How to be edited without getting colonized
There are endless articles, videos and masterclasses out there on how to edit. Take a step back from your work, they say. Cut everything that isn’t critical to the story. That tired phrase, kill your darlings, gets repeated as if you, dear writer, are simply a child willfully holding onto a security blanket that keeps you from growing up.
There is virtually nothing out there on how to be edited, especially on how to allow your work to come under scrutiny without losing your voice or the story you intended to tell in the first place. Nobody tells writers of color how to process the feedback from white editors, to take what’s useful and ignore what’s well-intentioned but not. And, of course, nobody ever edits white writers with the same scrutiny, which makes it hard to tell valid feedback from unnecessary gatekeeping.
I’m a good but rather lazy writer. I was allowed to become lazy because educational institutions had such low expectations that my ability to string together a complex sentence gave me straight As, even as most teachers failed to give me any constructive feedback at all. I’ve since learned that this is the double-bind faced by writers of color: on the one hand, people expect you to fail and are condescendingly surprised when you don’t; on the other, your talent is strange and different compared to what’s widely successful, and so you are allowed to succeed moderately but are rarely given that push to become truly great.
1. Mindset: Preparing to be edited
If you’re like me, the moment you finish your first draft is the moment you need validation. It truly hurts to have spent all this time working on something to not share it with others. Would you leave your tweets in draft form for a week, send them to a beta, and then decide to post them? Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? On the other hand, what if they hate it? What if they laugh at it, and you?
A writing teacher in college asked me, if I really wanted to be a writer, why hadn’t I written a novel yet? I said, “What if I write a bad book, and it’s out there, forever, and I can’t take it back? I feel like I need to be older and wiser before I write something permanent.”
Yeah, that was before social media. Still, when you hope that your work is going to be out there for years, even decades, when you intend that impressionable young minds in 2060 might read what you had to say and draw inspiration from it, when you worry you might fall into obscurity or, worse, be dismissed as dated and insignificant, then the weight of all those possible futures gives you pause and makes you think about your responsibility as a writer and why you’re writing in the first place.
Editing, done well, is not just proofreading for syntax, grammar and clarity. It’s a full design and peer review, a good-faith attempt to polish and future-proof your work to make it as universal and successful as it can be. It’s the greatest gift a writer can receive.
My first novel, Driving by Starlight, was rewritten at least four times. I say rewritten because it wasn’t just tweaked here and there, but completely reimagined after every round of feedback. Some writer-friends were concerned that I’d be willing to do that, and would ask me all sorts of questions, like:
How can someone edit your work without knowing about politics in Saudi Arabia? How can they be a good editor if they’ve never themselves published a book? Are they censoring you? Wouldn’t that be ironic, considering that your book is about censorship? Have they promised that after all this work, your book will be published?
Rather than answer each of these questions, I had to think about the editing process and what I wanted out of it. Deep down, every writer just wants to be understood. If an editor can help drive that understanding, that makes them a catalyst to your success. Here are things to keep in mind before you ever ask someone to read your work and provide feedback.
You will have to rewrite. You just will. So remember the idea you originally committed to, the heart of the story, and why telling this story matters to you.
Get away from the binary of asking whether they liked it or didn’t. The editor’s job is not to like the book, but to improve it. The best editor I ever had sent me several pages of excellent feedback, adding, “This isn’t a book I’d pick up. Just not my taste.”
It’s never just one thing. My agent, Kate McKean, wrote an incredible article about how it’s never just one thing that leads her to reject a story. Subscribe to her newsletter; it’s totally worth it.
No one editor will tell you all the things wrong with your story.
Even the most critical editors are afraid to tell you what they really think, or at least of how you might interpret their feedback.
The easier you make your editor’s job, the easier you make your eventual rewrite. This means it’s on you to format it the way they need, and operate on their schedule and send it to them early.
You have to force yourself to ask your editors to tell you the things you’re afraid to know. As an example, if you really want to write a good thriller, it has to be unpredictable. If you ask your editor to tell you if they’re able to see the plot-twists coming, you might not like the answer but it’s what you need to know.
2. Who: Intentionally choosing your editors
The editors you pick have to come in a certain order. Go straight for the professional editor and you’ve wasted a lot of money to hear information an amateur could have told you for half the price.
Even if you have an agent, they’re likely too busy for the kind of editorial relationship you’re hoping for, where they help your book be the best it can be before representing it. Also, the kind of feedback you’d get from an agent is different than what you’d get from an impersonal editor who isn’t in a long-term professional relationship with you.
Here’s an order that seems to be working for me. In each case, there is a specific thing I ask of the editor, with a particular goal in mind.
The homie: This is your strongest cheerleader. Usually a good friend, another writer, someone who knows you and what you set out to write. Send them the first draft. The question to ask is whether they make it to the end, and if so, how quickly? This only answers: is it readable? The goal here is not actually to get feedback, but to pick up the courage to go to the next editor.
