Don’t Panic: How to Approach a Marked-Up Manuscript From Your Book Editor

Don’t Panic: How to Approach a Marked-Up Manuscript From Your Book Editor

I believe the age-old advice that writing is rewriting.

And if publication is the goal, then you must rewrite.

Handing over work to a reader for critique, especially to a book editor, brings about a certain level of anxiety. I say anxiety, because no matter how experienced you are with managing criticism, it can be quite daunting to take in comments, be open to feedback, and filter through and ultimately apply edits to a new draft.

To keep the process as objective as possible, here are seven strategies to help you process notes from your editor.

1. Speed read

Print out a copy of the entire manuscript.

Take off your thinking cap and quickly read through its entirety, including the editor’s notes.

No emotion attached, just read the text as a document with words, and additional editorial markings about those words.

2. Read as a reader

Now, put on your thinking cap and read the manuscript at your normal pace (which, in my case, happens to be slow, deliberate and with special attention to every word).

Allow yourself to think, and feel emotional reactions to the critique, making mental notes of whether or not you agree with the editor’s suggestions.

3. Rest

Step away.

No input. No output.

Of course, the amount of time to take a breather from the manuscript depends on your deadline for manuscript rewrites, but try to allow at least one day of rest from this particular project.

4. Revisit the red marks

While most, if not all, modern-day professional editorial input is done via the computer, the old-school version of editor’s notes would include hard copies of your manuscript with red pencil or pen marks on the page.

And that old-school image can work quite well. Visualizing those red markings can help alert you to “danger zones,” or problem spots in your manuscript.

As I’m working on any project (before, during and after an editor’s input), I always work with hard copies, and mark up my own trouble spots with a red pen.

That said, during the next read, pay even greater attention to these editor’s notes. I usually place checks with my handy red pen and/or use a yellow highlighter next to comments that I think merit changes in the manuscript.

5. Decide what comments live or die

Live or die?

Sounds brutal, right? Arrogant? Maybe.

However, while you’re seeking advice from an editor’s eye, you still must take charge, and decide what you do, and do not want to change in your manuscript.  

Or, if you’re working on a for-hire project, what you’re willing to fight for with the editor, to keep in or out of the manuscript.

If more than a few readers/editors highlight the same so-called “trouble spots” in my manuscript, of course I defer to that collective judgment — or at least take that into serious account during a rewrite in my decisions about what lives or dies in the manuscript.

Read your new checked-with-red pen, and highlighted-in-yellow editor’s notes, and double check which ones still merit changes in the manuscript. Then write down (yes, by hand, no typing) all the notes/comments that you feel should “live” on in the subsequent rewrite, and that definitely merit changes for the manuscript.

Pencil or pen to paper helps me ingest my thoughts and emotional connection to the words.

6. Read the surviving comments

Read your handwritten notes and the editor’s critiques you’ve pardoned as if they are now a part of the manuscript.

In essence, at this stage, I usually visualize the impact that the critiques, if employed, would have as a positive impact on the manuscript’s rewrite.    

7. Rest (again)

Yes, the process again requires more rest from the project.

Now that you’ve completed the above strategies, step away from the manuscript for at least a day (again, this varies depending on deadlines).

Rest is required, because next, the actual rewrite must take place. All the editor’s surviving notes, and those you’ve fought to keep in or out of your manuscript, will have to be incorporated into the new draft.

If you are committed to making your work the best it can be, the above process will lead to another, and another, and another do-over of these strategies as you receive editorial feedback, until the final draft of your manuscript lives proudly on the page.

Writers, tell us! How do you manage editor’s notes?

Karan Bajaj

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  • I gave my first draft to my daughter to edit. I read through it. I noticed areas which I thought OMG, I switched from first person to 3rd several times. I decided which person I wanted my manuscript to be. Doing a re-write. This is great advice. Thank you, now I have a method to my madness.
    Thank you, Nita

    • Nita,
      So glad this advice resonated with you. And as you suggest when you said you had your daughter read a draft of your work, having another set of eyes is so important in the process.

      The way toward each new rewrite is having someone else look at your work; allows you to step back and get another perspective–even on minor details of your story. And then you can go back to the draft with a fresh set of eyes for the next rewrite.

