How to Survive “The Shock”: Your First Round of Editing

When writers have their manuscripts professionally edited for the first time, they often experience “The Shock.”

I’m talking about that moment when you open the document, fully prepared to see a few red lines here and there (because, of course, the reason you hired a professional editor in the first place was to find ways to improve a few sentences, catch a misspelled word or two, and clean up some punctuation).

What you didn’t expect was this:The Shock Your First Round of Editing

Yikes! What happened?

When an editor returns an edited document to you, the first thing you should do before you open it is TAKE A DEEP BREATH.

Believe it or not, as an editor, I’m as nervous about sending that marked-up document as you are about receiving it. I want you to feel that hiring me to edit your manuscript was one of the wisest decisions you’ve made on your path toward publication.

What I don’t want is for you to open the document, take one look at all the red lines, close the document, and give up—on you or on me as your editor.

The shock of seeing an edited manuscript can be especially overwhelming for writers. #writetip #editing #editingtip Click To Tweet

I know the shock of seeing an edited manuscript can be especially overwhelming for writers who have never hired a professional editor before. I try to mitigate the shock in several ways in my cover letter; I explain the nuts and bolts so you understand how I use Microsoft Word’s track changes and comments features; I also explain my method for “talking” to you in the text itself. I point out the strengths I find in your manuscript as well as recurring issues you might not be aware of, like a tendency to overuse a phrase or too many dialogue tags. Above all, I try to be encouraging and convey both my respect for your author’s voice and my goal of helping you create the best manuscript possible.

I also write that my suggestions are just that—suggestions—and the ultimate decision about whether or not to accept them belongs to you, the author.

But I know how it can feel when you open that document and see a sea of red. Somehow, you just weren’t expecting to see that many corrections and suggestions.  As author Rinelle Grey puts it, “Every time I get an edit back, even a sample one, it hurts.”

Here are some points to remember when you look at a professionally edited manuscript:

  • This Is a No-Judgment Zone: When you read through your editor’s comments and look at each change he/she has made, keep in mind that the editor is judging the manuscript, not you. As one author writes, “Editors’ comments are to be taken as constructive feedback, not as an insult. Too many writers get defensive and claim that an editor has it in for them, when that is certainly not the case. . . . A good editor has to be able to justify every change or comment she makes. If an editor puts a comma inside of quotation marks, it may seem like a small, nitpicky change. But there’s a legitimate reason. They’ll gladly explain their reasoning.”
  • We’re All in This Together: When I’m working with an author, I’m wearing my team-member hat. My goal is to make your work shine, so every correction I make, every word choice I query, every comment I add have the same goal: to help you polish every sentence to make it the best it can be.

One of the reasons I always offer a no-obligation sample edit to a potential author/client is to take away some of that edited-manuscript shock. In addition to having a way of determining if I’m the right editor for you, a sample edit prepares you just what “editing” means for your manuscript.

Editors who do nothing are great for an author’s ego. But, believe it or not, there are errors in your manuscript—of internal logic, of grammar, and of sense. There always are. Trust me, you don’t want your readers (or reviewers) to point out your mistakes.” (Thanks to Erica Verrillo at Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity for that quote.)

  • You Are Now a Stronger Writer: One of the benefits of having your manuscript professionally edited is that you learn a great deal about writing in general and your own writing in particular. It’s sometimes difficult to accept that someone else’s suggestion for structuring a sentence does make for a stronger sentence, but don’t get hung up on “winning.” A good editor is one who doesn’t just follow a set of rules; a good editor puts his or her own ego aside and works with you to strengthen your voice and style. As Erica Verrillo writes:

Don’t slavishly follow every suggestion. Use your judgment. On the other hand, don’t, don’t, don’t tell them to sod-off—even mentally. They may be right. Take a step back from your manuscript, take a deep breath, and then exercise your skill as a writer. Make your manuscript shine as only you can—with their guidance. If the editor is good, the final product will be well worth it.”

As you review your edited manuscript, don’t be afraid to question anything you don’t understand. Wondering why “affect” was changed to “effect”? Confused by the comment “passive voice”? Unsure about deleting that entire paragraph the editor marked as “redundant”? Ask. Ask lots of questions. Be sure you are comfortable with the suggested changes before you accept them, and be sure you understand what the editor is suggesting or querying and why. Your WIP will be a better read for it, and I’ll bet your next manuscript won’t come back with as much red as the first one did.

I’d love to hear about the first time you opened an edited manuscript: were you concerned by all the red lines? Did you expect as many changes? Did you feel the editor respected your voice? And if you’ve been through the process more than once, what advice would you offer a fellow writer who is ready to hire an editor?

Happy Writing,


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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be.