The capable but busy friend: This is someone who reads, but usually only the news. Someone who doesn’t have the patience for fiction, or doesn’t usually read in your genre. Send them just Chapter 1. The questions to ask are: What do they think the story is about? What do they think of the characters so far? Do they want to read another chapter? This answers: is it comprehensible? Do you have a good hook? Is it a page-turner? The goal is only to find the first stumbling block and smooth it out.
The target audience (part 1): if you happen to know 4–6 people who might be into reading this sort of thing, send them the premise, only the premise, and ask if they’d like to read a few chapters or the whole thing. This answers: is it marketable? The goal is to know the uptake rate. < 50% interested and you aren’t telling a story that matters, or at least not one that anyone wants to read right now.
The target audience (part 2): To those who wish to read further, send them your work but ask open-ended questions that they can answer after reading even a few chapters (even if they don’t make it to the end). Ask which character(s) they are most interested/invested in and why? Who (if anyone) do they relate to and why? This answers: are your characters compelling? Are you going to reach the people you’re trying to? The goal is to make sure your characters have dimensionality and nuance.
The professional(s): This is an editorial agent, an editing service with good reviews, or someone you trust enough to critique thoroughly. If you can afford it, don’t go with just one editing service. Ideally, ask for at least two editors at a time who come from different race / gender backgrounds. Good editors will tell you what they’re best at looking for in a manuscript. At this stage, besides any grammar issues, you’ll find out about stereotypes and clichés, plot holes, too many new characters introduced too quickly, characters that are too similar to be distinguishable, word overuse, flat endings, and so much more. This stage of feedback can be overwhelming, but you’ve built up some muscle by now, so we can get to the next section, which is about processing editorial feedback.
3. How: Processing feedback from editors
After my agent gave me her first round of feedback, she actually called to make sure I was okay. (Yes, she’s the best). Most writers are not used to receiving their beloved MS covered in so many notes that the margins aren’t even enough and you have to write on the back of the page. However, her feedback was to the point, justified and constructive, and I had already, by that time, gotten used to far more critical feedback at work, often delivered with snark and without reasoning, so I could tell she cared and actually wanted me to learn. The faster you can read, process and internalize the feedback you’ve been given, the faster your rewrite will be. This means you need to be as efficient as possible in overcoming the emotions of anxiety, defensiveness or despair that might hold you back, and be able to tell valid criticism from a hazing ritual.
Set yourself up to read the feedback. Have ice-cream or another mood-lifter ready if you need it, and something else to take your mind off things after reading so you don’t obsess.
Print out the feedback before you read it. If that’s not an option, copy it into an editable document where you can interact with it, rather than simply treat it as an immutable edict from the gods.
After reading it, walk away and re-read the feedback at increasingly distant intervals. Until you can practically recite the feedback from memory, you’re not ready to act on it.
Highlight the positive feedback: Take your favorite highlight color and mark out what makes you feel good, where your intention was achieved, because the editor got what you were trying to say. My preference is an orange underline.
Lowlight the sexism and racism: have a laugh/cry with your homie about it if you need, but then take another color to such feedback, maybe the blue or purple highlighter that makes it hard but not impossible to see the words. The real challenge here is often knowing how to identify racism or sexism in feedback. One tactic I tried a long time ago was to send the same story for feedback to two professional editors, one under my pen-name and another under my real name. Here are some common phrases that merit the blue / purple highlighter in my book: these characters aren’t likeable / relatable enough for the average reader… It’s great to have loud, assertive women in the lead role, but have you read XYZ by [white author] that did this sort of thing well? … I don’t understand why Character was so affected by [some common microaggression]… Why wouldn’t she just leave the situation if it was that bad? That last one is complex, because on the one hand you do have an obligation as an author to explain why your protagonist of color can’t walk away or buy their way out of a bad situation, but an absence of widespread understanding of poverty and institutional racism means most editors just don’t understand characters who are conditioned into submission or quite literally have nowhere else to go.
Do an emotional pick-me-up exercise: document what you did well so you can lean into your strengths. e.g. if you have the feedback open in a document, copy-paste all the compliments and places that received praise into a single section and read it at the beginning and ending of every writing stretch. It’s a common fallacy that the road to improvement is to work on your areas of development. That usually amounts to trying to avoid hitting a tree on the side of the road by keeping your eyes directly on the tree instead of straight ahead. The fastest way to improve is to visualize success, which means adding to your strengths.
Exorcise the tropes: Find the things that annoyed your editor(s) and exorcise them from your mind. These could be tired word/phrase choices, stereotypes, deus ex machina plot-twists, whiny women, gays with no life of their own except to serve the straight protagonist, repetitive plot points, meandering subplots, flowery language, monologuing, hyperbole, etc. These are things you’ve become blind to, and are things that usually only an editor will find, although you can get better at recognizing them after drowning for a while at tvtropes.org.
