Would You Take Back a Manuscript Before Your Editor Finished Working on It?

Several times throughout my freelance career, I have had reason to suggest an author take back a manuscript and work on it some more before I continue with my editing. The reactions I have received run the gamut.

The first time this came up, I had been hired for a developmental edit and project management. I had done plenty of project management but was new to manuscript development, and it wasn’t until I had put in about 10 hours of work that I realized the project really amounted to a ghostwriting assignment.

WorriedGhostwriting costs a lot of money for a number of reasons, the two most obvious being it takes a lot of skill and it takes a lot of time. It definitely costs more than development. With my client’s pocketbook in mind, I suggested he take back the manuscript, do some work to transform what had been a transcript into a narrative, and then come back to me for editing. Even though I was confident this was a better tack for the author, I was nervous to make the suggestion because it meant changing the terms of our agreement. It turns out I was right to be nervous: the client was irate.

Although I did my best to explain what my motivations were, the client felt I must somehow be trying to get out of the work I had agreed to do and make him do it. In his mind I was running a scam to get more money out of him. The funny thing is, if I had been crooked, I would have kept my mouth shut, racked up a bunch of hours doing shoddy work, and returned a manuscript that was passable but not good. If he hadn’t been so angry, he would have seen that what I was suggesting would save him time and money because I wouldn’t have to query every sentence I wrote and I wouldn’t have to charge him for ghostwriting when he had hired me for development. His fear of being taken advantage of prevented him from reacting in a rational manner.

That project petered out, not because of this encounter — after 30 minutes of heated discussion the client finally understood what I was suggesting and why — but because the author simply stopped returning the edited/ghostwritten chapters. He found out writing a book is more work than he first thought.

That experience left me gun-shy, but a few years later, I again determined it would be in my client’s best interest for me to return the manuscript for revision before continuing with the editing. I had made significant, large-scale changes to the first two chapters and suggested the client apply some of the basic principles of good writing that I had highlighted. This time, the client agreed. I was thrilled. We worked out a new table of contents and a new framing for the story; the author was completely on board. I knew execution was going to be the critical point, but I crossed my fingers and marked my calendar for four weeks out, when I expected to receive the revised manuscript.

Surprise! One week later the author returned the entire 400-page manuscript, “fully revised.” To her credit, she had made some of the most important structural changes. However, the writing was not improved. Whereas some authors will see the kinds of changes I have made and apply them to the rest of the book, effectively learning something about what makes a strong sentence and what their crutches are, this author was unable to take advantage of the same opportunity. Alas, editing proceeded but the book was never as good as it could have been.

Not too long ago, I once again offered to return a manuscript for revision before I completed the editing. As always, I did this with a little trepidation. I know my motivation is with the author’s best interests, but I also realize it may be insulting to have someone say your book needs so much work, you should just take the whole thing back. The impression that somehow I am shirking my duty as editor is another factor that fuels my fear. But this client and I had a history, so I decided to take the chance.

CooperationThis time, there was no need for fear or insecurity. The client felt no threat and understood exactly where I was coming from. Yet, he passed up the opportunity for one more revision. In this case, he had his hands full with other projects and felt confident enough in what he had submitted and in my ability to improve it. For him, the time and money he was spending on editing fit his schedule and budget. Although I felt he could have improved the book in ways I couldn’t — and if he made some of the more basic revisions, then I could focus on other aspects of storytelling — in the end the project proceeded as scheduled. I respected my client’s decision, but I did feel he could have made a more powerful book with one more thorough revision.

I have also worked with authors who are willing to take my challenge, and the results can be astounding. In one instance when I was hired for a copyedit, before I had finished my first pass through the manuscript, it was clear the book really required development first. (For a discussion of the differences, see Four Kinds of Editors: In Brief.) I wrote the author and explained what I had found: time line problems, inconsistent characterization, and a weak ending, among other issues. I provided detailed notes about what the problems were and how I thought he might fix them. He agreed to do a full revision based on my comments.

