on your work?  Tell us about your experiences. (Or ask me more questions about dealing with your own editors.)

6 responses to Your Path to Publication: Get Out the Red Pen

  1. I’ve recently had some work edited for a new group blog I’m involved in. One of the things I hadn’t really thought about before having this piece edited was how previous writing experience in different genres shapes how I write. In my case it was elements of writing style favoured by those editing or assessing academic writing that caused me trouble. It was things like the use of qualifying language (“somewhat”, “very”, “appears to be” ect), avoiding use of first person language in favor of passive voice and writing in long paragraphs. These are generally not good style when blogging about personal experiences. It is well over a year since I have done any serious academic writing and what I’m writing about now is different to anything I’ve researched in the past but the quirks still unconsciously slip through.

  2. Yes! As an editor, I feel like a horrible person ripping apart others’ work but sometimes it’s necessary to hear the brutal truth. As a writer, it hurts but the work’s so much stronger on the other side.

  3. My poor wife edits every post I write. She is brilliant at it but it is a little close to home. Also when I was in some of my drawing classes in college it was common to have a critique day before a project’s due date. It was tough to be both the critic and criticized with in 2 hour time period. It took our class about a month of working together and suffering through it to get into a rhythm. We found our best work on the other side of that criticism. Great post and advice Matt.