What My Editor Said

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My muse, acrylic on canvas, copyright, Joan Z. Rough 2002

My muse, acrylic on canvas, copyright, Joan Z. Rough 2002

It’s back. You know … the manuscript I sent to my editor a few weeks ago. Although there were a number of beta readers who read it after I wrote the first draft, this time things feel very different. When I sent it out to Kathy, Shirley, Jane, Judy, Kevin, Bill and Sue, early in the year, I was excited at having gotten that far. I knew my story  needed lots of work. But I also needed a sense of what it could be. Why go on if it wasn’t going to be a story that people would want to read?

Their verdict, in all cases, went something like this, “Powerful story. Send it to a developmental editor.”

After many months of tearing it apart, deleting, adding new material, and putting it back together again, I sent it out to Dave Malone, who  has a great reputation for his work in helping writers look at the “Big Picture.” Last week he sent me a fifteen page document with his comments, accompanied by my manuscript with more detailed comments.

At first I was overwhelmed. When I sent the manuscript out to him, I was totally sick and tired of my story. I had a few thoughts about killing it off and moving on to something else.

Okay, I’ll start painting again. Maybe I’ll go back to writing poetry. I’ll start working on my bucket list. I still have that urge to visit Mongolia. What about going back to Africa and taking Bill with me this time, so he can see the elephants living in the wild where they belong?

But still, there was that silly, naive hope  that I was just tired, and that this highly recommended editor would think my book was perfect. 🙂

Thankfully, Dave started his comments with, “I have a lot of feedback for you, and despite how intensive it may be, know that I believe in your memoir, and I do hope you continue moving forward with it to publication.”

He added other wonderful compliments and commendations, but it was the rest of what he had to say that gave me pause and an increasing ache in my already tempestuous stomach.“Delete this; delete that; show, don’t tell; add more of this and less of that.” 

I set it all aside for a few days, worked in the garden, spent some time with friends, and had a great massage.

All along I knew there was no killing it off, going back to Africa, painting, or writing poetry. At least for the moment. I picked up Dave’s comments and reread them. The “big picture” I’d had in mind was willing to change a bit.

I liked much of what he suggested … like choosing a different starting chapter and eliminating a lot of stuff that is unnecessary and repetitive. But there are other things I still don’t agree with him on. Perhaps as I start rewriting again, I’ll change my mind about those things and begin to see his point of view. But maybe I won’t. I have the major puzzle pieces of my story before me and hopefully I can put them back together in a way that makes sense to all of my future readers.

To his comments, Dave graciously added: What I say is NOT the law. Merely suggestions (though confident ones nonetheless). You must own your changes; you must own your edits.”

As I begin the next stage of my process, I’m taking all of his words seriously. I’m staying open, letting go of expectations, and dancing with my muse. I’m allowing myself to take my time. I’ll continue to take risks, make mistakes, and start all over again if need be. After all, that’s what life is all about.

Do you allow yourself to risk making mistakes? How do you react to what you consider failure?

The Winner of Last weeks Book Give Away of Bonnet Strings, An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, by Saloma Miller Furlong, is Dorothy Sander, over at Aging Abundantly. 



  1. Joan – When I got my manuscript back from my editor, it had so much red ink it looked like it was hemorrhaging! Take heart and continue to dance with you muse. It’s all going to be well worth it!

  2. Gail Livingston says:

    I know EXACTLY how you feel. I am there with an editor right now who is finishing his editing on the part I have sent him — not a whole book. I can do a lot of what he suggests, but the major organization he suggests just does not work for me. Like you, I am sick and tired of writing this story — it’s keeping me stuck in the past. All I really wanted to do was write a 5,000-8,000 word summary of my experiences growing up in the racist Jim Crow South. Now I have expanded scenes and written dialogue in many places that are positive changes. But I just don’t know if I can go on. I have other material I wanted to work on too. And yet I cannot let it go. YOur words have helped me a lot to be able to receive his next suggestions. Still makes me feel sick to think of all the work I have to do.

    You might want to consider going to the Wildacres Writer’s Workshop in Little Switzerland, NC next July. They have top-notch writers there (inc. Ron Rash) and the format puts you in a writing group where 9 other people have given serious consideration and mark-ups of your work, and the teachers are fantastic. Lee Zacharias, my teacher last time, has just published a novel and a collection of essays called “The Only Sounds We Make.” (An excuse to see your daughter too while in NC)

    • Joan Rough says:

      Thanks, Laurie. I appreciate your encouragement!

    • Joan Rough says:

      The interesting thing is that now that I have some more feedback, I’m excited to get back to work on my story but will still take my time and choose to disagree when I need to.

      Maybe you should just take a break from your writing for now and go and do something fun. Or start working on something else. I know your story is compelling and I’d hate to see you toss it. It’s good stuff.


  3. Joan … I went through this with a development editor, and then with my final editor. My suggestion is to breathe deep, and put the MS in a drawer for a couple of weeks. When you go back to it, you will be able to see—with delight—the places to expand on and —with relief— the places to be trimmed or cut. But it’s so easy to fall in love with our own words … you need to let some time pass.
    And, BTW, most editors will not spend a lot of red ink on something that they don’t think has potential.

    • Joan Rough says:

      Thanks, Mary. I’m not at all turned off by what the editor had to say. He is just one among many I value and listen to. I’m finding this a great opportunity to examine my own words, their value, and exactly who my audience is. As a child, I followed all of the rules because if I didn’t I was punished, sometimes brutally. As an adult, I like to break some rules when it makes sense to me. That is what dancing with my muse is all about.

  4. Joan,

    You ended with these questions:

    “Do you allow yourself to risk making mistakes? How do you react to what you consider failure?”

    But what does that have to do with the subject of your post? You haven’t made any mistakes and you’re not a failure. You’re simply getting input from other people who may or may not be “right.” I wondered what would happen if I sent my manuscript to 2 editors. I’ll bet their versions would have looked completely different.

    Keep up with the process however it feels best for you.

    • Joan Rough says:

      Valerie, You are absolutely right. By asking those questions I gave the wrong impression of how I feel about the incoming edit. I do NOT feel like a failure. The edit was a great experience for me and I have learned much. You are also right on in your wondering about what would happen had you sent your manuscript to two different editors. They would probably agree on alot of things but they will also show you two different ways to go. In the end our stories are our own and if told well they will be successful. For me the role of the editor should help us do that. That I disagree with some of what Dave had to say, does not mean my book will fail if I don’t follow a few of his suggestions. As he said, I have to OWN my edits. That said, I Will.

  5. Gail Livingston says:

    Oh god, what a timely post from you, Joan. My editor just emailed my MS back — bleeding not so much as major reorganizations and more transitions. I must not even remember how to do transitions. I am sick at the thought of working on it — so I WILL put it away for a bit. Problem is I’ve already put it away the whole time he’s been working on it and many times before that. But I am volunteering in the election in NC and will probably do some volunteer tutoring at the community college, so I’ve got plenty of distractions. Just glad I’m not the only one who reacts as you did to the many changes suggested by an editor. Maybe you will be one of my Beta readers at some point since you’ve seen it when it was just a narrative — all telling, little showing.

    • Joan Rough says:


      Again, work on something else. Go get a massage, take a walk every morning at dawn. We all get tired of our own material and when we are, we can’t handle critique and what needs to be fixed. You are tired. Go back to it next month. I’m taking a break from my manuscript and will work on it when it calls to me. In the meantime, I’m working in my garden, working on a few guest blog posts, seeing people I dearly love, and being very grateful to all of my friends who have supported me through this writing process.

  6. Jeri Leach says:

    Courage, my friend! Don’t give up. Consider the feedback carefully, sit with it for a while, listen to your heart and then continue. It will be worth it.

  7. I sense no failure in anything you shared. My god, you reached a milestone and off went your creation to an editor. I feel like exclaiming, “Wow!!” So many would be writers make excuses and stare at walls. This creation of yours, like all children, will grow legs of it’s own and walk into the world. It is from you, but is not you. You’ve shown great courage releasing it. This is a success. It is strength. It is wonderful!

    • Joan Rough says:


      Thank you! I am considering the feedback carefully and so appreciate your visit here and your support!

    • Joan Rough says:

      Susan, I have given you the wrong impression. I in no way feel like a failure. I have reached a milestone … one I never in all my years expected I would. I take what your words into my heart and am grateful for them. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!

  8. Well, Joan, if it’s any consolation, I felt the same way when I got Dave’s suggestions on my work. He helped me excise one whole chapter and really “punched up” the word choices and internal structure of each chapter. I learned a lot from him.

    I know the feeling of “it’s just so hard to re-think all this one more time.” I was actually suffering physically from the exertion of the last edit. So much so that I am taking my good old time to decide whether and how to write a second book. Deadline pressures made the last edit very taxing.

    Take what’s yours and let the rest go. If you can afford the time, I like Mary’s idea above.

    Big hug and many blessings, friend. You can do it. You already have.

    A quote for you:
    “Along with the yearning that came from some deep part of her, that was selfless and exalted, Thea had a hard kind of cockiness, a determination to get ahead. Well, there are passages in life when that fierce, stubborn self-assertion will stand its ground after the nobler feeling is overwhelmed and beaten under.”
    ― Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark

  9. Joan Rough says:

    Shirley, Love the quote, Thanks. I know you’ve been through it too. You were just beginning to deal with it when you were here for the book festival that one spring. Fortunately I don’t have the pressure you had to get it done in two weeks. I am taking lots of time to just be, cook, and read. I’m rather enjoying it and will get back to it in a few weeks.

    You are courageous to even think about another book, the call to do another may be so strong, you’ll have no choice. You’ve had a busy year. I don’t blame you for taking your time.

    I will be in touch soon. It’s time for a visit!

  10. You’re doing great work, Joan. I sense you’re listening to your heart and intuition, and both, along with Dave’s comments, will steer you where you need to go. The acts of writing in the first place, then sending to an editor for feedback… both take courage. You’ve shown you have courage in all regards.

    Completing a memoir is a journey. It’s a journey of self-discovery. Of your herstory and of yourself as a writer. Imagine where you’d be if you’d not taken the first steps and learned all you have. Whether you finish or not… well, some people lose their momentum, and don’t. Either way, you have the results of the journey and experience, and can keep on keeping on from there. I believe in YOU!

    • Thank you, Debra! What a sweet heart you are. Yes, I am listening to my heart and intuition and with Dave’s comments will find my way. You are so right that writing memoir is a journey of self-discovery. I never imagined I’d get this far with my memoir. Your support and encouragement are greatly appreciated.

  11. Gail Livingston says:

    Who is this Dave guy several of you are using? How much does he charge? I might want to get one more opinion after I work through these from Richard.

    Also, Joan — or others — how many pages do you need to have for a book of this type?


  12. It is? I’ve been so out of the loop again! You write beautifully about your process. I always learn so much and relate. The ebb and flow of creation…the wanting to run away…give up…move on…but always, always coming back. I know you will finish your memoir. You have to, right? What I admire about you is your willingness to learn and grow and embrace your muse…to stretch, even when you may not want to. You are a gifted writer and you get better every day. I can’t wait to read your book when it is complete.

  13. Powerful post, Joan. We’ve all been there and felt like you have. Keep on. There’s light at the end of the tunnel and you’ll find it.