When Should Writers Stand Their Ground Versus Defer to an Editor?

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From Jane Friedman:


I write dark fantasy stories for adults that explore survival after sexual trauma and war. My work focuses on the aftermath of sexual violence and the way my protagonists stubbornly live well after the unthinkable. There are no on-page depictions of SA in my work. Naturally, edits are a must and I am very receptive to feedback (I’m in journalism, so tough deletions and red pens are familiar friends of mine).

As a debut writer who was previously represented by a literary agent, I made structural, style, and developmental edits to my manuscript on the guidance of my agent. I wanted to ask how an agent’s edits differ from those of a publishing house’s editor?

Since I work as a newspaper editor, I often have strong opinions about what accessible writing looks like. Should I stand my ground with regard to edits (professionally, of course) or is it best for unpublished authors to trust the expertise of their agents and editors? Especially when it comes to issues such as sexual violence, racism, or war, I am very firm that my work shouldn’t be edited purely for the sake of “good taste” or “finding the book a home” in the commercial market. How can a debut writer navigate this challenge?

—Writer Who Writes Entire War Scenes But Is Afraid to Even Politely Disagree

Dear Polite War-Scene Writer:

These are three great, intertwining questions, and the answers to all of them depend on a fourth: Do you want to traditionally publish?

For authors who self-publish, there are no gatekeepers and no intermediaries between their vision and the audience’s eyeballs. There’s also no one to save us from ourselves when we’re so wedded to our vision that we can’t see the red flags waving.

But questioning agent-editor-author relationships sounds like you do want to traditionally publish. Part of that process is finding an agent you trust and believe in, who trusts and believes in you, who will then negotiate a publishing deal that will support your vision while getting your book to as many eyeballs as possible.

A “good” agent—one who is the right partner to help you make your best book and sell it—may or may not be an editorial agent (that is, an agent who will also edit your work). The best publisher to support and distribute your book may ask for hundreds of revisions, or none. In both cases, sometimes the first round of revision requests come from the agent or editor’s assistant, to fix larger challenges before the agent or editor wades in for a last pass. What’s important is that you, the author, believe this partnership will help you. Perhaps you’ve admired books from this press or agency. Perhaps they said something profound in an interview. Or you loved their ideas on the pre-signing phone call. But whatever it was, you’re on board the We Can Do This Together Express, destination Bookshelves.

You should, of course, fundamentally agree with your partners’ advice, even if you want to quibble on the details. If your agent or publisher’s idea of “good taste” doesn’t line up with yours, they aren’t the right partners. Yes, there will be suggested edits where you say, “I really think it needs to be this way.” Very often, the problem the agent or publisher has identified isn’t actually at that exact place in the text. Sometimes the real issue is that a scene or a moment hasn’t been set up well, and the fix is adding or changing information in the pages before.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman