Notes on editing a book

‘Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?’ ~ Annie Dillard

In the days leading up to the Great Opening of the Document I was scared. Three months had passed since I’d sent the finished manuscript to Mary, my editor — long enough to have forgotten what I’d written and become convinced it was no good.  The initial read through of Mary’s notes — both handwritten on the manuscript and typed in an email — felt for a moment like getting a graded essay back from a teacher. But, interestingly, that sensation didn’t last for long. As soon as I started reading the introduction I got pulled back in.

With my trusty red pen in my hand I read a chapter at a time, making notes and deletions and reading Mary’s suggestions before returning to the laptop to update the document. Some chapters were a breeze to edit — minimal cuts, a few sentences tightened, some clarifying and honing, but mostly just polishing. Two chapters, on the other hand, needed some serious triage, and took a couple of days each.

“There is no great writing, only great rewriting” ~ Justice Louis Brandeis

On the whole I really enjoyed the editing process, much more than the initial writing. And there’s nothing surprising in that — writing is so much more fun when there are already words on the page, when you don’t have to wring your brain out to make something out of nothing. I found myself staring into space for great swathes of time as I tried to find alternative words — it was like wrangling a 50,000 piece jigsaw wearing boxing gloves. But I learned so much about how to improve a piece of work and make it shine, and gained greater insight into my own writing habits: the repeated phrases that started to irritate. My obsessive use of semi-colons. My tendency to tell and not show (something I’d never realised I did until it was pointed out to me).

Having time away from the book gave me enough breathing space to return to the words with a fresh perspective. I’d known the original version was on the flabby side, so it felt so good to be able to go back in and cut away the dead wood. The combination of Mary’s suggestions and my own edits has resulted in a leaner, tighter, more coherant book that’s so much closer to my original vision. In total 5,000 words were cut from the 50,000 word manuscript, and rather than add more words as filler, we’re including a few more Polaroids instead. This feels good too.

Today I miss my book. After the first deadline in April I was feeling traumatised, uncertain if I’d created something of any value, or just plain embarrassed myself. After meeting this second deadline I feel much calmer, reassured that at least parts of the book are decent. This entire process continues to be a lesson in letting go of my usual perfectionism and learning to accept that what is created is good enough. That it will never be perfect, and that has to be okay.

I feel confident that the photographs I’ve selected work well together, but it’s the words that make me nervous. The words and ideas are channeled from the tenderest part of me, and because this is qute a personal book, some vulnerability is coming up. Last weekend, on the eve of my deadline, I sent out a panicked message on Facebook, which was met with such kindness from everyone. One reply came from Patti Digh (Mary is also her editor):

“say what you long to say. and then move on to your next book. a book is never finished, just published.”

This really helped me get back some perspective. I’m so used to writing for newspapers and magazines that are recycled before you know it — and, worse, a blog that can be edited whenever I fancy — that the thought of creating something that can’t be changed makes me sweat. So I’ve had to get a grip and look at it this way: what I’m sending out into the world is what I know right now. In ten years I’ll no doubt be writing something very different, but this is my first book baby, and I’ve just gotta trust that she’ll reach the people that are meant to read her.

My stomach just flipped over as I wrote that. :)

So, next up: the manuscript goes to the copy editor for grammar checks and British English/American English spelling changes. Then I get it back one last time with any new queries from Mary. Design will begin soon, if it hasn’t already, and we’ve just spoken about the cover.

The book is now scheduled to be pubished in June 2012, and I’ll be coming to the USA to do a mini book tour (and I’d love to get your help organising it — more on that next year :)

So….. that’s where we’re at!

27 responses
  1. ~Kristina

    How incredibly inspiring!
    Count me as one eagerly awaiting the release so I can be captivated by the pages.

  2. sas

    she will touch millions.
    so proud of you xxx

  3. katrina

    i have no doubt that it’s to be a great read, susannah, and i look forward to buying your book next summer. congratulations!

  4. Katharina

    Susannah, thanks for letting us walk with you through this writing process of yours during the last months! Being an author has always been a big secret dream of mine. But I guess many of us kind of think that “real” authors write their books effortlessly. I’m so grateful to hear from you about the actual process of birthing soemthing so deeply personal as a book. Your honesty is so contagious! thx xo

  5. Zarina Ávila

    Congratulations! Can write a book should be a great experience that deserve a congratulation, enjoy it in all perpectives.

