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  • [Reality Check] - Adventures in Editing by Joanne C. Hillhouse
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[Reality Check] - Adventures in Editing by Joanne C. Hillhouse
Written by
Zetta Brown
June 2014
Written by
Zetta Brown
June 2014

As writers, we get so caught up in the task of committing words to paper (or computer screen) that we often fail to consider what happens after we get everything written. The task of writing is just part of the starting phase with only the idea of the story coming first.

Whether you write one single draft or a dozen drafts, there comes a point where you are going to need a comprehensive edit of your work. If you are wise, you will give this job to another person for the sake of having a fresh pair of eyes go over your manuscript.

If ever the adage about walking in another person's shoes reflects the truth, Joanne C. Hillhouse shares how editing the work of others has added insight not just to her own editing philosophy, but also to the craft of writing and dealing with the editing process.

Adventures in Editing
By Joanne C. Hillhouse

I continue to learn as much about writing from editing other people’s work as I do from writing my own. It is a slow revelation. Because editing is about discovering what works for the manuscript in front of you – not manipulating it into what you want but letting it breathe, unrestricted; whether those restrictions are clunky word choices, awkward phrasings, or a plot lacking logical or rhythmic flow. Often you, the author, can’t see it yourself, you’re too close, your vision is blurry; which is why I think it’s a good idea, paid or unpaid, to get someone to bring fresh eyes and emotional distance to do a thorough review of it before sending it out into the world. This applies whether you’re self-publishing or seeking a publisher.

When editing, Erykah Badu’s line at the start of the live performance of “Tyrone” always comes to mind: “Keep in mind that I’m an artiste, and I’m sensitive about my sh*t.”  I understand this sentiment instinctively as a writer, but it’s useful to me as an editor as well; a reminder to take care.

That said, it doesn’t help the writer to pretend that what doesn’t work, does, and so I do have to be honest; I’ve found the ones who are serious about their writing appreciate that and that sometimes you’re really just reinforcing what they already know.

“I went directly to the passages that I felt were weak, I was unsure of, and you highlighted them also,” emailed one client, who’s since informed me that he’s making good progress with his review thanks to my “suggestions, ideas, advice.” What I appreciate about his choice of words is that he clearly didn’t feel like I was twisting his arm, yet he saw what I was saying. 

The best editors I’ve worked with during edits of my books never made me feel like they were telling me so much as guiding me. I’ve modeled a similar approach, and felt reassured when my first ever editing client, ever, in her performance review wrote,  “Joanne handled my writing with respect not only to personal style but that the voice be authentic.” She described me as “meticulous,” another said she appreciated my “honesty,” but I like that they both felt that their work was respected. It’s a delicate dance, and I’m still learning the steps.

For the record, it’s a two-step.

When choosing an editor, clarity of purpose and trust are important. Honestly, because I’m all about the work not the personalities, I didn’t consider the importance of chemistry until a prospective client insisted on Skyping with me. So, we Skyped. It wasn’t an interview; it was a chat—about the book yes, but in many ways a very informal chat that deepened our understanding of each other and my understanding of her goals with respect to the book. Though she’d assured me that the job was mine after our chat, the sample chapter she’d sent still felt like an audition; like I could blow it. In the end, I did what I always do. I approached the work with the openness and curiosity of a reader and the careful, detail-oriented attention with which I approached every assignment.  I made suggestions and corrections, explored what worked, what didn’t. And all the while, I found that because of our chat, she was there with me the whole time.

When I sent it, she had a follow up question related to one of my notes and made this comment: “The other notes were spot on and much appreciated.”

Because of the level of details in my edits, I sometimes worry that it might overwhelm or discourage the author. “You did a great job with the content editing and I'm sure author was surprised to see the number of comments,” one publishing executive wrote to me, and I found myself hoping and wishing that “surprised” wouldn’t translate to “overwhelmed.”  As a writer, I know what it is to receive or to try to process what seems like mountains of notes. In each instance it’s helped me make the work better, but my initial reaction is something like whoa. What works for me is to put it down for a while then to come back to it and take it in bits and pieces, as much honest assessment as you can take in one sitting and no more. I hope the authors I work with have similar strategies for coping...the ones I have direct contact with, i.e. the ones who hire me directly without a middle person from a publishing house, give me hope in this regard. One contacted me at least a year on from her edit to say, “Recently I picked up (story name) and followed through with your edits. Just sending you a re-worked story as your edits really helped in making me open up the story in some places and see some of the stories and characters in a new light.”

