Lately, I have been working with a group of authors on an anthology. They are all at different stages in their writing careers. I am on the developmental edit team, and working across the experience spectrum has been eye-opening. It has made me reflect on my writing journey, and how to help others with theirs. There’s so much I know now that I wished I knew back when I was working with my first editors and beta readers.
It’s easy to be in awe of your own work. However, the beta-reader/commenter/editor is flagging things for a reason. The story lives in our head; we know 100% of it, but we’re lucky if 60% makes it to the page in the first draft.
Those comments are showing us what isn’t making it, highlighting what the reader doesn’t understand (literally or stylistically). The comments don’t mean something is bad or wrong; they mean something is lost in the story's translation from your brain to the page.
When we see comments, we get upset and want to defend our story-baby on each one. We have the justification, and maybe it’s right. But if you find yourself justifying the same idea over and over—pause.
That is where you need to work. If it’s a matter of the reader not understanding what’s going on, you need to do a better job of explaining/describing. If it has to do with missing info/facts, that’s usually a quick fix - just move things around or expand a little, give us that tidbit that will help us make sense of what’s going on.
If the issue seems to be confusion about the world or character, you need to add details, a better description of setting, body language, etc. Use action tags in-between dialogue not only to add interest but to place your characters relative to each other, so the reader is able to set the scene in their mind.
If the reader is not engaged with your characters, you need to work on your character development. POV needs to be tight, well defined, and consistent. You need to get into your MC’s head and know their motivation and internal conflict/inner struggles and how this relates to how they present the story. If the character is going to tell the story in a particular way, you need to make sure the reader understands why the character is like this, or else that added layer of story you’ve worked so hard on will be lost. You must set the tone for the reader.
Revising is a huge part of writing. Writing is easy; words flow, drafts build... but revising is how you make sure that your vision, and story, is clear to a reader. This is hard, and impossible to do on your own
Understanding how to use editor comments is probably the most important skill for a writer to develop. Just as you shouldn’t blindly follow every suggestion, you also have to shut down that part of your brain that wants to shout, ‘No, I love this! Let me tell you why it works!’
Don’t tell them why it works in the comments. Show them in the story!
To make the most of the comments that your editors/betas leave on your manuscript, you need to understand how you are reacting to those comments.
I’d wager that everyone has that defensive gut reaction, whether they are newbies just starting out or established writers with a string of books to their name. I sure did when I first started out. I was working as a ghostwriter and the client connected me with the editor. When I tried to explain things, I was told that wasn’t my job; to stop, read the notes, and make it better. No ifs, ands, or buts.
While that was a direct hit, it was also easier because it wasn’t my story-baby on the line (well, it was, I was too close, but I digress). It was his story and his editor. I had to learn quickly to get at the root meaning of those comments and make the fixes. In the end, I got some really nice compliments from that editor. It helped me push forward in my own stories, and in my acceptance of revision comments.
No editor is highlighting things to tell you the story is bad—they are there because they want to help (however blunt some comments may seem). For me, if I write some crazy comment manifestos to someone, that’s a good sign. The more I rattle on, the more I am invested in the piece.
Dig deep, writers! Put your ego aside and take a moment to breathe.
As writers, we know our stories all too well. We see everything in our mind’s eye, forgetting that the reader is not privy to any of this. Translating this highly-detailed picture in our heads into words is difficult. It is impossible to do on without feedback. This is why editors’ and beta-readers’ comments are so valuable. They are basically your short-cut to a better story.
P.S. Dear writers, even this blog post has gone through my best editor! We cannot, and should not do it alone!