  6. Mel

    It’s unbelievably cool that you did what you did. In awe, that in about a years time (or earlier) I will be having a book of yours on the shelves…. tres cool.

  7. Yeti

    This is so damned exciting! I cannot wait until this is published…all the more so for having these insights into the birth of this lil babba :)

  8. Marcela

    Nice! I hope you’ll come to Cyprus on a book tour as well :)

  9. Meghan @ Life Refocused

    I very much appreciate your honest perspective and experience of writing this deeply personal book. I have no doubt it will be lovingly embraced with open arms from so many people, me being one of them. Would love to see you on the book tour and would love to help get you to the Midwest!

  10. Helen (Dixon Hill Girl)

    My stomach flips just reading this. SO exciting! xx

  11. kathryn

    what an emotional journey this book has been for you…so wonderful of you to share all your feelings about it with us. i find it fascinating!!

  12. Robby

    You inspire me endlessly.
    On your book tour, come to Boston. Please. Please please please please please. I will bring my mother.

  13. Jadyn

    So excited for you Susannah, and I am grateful for your sharing of the ups and downs of this process. I know your book will have the same honesty – black, white and the grays in between – and I can’t wait to read it.

  14. Galina

    how exiting!
    I can’t wait to buy the book!

  15. Fiona

    yes the words are always the hardest for me too. it’s so scary revealing yourself, but so worthwhile. it’s going to be okay (great, in fact. Fantabulous, if you’ll permit me to use my favourite ‘word’.)

    Meanwhile, I’m seriously considering a trip to London in June next year for a certain book party. Unless you’re coming to Dublin just to see little old me?;)

  16. eliza

    a very exciting time for you indeed…. and i know just what you mean about the ‘fun’ of editing. have just written a bunch of copy for a website and after walking away from it (head full) for several days, i came back and pared it down, pared it down again. just as you say, you end up with fewer words but in my mind far more meaning. i also over use semi-colons terribly!!!!

  17. Rhianne

    I’m already so excited about it Susannah and its going to be fascinating reading it after seeing all your posts about it too.

    Are you doing a UK book tour too do you think or just something in London for it? I’ll have to save a date I think :)

  18. susannah

    Definitely something in London :-D x

  19. susannah

    Robby, I’d love to meet you and your mum! and yes, I will be coming to Boston :)

  20. Jessica Alvarado

    It is so nice to read someone else’s apprehensions about writing and publishing a book. As a reader all we see is the beautiful finished product, yet as a writer i always feel like i’m the only one who struggles with writing crap.

  21. Maura

    Sounds very exciting.
    Looking forward to the book!

  22. Nicole

    You should never have any worry over your written words. This post was written so beautifully that for a moment I was excited at the thought of writing a book myself. That thought came from someone who dreads even simple writing like thank you notes and blog posts. I cannot wait to read the book and hopefully see you on the book tour!

  23. Angela Vular

    Your book is such a labor of love and I for one cannot wait to buy it. Your courses have helped me in more ways than I ever imagined they would. In fact, I need to look through my journal entries to review and renew!! Writing is such hard work and writing a book……can’t even imagine the work involved (even though I have always wanted to do just that). Thanks for sharing your journey with us. It’s going to be great!!! I know it’s a long shot but I’m putting in my bid for Pittsburgh, PA on your book tour!!!

  24. Rachel B

    I work in web marketing and print anything makes my heart beat faster. A book seems so permanent in comparison.

    I’m so looking forward to reading yours and your US book tour!

  25. Jo Klima

    Yay! I’m so looking forward to reading this book, and I think you should branch your book tour down under.

  26. Catherine Just Seiner

    I’m so excited for you I could just jump up and down on my bed and giggle ..but my child and husband are sleeping on that bed right now – so just know – that I am REALLY thrilled for you and cannot WAIT to see you when you come here. And I would love to help you create the book tour in whatever way you need.

  27. Nina

    Brilliant to get an insight into this process. Sounds like your book baby’s destined for great things!

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