Of Egos and the Red Pen of Perfection
This is the final question from a CW Post student from my reading there last month.
How do you deal with a returned and edited manuscript? It’s perfect when I hand it in.
The woman who asked this question was terrific. She knew exactly what she was asking and knew the answer but wanted to know how to deal with the red pen of perfection. Most of us think our work is perfect or close to perfect when we hand it in. Otherwise, why would we hand it in? Then an editor gets ahold of it and either slants it with language they like, find ways to make it better, punctuates it in another style, or challenges us with new questions that we have to answer in order to make the piece complete.
I knew exactly what she meant. Man did I know what she meant. Even though by this time in my writing career I’m accustomed to revision after revision after revision I still hate to see an editor’s red marks on my manuscript. It hurts. There’s no way around it. Why do they want to change my words or punctuation or thought process as filtered through the words on my page? Usually it’s because… it could be better.
I think every writer gets to the point when they’re working on a book that they just don’t want to see it again – ever. I love my books, but I also want them to be finished. I always get to the point that I don’t want to work on them anymore, even if a little part of me knows there’s more work to do. For me it’s usually a good time to let the manuscript sit like for a month or three or six. Even a week’s break after an intense period of time with a manuscript can give a whole new perspective on the piece – especially if it’s not working – and I realize it’s not working – even if I don’t want to admit it out loud.
But feedback is always difficult to take in if it’s negative and if it’s true. Either one. Now saying this – know that sometimes editors are wrong. The same goes for fellow writers in a critique group and your life partner (but my wife is always right about my work – she just is). You just have to follow your gut as to what needs to be added to your manuscript, what needs to be cut, and what needs to stay the same. Over time working with someone on different projects you learn to figure out what to ignore and what to listen to. And as a writer I think each of us learns to shape our work and give it structure that is true to what we’re trying to say. Your sense of structure – of beginning-middle-end – tells you you’re on or off target with what you’ve written.
So how do I deal with a red-inked manuscript? I take a deep breath, read through the edits, accept what’s better, and cross out what’s not. It sounds simple but it’s really a lot harder than it sounds, because it will only work if my ego is in check and I can honestly tell what’s better and what’s not. And the ego, my ego, is a tricky writing partner. But the subject of ego is for another post and a brand new, rollerball, red ink pen of perfection.