The Stages of Editing

Thanks to my webmaster duties for Lea Schizas and her publishing venture MuseItUp Publishing, I have the privilege of listening in on the conversations among editors and artists for the press. They’re an interesting group, and a lot of fun, but this time one of them, Karen McGrath, offered something so profound that I asked for permission to share it with the rest of you.

Whether your days of being edited professionally are still ahead of you, or you’re in the thick of it right now, I think all of us can benefit from considering the following stages a writer goes through:

The Stages of Editing

1. Denial – “That editor doesn’t know what she’s talking about. My [manuscript] was fine ’til she got hold of it.”

2. Pain & Guilt – “I can’t believe this is such a mess. If only I used that word there, I wouldn’t be stung by that stupid red pen.”

3. Anger – “What the *%$&# does that chick think she’s doing? Does she even know how to write?”

4. Depression – “Why did [the publisher] ever send me a contract? I should have been an architect.”

5. Acquiescence – “Well, maybe I should look at this and see what she has to say. I mean, she’s supposed to fix things, right? How bad can it be?”

6. Reconstruction – “Hey, this is fairly decent, in fact some of these changes make the story stand out a little better than before.”

7. Hope – “Wow, this is pretty cool. I wonder what else I can fix to make it more compelling?!”

A glimpse into Karen’s editing style:

I usually tell my authors they’ll go through the stages of editing grief and not to feel bad if they do. I also stress to them that my goal is to fix any editing issue while preserving their unique voice and if at any time they feel I haven’t done that, they should let me know so I can remedy it.

Karen McGrathAbout Karen:

Karen McGrath lives in Boston, MA with her husband, their two teens, and Kitten. They are all writers including Kitten, who makes hieroglyphics on the kitchen counter with pilfered sugar from the sugar bowl. Karen is an author and content editor for MuseItUp Publishing. She writes novels, short stories and memoir. To learn more about Karen, check out her website:

This entry was posted in Editing, Just for Fun, Writing Process. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to The Stages of Editing

  1. Writing for the Foreign Service ( State Department/ White House) is identical, except that it stops at #4.

  2. Alex Fayle says:

    I used to have this attitude about editing, but then I thought for a while about becoming a TV script writer and realized that what you write and what appears on the screen have very little to do with each other often, so why get all bent out of shape? If it’s my general idea and it’s going to help sell the story without selling out my principles, edit away!

    I think we get wrapped up in offense about editing when we make it personal. Someone’s suggestions have nothing to do with me. The editor isn’t attacking me in any way. They honestly want to help. How could I get mad at that?

    • MarFisk says:

      That’s a wonderful place to be where you can skip to the acceptance and joyful part. I’ll admit I enjoy being edited right up to the point that I vehemently disagree with the change :). But as an editor, these steps are common and something to keep in mind when returning the modified manuscript.

    • Good points, Alex! It’s true, editors are not editing the authors, just the content. And you bring up something important, you’ve been through it a number of times. It’s much easier to deal with the more you have your work edited. You reach a point where you want the edit to help you clarify your communication.

      • Alex Fayle says:

        It really helps as well having written (and ghost written) as a copywriter. I got paid to give the client what they wanted, not my precious lifeblood.

        Writing fiction is not that much different except the “client” is an editor in a publishing house.

  3. Ginger says:

    Great post. I’ve been through all the stages so I feel like a veteran. The only problem…every time I think I’ve learned something, I find out through another editor that the rule isn’t hard and fast. Editing is like trying to use a new ATM machine. The buttons are all there, but they don’t mean the same thing. 🙂

    • MarFisk says:

      Tell me about it. The first time I had to accept (as an editor) that the incorrect use of “hopefully” had become an allowed variant…

      The real problem is that there are rules, but those rules differ based on the type of English (or other language), and then again based on the “type” of language (such as business, academic, or fiction), and then also because some of the style choices are subjective and one editor will love a method that another sees as a stab in the back.

    • Yes, that happens. At Muse the editors stay with their authors on other works because it’s less confusing. The time it takes to update another editor on the author’s strengths and weaknesses is better spent editing. The author benefit for the reasons you mention, Ginger.

      I also don’t think the rules of writing are etched in stone and every editor has their pet peeves. You want to stick with the rules as much as possible but a good content editor will let you know when it’s ok to break with them. Like fragment sentences for example. They generally are frowned upon but they work well in fiction if not overused.

  4. I saw these on another blog and wrote a comment from the other side of editing. I’m an apprentice editor at 4RV and right now in the middle of someone’s novel. He went through those stages in email and it’s funny to see how they fit right into the 7 stages here.:) I haven’t had the chance to go through them myself except from critique groups. It’s hard to get criticism on your baby when it’s so new. That’s why I don’t like to act on any comments unless they are obvious, until I’ve had a chance to sit on them.

    As an editor I always try to remember that the person is there and give suggestions rather than run roughshod over the work. It’s their work so it should be their own decision to change it. We are only making the suggestions. They follow through on them.:)

    • MarFisk says:

      Well I’m glad you found my humble home :).

      On the editing, that’s actually what I like about receiving edits as opposed to crits. Crits open up possibilities that you then have to sift through and figure out what’s the best route to follow. With edits, you still have to implement, but it’s the “this is the direction we want” that makes the process that much easier. Well, as long as the change isn’t something you can’t live with.

    • It sounds like you will be an excellent editor, Barbara. First and foremost, the story belongs to the author. The house has to maintain publishing standards. Authors generally want to tighten up their manuscripts. And most editors don’t fall into the bizarre category. 🙂

      • Thank you, Karen!

        Well, this ms I am now editing was difficult at first, because the author had a huge Prologue that frankly put me to sleep. As I read through the story I knew it would be good, so I decided to edit it. I made him change quite a bit of the Prologue, since that is the first thing a reader sees. He was very amenable to the changes and continues to be very good about making the edits. So as an editor you also have to take chances.:) It isn’t all a bed of roses for us either.:) And I’m still an apprentice editor so it’s all gratis. But the satisfaction of seeing the story come out is worth it.:)

  5. Cyrus Keith says:

    I’m nervous enough as it is. This so not helping! 😉

    Mainly because I KNOW I should have paid better attentiomn in English class. LOL

    • MarFisk says:

      Ah, but think of it this way…once you make it to an editor, you’ve proved you know the grammar etc. well enough to get an offer. And then you know that everyone goes through the same stages, so you’re in good company :).

    • Cyrus, don’t worry! I teach grammar by supplying my children with good literature to read – we’re homeschoolers – they pick it up automatically. You’ve been learning English all of your life. Even reading bad writing can teach you what not to do.

      And Margaret’s right. You’ve made it to an editor proving you have command of the tools of language, enough that your story was selected above many others to go out into the world and shine. 😉 You’re ok, there.

      • Alex Fayle says:

        I’ve been teaching English as a second language and over the past few years have learned so much about grammar and have been able to apply it to my writing and really play with shades of meaning that way. (I think of it as a painter learning the technical details of perspective. They can do it from instinct but it generally comes out better if they have the “facts” helping that instinct).

  6. Karen Cioffi says:

    I love your 7 stages of editing. And, I love Ginger’s analogy of editing in the comments!

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