Find the common thread: Identify things said in common by editors across different demographics, or, in my case, across 5 publishers who rejected an earlier draft of my book. They praised my language, my world-building, and my characterization. But what didn’t they say? Reading between the lines, it was clear that by the end of the book, they were underwhelmed. So they got to the end. But if the ending didn’t work, the story didn’t work. So I went back to the drawing board and rewrote the story again.
The UXR approach: When you’ve gotten so good at processing feedback that you can hear the most damning criticism without so much as a change of facial expression, I recommend an approach perfected by User-Experience Researchers, which involves allowing someone to read your story while in your presence, and then asking them a set of questions afterwards. It’s hard to get super-honest feedback, since nobody wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, but if you’re able to keep a poker-face and convince them that they are helping improve things for future readers (which they are), and that they can trust you not to be upset about negative feedback, this is a phenomenally useful method. I’ll likely do a whole other post on how we did this for my upcoming webcomic to test comprehension by watching how fast the reader processed the information on the screen, whether the jokes were landing, and how much the reader could recall afterwards.
4. Rewriting: Don’t kill your darlings. Just let the story breathe.
Make a copy of your story and save it in a separate place. Since all prior versions are saved in history, you can be ruthless in deleting, or even start with a blank slate and port over only the pieces that worked in the previous version. Rather than trying to change the first draft into the second, I usually start a new blank Scrivener project and port over anything I thought was good in the first draft as I need it.
But before I do that, I start with making sure I can articulate each of the following so that I never lose sight of the story I mean to tell. In Driving by Starlight, I cut at least 10 characters and their subplots between the first draft and the second. But the story, of young women falsely caught in conflict with each other but who develop, over time, a common purpose and the maturity to stand together against oppression, was always the goal.
Here are the questions you should be able to answer before you write or rewrite, and if the answers change between drafts, it should be intentional rather than simply to please one editor more.
What is the premise of the story? What would you write at the back of the book?
What does the story promise? e.g. if it’s a thriller, you’re promising an adrenalin rush, but if it’s a romance you’re promising at least a few climactic erotic scenes.
Who are the characters, what do they want, and why does it matter to them that they get it? Also known as the stakes, these are very often the biggest difference between one draft and the next. As you get closer to your final draft, the stakes become clearer and clearer.
What’s the voice? In the first draft of Driving by Starlight, the story was told by a distant, omniscient narrator. It didn’t work. In later drafts, it was told in simple third person. Eventually I realized it needed to be in first person and rewrote it again.
What’s the clock? What’s the deadline by which the story must resolve? Usually there’s an impeding graduation, a wedding, or a death that pushes characters towards their development.
How does it end? If the ending doesn’t work, you can’t just change the last chapter. You have to rewrite the whole plot. Better to know your destination at the outset.
There are a lot more questions I like to have answered before a draft / rewrite, but I usually find that this is enough structure to balance my “pantser” desire to write spontaneously against the risk that I’ll end up hitting a tree.
5. Avoiding colonization
Now, about avoiding colonization. The questions above are no different than the ones any writer might answer about their work. In addition, there are a set of questions to which I need to have an honest answer before I move forward on a rewrite.
Is my primary objective to write for an audience that shares the same world as my characters, or am I a translator trying to get outsiders to understand this world? No answer is more “correct” than the other, but it is important to be able to articulate the objective, as it will determine everything from how pronounceable people’s names are to the slang and vernacular you use.
Is my main character’s racial identity a circumstance or is it critical to the plot? This one’s a bit complex, but I’ll break it down. If the story is about becoming the captain of an American football team, and the protagonist happens to be of Japanese descent, there may be things that happen to the protagonist that wouldn’t happen to someone who wasn’t Japanese, but overall, the character’s racial identity is a circumstance. This is useful when what you’re trying to do is expand the reader’s notion of who Americans are, and what the head of a football team might look like. On the other hand, if you’re writing a story about a suburban black kid adopted by white parents distancing themselves from the BlackLivesMatter movement until it becomes impossible to ignore, the character’s race is the critical plot-point. Again, neither answer is “correct” but this determines both tone and eventual audience.
Is the diversity of my secondary characters a reflection of the society in my novel’s world, or a commentary on what I’d like it to be? If I were to write a semi-realistic tech-thriller about Silicon Valley (*cough* The Night Wolves *cough*) most people in positions of authority would be white or Asian, and male, and the experiences of anyone who wasn’t in those groups would be… less than ideal. To grant everyone magical equality of status would be cheap (and would kill my plot lines). On the other hand, if I were writing pure science fiction or fantasy about people from Earth visiting other planets, I’d choose the people from Earth that had main-character status very differently than reality today.
I’ll end here, knowing that this list is not complete, and it’s not perfect, but I thought it was important to share because the most important thing about being edited is to welcome feedback, and quickly. Waiting to share your work because you’re afraid only holds you back, and the faster you assimilate feedback the faster you’ll move from good to great.