Even better for me, when I read the revised story, not only was the manuscript much improved, I couldn’t feel my grubby fingerprints all over it; it was like it had evolved all on its own. Though I had helped shape it, it was still very much her story. And it should feel like that at the end, I think, like it’s still the story that you set out to tell...only better.


Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of The Boy from Willow Bend (Macmillan & Hansib, UK), Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (Macmillan, UK), Fish Outta Water (Pearson, UK) and Oh Gad! (Strebor/Atria/Simon & Schuster, USA). She’s also been published in several anthologies and journals including, forthcoming in 2014, Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Peekash, USA) and A Letter for My Mother (Strebor, USA).

She’s Antiguan and Barbudan, and freelances from her piece of the rock as a writer, journalist, writing coach, workshop facilitator, and editor. She also runs a writing programme called the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize.

For more on Wadadli Pen and the literary arts in the Caribbean: http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com
For more on Joanne visit: http://jhohadli.wordpress.com 

[PHOTO CREDIT: Joanne pictured at the 2012 launch of her book Oh Gad! - image courtesy byZIA Photography.]


Got a [REALITY CHECK] about the publishing life to share? If you would like to be a guest on my blog, please friend me on She Writes with a message! :)

©2014. Zetta Brown is an editor and the author of several published short stories and the erotic romance novel Messalina: Devourer of Men. If you like this post, then stop by Zetta’s Desk.

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  • Inge Saunders

    Thank you Joanne. No horror stories :)

  • Thanks for reading and sharing your experiences. I'm a writer first so I know how hard it is to let another person into that intimate creative process, albeit at the tail end of the process, which is why when I take on another author's work I do so with an appreciation of how difficult it is for  them to trust it to someone else. I try to do my best, to pull out the best in the work with that in mind. Like you, Inge, as a writer, I have to work often with notes from the publisher's editor and trust that editor's intent...knock on wood, no horror stories to date...in each instance, I've felt satisfied that the story remained true to itself, that my voice remained my own...usually, I think, because, in my experience, there's room for dialogue, so that I use my words when I need to and don't feel dictated to... and I stay open to suggestions that could make the work better. Plus, tedious and nerve wracking as the process can be, I love having someone there to catch me. I hear what you're saying RYCJ, and you're not wrong...I'm not speaking in absolutes though (not intentionally anyway). 

  • RYCJ Revising

    By the laws of physics once another person has put his or hands on a work their fingerprints are on the work whether they intended they be there or not.

    That said, I do agree that collaborating on pulling stories together can really bring a story off the page. We used to do this when writing screenplays and they were major fun! 

  • Mardith Louisell

    Amen. Well-put and clear.

  • Inge Saunders

    Love the post. I'm in Round 3 of a content edit of my novel and apply the 'walk away for a it & get some air' strategy before I sit down and work through my edits. Unfortunately since I'm working through a publisher, it's been difficult to form a relationship with my editor, but since I know the aim is to 'bring out' the story & not undermine the integrity of my voice, I haven't had problems with her suggestions. Though I have to say I like you approach of 'guiding' as opposed to 'instructing'. For a newbie author such moments hadn't only been overwhelming but made me a bit *cough* hot under the collar :)

  • I loved this blog post!  I have worked with Caroline Leavitt on three rounds of developmental editing and she is amazing!  Caroline got inside my head and made the evolution of my novel, Unhealed Wound, into the novel I wanted but could not quite structure right.  She not only provided examples for improving the structure but also gave me suggestions for new scenes.  I thought of Caroline Leavitt as a midwife and muse, who helped me give birth to the novel I always wanted to produce!  Can't recommend her too highly!!  Caroline is so encouraging as well as constructive and writes superb novels herself.

  • Patricia Robertson

    So true! Good editors know how to bring out the best in a writer's work without leaving their "fingerprints." As such they are an invaluable resource.