I just had to deliver some bad news to a client. No names will pass these lips, and no plot will be detailed. So don’t even ask. But I’m going to talk about this particular event in general terms, because it’s an important lesson that all authors need to learn.
Words have meaning.
The story in question involved a scene that I am certain the author did not intend to be offensive but read exactly that way.
We don’t always see how our words can be interpreted when we’re in the moment of the story. I’m not only a professional editor, I’m an author as well. I recently had a story come back with copious notes from my own editor on how my hero was coming across as abusive to the heroine because he wasn’t respecting her boundaries. I didn’t intend that at all. I intended him to be strong and proud and very, very protective of her. But that’s not how it came across on the page. I couldn’t see it, because I knew how he felt about her. But she didn’t, and so it was glaringly obvious to her.
We all do it. What you intend and what you convey are not always the same thing. This is why you hire an editor. Because they aren’t inside your head, they read the words you wrote, not the words you intended.
Editors understand that meaning in the context of the whole story.
While you don’t need to accept all of your editor’s suggestions, the ones that you really should give more weight to (beyond the basic grammar issues) are the places where your editor tells you that a character is offensive, racist, abusive, or unsympathetic. Or where your editor says your character is flippant, annoying, shrill, or shrewish. Even when your editor says your character is flighty, ditsy, or forgettable. To be honest, forgettable might be the worst, but that’s a post for another day. There are plenty of times when you might want your character to come across as any of those things. But if you don’t intend them, and your editor’s calling you on it, pay attention. They’re not saying these things lightly.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve made a comment like this in a manuscript. “This is coming across as shrill. I don’t think you intended it to be so. Why is the character phrasing her words this way? Can you rephrase?” Or perhaps, “This line of dialog is rambling and unfocused. Your character has good reason to be flustered in this scene, but you’ve shown no body language or reactions that would indicate that other than this line of dialog. I’d like to see more.”
And my own editor’s favorite line in my edits seems to be “give me more.” Even editors have issues in their writing.
In your head, you know exactly why the character slips up and uses one word rather than another. But here’s the thing…the reader doesn’t. It’s a challenge to translate what’s in the writer’s head to what’s in the reader’s head. That’s where your editor comes in. And that’s why you need to trust them.
I don’t know how this situation I referenced is going to resolve itself yet. It’s possible the author won’t listen to me. Unfortunately, if the author doesn’t heed this particular suggestion for the tone of the scene, I worry about how the readers will receive the work. But that’s one of the few downsides of editing. You can suggest, but it’s not your story. It’s the author‘s story. And you have to hope that they understand your concerns and heed them.
Words have meaning.