      Keep going. Happy Writing!

  • Diana Marie says:

    Good advice, especially about stepping away and rest from it. I will at times schedule workouts to make myself step away and out of the house to give my brain a rest.Before putting anything on the computer I do the writing, “old school”, paper and pencil. Granted there are many crumbled papers, but it works for me! Also, I’m a very visual person so laying the work out on the dining room table, reading it and making corrections has helped me feel more organized. Even after it is on the computer I still make hard copies. I have found errors this way than just reading from the computer. Good luck to everyone!

    • Russell Ricard says:

      Thanks for your comments Diana. I fell the same way…need the visuals and always write my initial drafts on paper. And then make hard copies for each additional draft. I need that tactile feeling of writing by hand.

      Best of luck with your writing.

  • Wendy says:

    this all reminds me of an assignment i had on a correspondence course. There were three images including one of two children running toward a barn. The assignment included an established author explaining her creation process, how she chose the barn image and how she formed this idea of a girl who’s afraid to ride because she broke her leg getting bucked off her horse, but then there’s a fire and someone has to ride for help, but her horse is skittish and won’t let her friend get on, so she has to overcome her fear and get on the horse. All the while a voice in my head is screaming cliche! Cliche! CLICHE!

    But it got me to asking, “What if it’s not fear keeping her off the horse? What if she’s convinced it’s IMPOSSIBLE for her to ride again?” So I wrote a store about a girl who was paralyzed in a fall and tried to divorce herself from horses. Her parents and friends try everything to get her to come out of her shell, and eventually succeed when they train her horse to accommodate her handicap. The whole point of the story was realizing that it was possible to ride again.

    Both the correspondence teacher and one of my college profs though SHE should get the idea to train the horse. And I asked them both, “How is she supposed to get the idea to re-train the horse if she’s convinced she has no future with horses?” And, of course, that would COMPLETELY change the entire premise of the book. And the voice in my head went cliche! Cliche! CLICHE!

    • Writing is hard. People who don’t write (or don’t work at it) don’t understand how difficult it is, because it’s rewrite after rewrite with questions such as those you posted above.

      And this is again, where a good editor (or Beta reader you trust) comes into play: She or he can help guide you, help you question choices on the page, and help lead you toward your ultimate goal with the project.

      I think editor’s (and really good Beta readers that you trust) are an amazing and necessary part of the process!

  • Chinedu says:

    Hey Russell, I like the “Rest & Rest” part…it means we mustn’t do all at once while we have the opportunity to clear clogs in our brain. Thanks for the insight.

    • Yes, Chinedu–

      Glad this resonates with you as well. “Rest” is vital in any process, although working that “rest” into the process can be a challenge.

      Thanks for your thoughts,

  • All good tips, although I would add the caution that just as every writer has a different process for writing, it’s all right for each to have a different way of approaching the edits.

    I have had some clients who rejected what I considered my most fundamental suggestions and others who had me send (in addition to the version of the manuscript with all changes highlighted in Word’s Track Changes mode) a copy with absolutely all suggested changes incorporated, and ended up using that. Both ways, though at opposite extremes, were valid approaches, because they were what worked for those particular writers on those particular projects.

    I think one of the most important tips, regardless of the approach that works for you, is, “Don’t make it personal.” It is not a contest of wills between you and the editor. You are both on the same team, trying to make the finished book the best it can be, even if you have differing perspectives on how to do that. Your passion is what got the manuscript to this point, but now it is time to approach the process as dispassionately as you can.

    I wish you all (and your editors) success with all your projects!

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC

    • Well said, Trish. Definitely, these tips are but one route one might take when approaching an editor’s notes. And my process does vary, as well. Even working on this article I learned some new things/strategies that I will incorporate into future projects.

      I also agree that it is a team effort between the writer and editor. I think a great editor understands this, too, and allows room for the writer to find her or his way through the project.

      And good to remember not to take it personally; hopefully this comes with practice as there is a skill, I believe, to being willing and able to take in and listen to an editor’s advice, and work with her or him to make one’s work the best it can be (which might include a bit of conflicting points of view).

      Thanks again for your comments,

  • Cherry Iley says:

    All good stuff, but, hey, the balance of perspiration to inspiration has just tipped over!