A month or so later, the client returned his revised manuscript. Having already experienced authors who did not employ any of my suggestions or make alternative changes to solve the problems I had highlighted, I did not know what to expect. What I discovered on reading the new manuscript was thrilling. A full revision, with time line problems addressed, characterization strengthened, and — what’s this? — a completely reimagined ending for the novel. Better than simply making the changes I suggested, he had taken my guidance into consideration, played with it for a while, and come up with something all his own. Now this was a work both the author and I could be proud of!

So what would you do if your editor, partway through a project, suggested you take back the manuscript, perform a thorough revision, and resubmit it? Would you assume you were being scammed? Would you stick to what you had and let the editor do his or her best with it? Or would you take up the challenge, approach the project with renewed vigor, and take your manuscript to the next level?

In each of these instances, I suggested the author thoroughly revise his or her manuscript before continuing with editing in order to achieve the most efficient use of the client’s time and money — and to some extent, my time as well — in pursuit of the best product. I know that often, if the author does more work, then he or she will have to pay me less. The line will never reach zero, but many writers can save significant amounts of money and achieve much higher quality if they are willing to revise their manuscripts under the guidance of a professional editor. Some writers are astute enough to capitalize on this opportunity. I hope that more will do so in the future.

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15 thoughts on “Would You Take Back a Manuscript Before Your Editor Finished Working on It?

  1. bookshelfbattle June 29, 2015 / 9:05 AM

    I suppose at some point if the manuscript is really bad it’s almost like asking the editor to write the book for you rather than just edit it.

  2. Liz Dexter June 29, 2015 / 9:52 AM

    I’ve had to do this a couple of times so far. One time I stopped part way and advised the client that really they needed to go right back to the beginning and craft the story. They still wanted me to finish editing it, so I did, knowing that I had warned them. I told them at the end, again, that there was only so much I could do and they needed to revise it, go to a writers’ group, get feedback from peers, etc. I never heard back from them.

    The second time, I had a very unshaped mass of material and almost immediately I could tell that this wasn’t ever going to make “a book”. I returned the mss and again suggested the author join a writing group and also think about the aim and audience of his book. He did revise it significantly and did make it much stronger, so I was happy to edit it second time round, and we were both happier with what we ended up with.

    Thank you for writing about this topic – I don’t think I’ve seen it blogged about before!

    • Katherine Pickett June 29, 2015 / 10:06 AM

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Often it’s clear from a sample of the manuscript what level of editing will be needed, but sometimes these things take us by surprise.

      • Liz Dexter July 6, 2015 / 9:15 AM

        Yes, indeed – and even though I always ask for a sample from the *middle* of the mss, how often does that happen, and you get the bit at the start that’s been worked over a million times!

  3. smm2c6 June 29, 2015 / 11:33 AM

    I recently started looking for freelance work on Upwork and quickly discovered that most jobs were grad students looking for someone to “Develop” their theses. I was surprised, but also apparently naive.

    Great post!

    • Katherine Pickett June 29, 2015 / 1:16 PM

      That’s a common problem. Editors have to take care not to cross any ethical lines with the amount of work and content they contribute to a piece. Thanks for reading!

  4. Eyeland Gurl June 29, 2015 / 1:39 PM

    I respect your decisions Katherine. As a professional, you should always do what is in the best interest of the client. And this means that you can’t always agree with everything that the client does. As the professional Editor, it is your job to make suggestions as you see fit. Hats off to you for being professional in your role as editor!

  5. Kitty Sheehan June 30, 2015 / 12:24 PM

    Reblogged this on Kitty Sheehan and commented:
    A precise explanation of a common sense approach to editing an author’s work.

  6. Amber Medina, M.A. July 1, 2015 / 12:07 AM

    Excellent article. Thank you! As a beginning freelance editor, I can now see how easy it is to get into a situation like this. Good to know others face the same challenge.

  7. rosysophia July 1, 2015 / 12:58 PM

    Great article! Fellow EFAer stopping by to check out your website. I am going to add your book to my wish list, as well. Congratulations on all your successes!

  8. MichaelEdits July 3, 2015 / 9:58 AM

    I’ve had to do this a few times, but fortunately none lately. If I reject a manuscript but can recommend an editor who’s a better fit, I feel great. If I just reject it with no advice other than “work on it some more,” I feel bad, even when that’s the right advice.

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