13 thoughts on “How to Survive “The Shock”: Your First Round of Editing”

  1. Unable to afford a full edit, I hired a proofreader who offered a ‘light edit’ as part of her services. The sample came back with few comments, and so I wasn’t expecting more than typos and grammar to be changed. However, she emailed me after a week with my full manuscript and explained ‘there was more than expected and could she extend the deadline’. Understandably I was extremely nervous when I opened the document containing my first ten chapters, but I have agreed with all her changes, and she has definitely gone over and above what I expected. I’m still waiting for the full manuscript and I am still very nervous!
    When I went through the selection process to choose a proofreader, I sent the sample out to half a dozen proofreaders and everyone edited differently. In the end I chose the person I felt I could get along with the best, as I knew I would be defensive and I knew I needed to hear the truth from the right person. Rather than saying ‘this is wrong’ my proofreader says ‘what about this?’. The change is the same, but I respond to her tone better! Baby steps. I’m sure in a few years I’ll be able to deal with a harsher approach! 🙂

    1. I think your selection process was perfect because you were able to find a proofreader who has been a great help to you and is someone you feel comfortable working with. No matter how technically skilled an editor or proofreader might be, if you can’t work with that person, your editing experience won’t be as productive as it should be. There are many gentle editors, so I hope you don’t ever have to put up with a harsh approach! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. You’re wise to include a cover letter, Candace. It certainly helps soften the blow. My first critique/edit was extremely helpful. Despite all of the red, the comments were written with humor and respect. Great post!

  3. I think the pain of seeing all those edits is really important. When you write, you write in a personal space vacuum, a place where it is nigh impossible to be objective. Each in-depth edit erodes that subjectivity bubble, and you get better and better at receiving critiques, and not taking it personally.

    The first few major edits I ever got back scared the hell out of me. My first workshop at Hopkins felt like a forced adult baptism. But I’m much better for it now. That which does not kill your writing, makes it stronger 🙂

  4. It is complete and utter shock and dismay. ‘The editor didn’t like my work’, ‘they think I suck’, ‘I’ll never be published’…. now having writer friends and having gone through each rough round of edits I realize now the editor your armor. They are the one’s who keep you together, tell you how to make it shine and pop more. They don’t want to change you or the idea, they want to make sure what you’re saying comes off appropriately.

    Editors are the unsung heroes for the writers everywhere. I am thankful to get to work all the talent that I am fortunate to come across in my writing!

  5. Great post. I think a lot of writers avoid being published because they don’t want to experience “the shock.” I still have difficulty the first time I hear criticism of my work, but I regularly seek crits of my work from other writers and “the shock” has worn off. Whether or not I am prepared for a professional edit with all that red ink remains to be seen. 🙂

  6. My debut novel ‘A Construct of Angels’ has been beta-read by several fellow writers and has even been in the hands of a couple of editors – albeit briefly. One consistent comment I receive is that I use a lot of ‘British English’. As my novel is set in York, England and features local characters, I am torn between ‘phasing out’ any colloquial wording plus changing spellings (labour / labour & realise / realize)and standing firm because it truly is a British novel and it should retain that feel. What would you advise (advize)?

    1. That’s a difficult question to answer, Andrew. My overarching advice about most subjects is to seriously consider changing something when multiple educated readers (beta readers, editors) make a suggestion; for example, if 4 out 5 suggest a scene deletion, I’d give that some very serious thought, and I’d base my decision on the reasons each reader gave for that suggestion . . . but in the end, it’s your story and your decision (especially if you are self-publishing).

      When choosing between using British or American English, my first concern would be consistency. Do you use mostly one with the other sprinkled throughout? AS an editor, I would find that disconcerting and mark it for your attention, especially if I couldn’t tell which version you preferred. But I wouldn’t presume to tell you that you “must” choose one over the other, because I think the decision should be based on what you prefer and who your primary audience will be. And even that isn’t a clear-cut decision, as you can read in this blog and the comments:

      If you self-publish, the final decision is yours–just be prepared for reviews that mention the “mistakes” you’ve made. If you sign a contract with a publisher, there is usually a clause that states the publisher has the final say, so be prepared for a discussion with your editor that you might not win.

      1. Thanks – that was a very interesting link!
        No, I don’t sprinkle any words in my MS. I write British English, but with the knowledge that non-Brits may very well read my work. I had considered adding a disclaimer stating that the book contains ‘British English’ just to clarify. In this electronic age, the written word is spread far and wide and a novel in English could have been written in Australia, South Africa or even Japan. Your advice to decide upon one form and stick with it is sound, even though I may still receive comments.

  7. All those red marks? That’s exactly how a well-edited manuscript should look. Editing is more than fixing punctuation. I think a lot of authors get confused about the difference between editing and proofreading. I LOVE what you said here about the no-judgement zone. Editing is not judgement–it’s a collaborative effort to make your manuscript amazing.

  8. You hit it on the head – that initial fear opening an edit and feeling like the breath just got knocked out of you. I worked with one editor for years and it was like a barrel of red ink every time. I switched for ONE book to another editor and she made maybe all of 20 pages in the book. I know in my heart it deserved another gallon of red ink, but that was my fault for not doing my homework. Nice post, thank you.

  9. I never thought about you, the editor, also being nervous about sending the marked up manuscript. But, of course, I get it! “We’re all in this together” is definitely true. It’s a good idea to keep that in mind!

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