    • Russell Ricard says:

      Thanks for your comments, Cherry.

      As one who grew up as a dancer and actor/singer I definitely have explored the balance of perspiration and inspiration. And I see your point that the tipping point between the two can be challenging–a balancing act, indeed, for writers as well.

  • You know, I think it depends on who the notes are coming from. If you’re self-publishing or just looking for a professional opinion, you have a final say in the edits, and should take them more as suggestions.

    But if you’re getting the manuscript back from a publishing house, I think it’s a good idea to agree to make most of the changes they want, and only fight for a few that are really important to both you and the final product.

    Otherwise, great post. I think “read as a reader” is one of the most important things to do after you see those red marks. It helps to force yourself to look at them objectively.

    • Russell Ricard says:

      Hi Jason,

      So true, the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing practices and the way changes to manuscripts ultimately happen.

      My hope, too, is that even if one is self-publishing there is an aim to create the best possible manuscript, which I also hope includes working with editors (or Beta readers and others who offer professional input) who challenge the writer in the process. If so, there also can be that healthy push and pull of diffrences of opinions of what “lives or dies” in the final product.

      And as you mention, too, I’m also discovering just how important it is to “read as a reader.”

      Thanks for your comments. And best to you and your writing!


  • Aimee says:

    This is great advice, Russell! A reminder of the back and forth dance (and rest) that comes with producing a work of art.

    • Russell Ricard says:

      Glad you find this advice helpful, Aimee. And I really like your idea, the visual of producing art as a “back and forth dance.” At least it speaks to my process. And oh so important are the intervals of “rest” in the process.


  • Randi Lynne says:

    You so smart sir!

  • Colin says:

    Next week I’m submitting my third novel for critique. These points I will definitely archive for reference. It’s really a given that your first submission for critique will need taking apart and re-writing( re-building,even!) onthe manuscript’s return. My first novel went from 80,000 words to 61,000 and was re-written in the first person instead of the third person. The novel was also given a prologue and epilogue. Quite fundamental changes ! The second novel needed less structural change, but the critique/ editor’s insight is invaluable. I don’t want to put male editors out of a job, but from a males author’s perspective when describing and writing about female characters then a woman editor can be a bonus. Professional writers of long standing are known to self-publish, but are likely to have plenty of background experience of the profession already. My novel going in for critique was started in 2013. It is set in 2090 to 2100. The first two novels required less full on imaginative input and were drawn more from life experience. A critique is invaluable and very necessary for those, like myself who are new to publishing. In particular, to meet the expectations of your target readership. That objective view to improve on weak areas, and seek improvement with yes, yet another re-write!!

    • Colin–

      Sounds like you really have some good strategies going for your rewrites. Good for you.

      I feel it’s important for writers to embrace that it (the art and craft of writing) is a process–not a destination but a journey; especially when it comes to writing longer works.

      And also, I agree that having and editor’s eye is so important. Writers benefit from an objective editor’s notes.

      And I can relate to fundamental changes that happen in manuscripts. Again, writing is rewriting. And with every rewrite you learn something new, hopefully making your manuscript the best it can be.

      Keep writing! And best of luck.


  • Richard Ricard says:

    This is good advice and very similar to what I deal with in academic publishing. Although, I tend to bit when you suggest rest:). Thanks and good job getting this out.
    This is good for writers to see. In the past, I have sometimes bypassed a good publishing opportunity because I did not muster the attitude of the importance of rewriting in the process.
    Nice work,

    • Thanks, Ric.

      I am very glad to know that the advice can be applied to any kind of writing, or any other kinds of projects one might undertake. That was part of my goal in writing this: no matter our discipline ( or even in life) certain strategies can be applied to help in our process.

  • HI Charmaine,

    Glad these tips offer some support.
    And, yes, I’ve discovered that “rest” is vital to regroup thoughts about a project, and also just to let it (so to speak) breathe.

    Stepping away from a project, and coming back to it, helps you notice things you hadn’t seen before on the page.

    Good luck with your writing!


  • Charmaine Ng says:

    I’m far from completing a draft, much less getting a feedback manuscript. But I love how your tips can be applied to news articles too. Resting and stepping away are so important!

    – Charmaine

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