We’ve all tried something and gotten it wrong. Making it right might mean the hard work of starting all over. It might mean changing your mood from relief and relaxation back to being businesslike and focused. It might mean facing the humiliation of retracting your announcement of success.
I ran into all of those obstacles as I wrapped up two years of research and writing on my first book. I overcame those with a time-tested solution for getting it right. It’s called editing, and it’s not just for authors. Using an editor is really just a way to ask for help.
Four stories from my book editing experience show different ways to react to help: sometimes you have to accept that you have a lot more work to do; sometimes you need the judgment to know it’s time to put your foot down and declare that you’re going to do it your way.
My four stories also showed me that making corrections, large and small, is a lot easier when the person helping you understands that going back to the drawing board can be a wrenching experience.
The book I wrote is about Sal and Cindy Rubino who ran a restaurant called The Café, that hired refugees and people in addiction treatment. They settled on that business model after the highly competitive restaurant industry nearly destroyed their family. They reinvented themselves and found success by giving people the same second chances they had.
When I finally finished writing the book that I thought of as nothing less than the compassionate version of The American Dream, I e-mailed the manuscript to my editor, Lori A. Brown who does business as Grammarwitch. I got ready to pop the champagne cork. Lori had other ideas. And it saved my book.
1. Who cares?
My manuscript opened with Cindy in high school, standing in her parents’ kitchen thinking about inventing her own recipe for soup. I described the scene from the 1970s, figuring I’d grab readers’ interest with a vivid description of the pivotal moment when a girl became a chef.
Lori didn’t think that was the way to start a book, but she didn’t just come out and say that.
Instead, she almost casually asked if I’d ever heard of a storytelling technique called Saving The Cat.
Excuse me, I’ve been writing stories my whole life. But, uh, no, I haven’t heard of that technique.
She explained that before you launch into a narrative, you need to give the reader a reason to care about the main characters in the story—you have to have them save a cat from being stranded up a tree or lost in a big city.
Translation: nobody would care about that random high school student who suddenly appeared on the first page of my book. She needed a proper introduction.
OMG, I thought. She wants me to write a whole new chapter. A new first chapter. And OMG she’s right.
(I have since learned there’s book on screenwriting titled, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.)
I had to make an excruciating about-face and take the thousand-mile journey from basking in a completed book, back into the mindset of interviewing, transcribing and writing.
It actually didn’t take long to figure out how to start a new first chapter. I remembered an interview I never did, having discarded it months earlier because it just didn’t seem to fit in with the flow of the rest of the book. I dusted off my notes, made a phone call and drove the two hours north to meet with a former restaurant employee who Sal and Cindy hired from an addiction recovery program. I was able to tell a compelling story in a new first chapter about how Sal and Cindy changed a person’s life.
If you read the first chapter, “They Saw Me for Who I Could Be,” I suspect you’ll agree the extra work saved the book.
2. Political correctness is really just correctness
I believe political correctness gets a bad rap as an infringement on our self-expression. There’s another term for it—being polite. This was my book, and I didn’t want anyone offended by old insensitive sayings, no matter how popular they might be with most people. I felt that an attitude of going the extra mile to show respect to others was also consistent with the book’s themes of compassion. Lori had a keen and analytical eye for when idioms crossed the line. We spent a lot of time e-mailing back and forth about the implications of everyday phrases and offhand remarks.
One phrase we worked on was a quotation where the speaker used the term “red-headed stepchild.” After researching its origins, we agreed that while the meaning was not a slap at anyone, someone might see it that way. I went back to the transcript and found a more detailed and precise description of what the speaker meant to say.
By editor and author exploring the effects and implications of a single phrase, the passage changed from a flip cliché to an explanation that was deeper, and more correct.
3. This tastes terrible
Several of the chapters open with a recipe—it seemed a good feature for a book about restaurants.
For months I ignored Lori’s quiet questions about whether I’d tested any of the recipes. No need, I said. They either came from the recipe book sold by the restaurant, or directly from the chef herself.
What could go wrong?
During the final round of editing I relented. I tried my hand at making the restaurant’s signature soup. It was almost inedibly salty. I pictured angry readers wrestling with recipes that were supposed to create happiness.
That led to a three-week nightmare as I had to again turn my mindset around, this time from an author with a book already at the graphic designer, to a cook. Sal and Cindy were unreachable—vacationing in China. So I wrangled industrial quantities of soggy bread pudding, and mysterious differences in the grocery store’s selection of chicken bouillons.
When I could finally sit down with Cindy I learned some of the recipes were hurriedly scrawled long ago in response to newspaper requests. Others suffered from outdated sizes of cans and jars, or the need for a better way to get juice from a cucumber.
I enlisted friends to make Dorito Casserole and Mac & Cheese, and learned to take an editor’s subtle questions more seriously.
4. Taking the risk to get it right
I wanted to show people what I’d written about them before I sent the manuscript to the editor.
Lori didn’t exactly discourage me from doing that. She did, however, carefully explain the downsides. I’d already heard all those warnings during my career in writing: people will take forever to get back to you, destroying hopes of making a deadline; they’ll drive you mad with a thousand irrelevant changes like their opinion on the use of commas and semicolons (the editor’s got that covered thank you very much), or they’ll rewrite their plain-spoken eloquence to try to make themselves sound like Shakespeare.
All valid concerns. But I knew I was in unfamiliar territory writing about refugees and addiction and the restaurant industry. My writing and editing career also taught me that the slightest change in a word or phrase can result in a sentence with a completely different meaning from what the interviewee meant to say.
I took a stand that I didn’t want anyone reading my book and thinking, “That’s not right.” The changes that came back from those previews were on-time, and included mainly corrections of fact—none of the feared niggling and nitpicking.
Those revisions were another step in the editing process that saved my book. And they helped me sleep better, knowing that the people I quoted felt that what I’d written was correct in both fact and tone.
An author needs an editor for more than fixing grammar and typos. When creators create, they need a companion in order to properly finish the job. Editing offers a lesson for non-writing jobs as well—the best kind of help offers attention to detail, as well as vision and compassion.
That’s how you get it right.