April 30th, 2018

The 5 Stages of Editing Grief

I’m editing my novel. Again.

I don’t feel like telling you how many agains I have done in the course of turning out the best story I can deliver. But suffice it to say that when I received some wonderful feedback that convinced me I needed to go another round, I started off with determination!

And ended up huddled under my bed covers with a glass of wine, a box of tissues, and a romance novel where people actually get happy endings.

What I hadn’t counted on was a phenomenon I should easily spot by now: editing grief.

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You’ve heard of the five stages of grief, right? It’s the notion that when you experience a deep loss, you go through five phases of emotion: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Editing can awaken all of these emotions as well.

Denial. I don’t need to do no stinkin’ edit!

Perhaps you believe that your book is just fine as it is. After all, your best friend, your mother, and your hamster, to whom you read your manuscript aloud, all adored your story. Besides, your book is better than the drivel you read in that bestseller you bought and tossed aside.

Or perhaps you don’t want to believe what your critique partner or group is telling you, because they just don’t understand your characters like you do.

Anger. Dang it, I do have to edit this book!

Now that you’ve admitted there are problems with your story structure, your characterization, or your prose, you’re committed to doing the edit. But why didn’t you catch all these issues earlier? Given all that you’ve learned about writing, not to mention all the reading you’ve done, you should know better by now!

Or why didn’t the contest judges, critique partners, agent, editor, etc. tell you exactly what was wrong? It could have saved you a lot of trouble if someone had helped you to see the plot and character problems earlier on. And now, you have to find time you don’t have to fix mistakes you never should have made to begin with!

Bargaining. I can accomplish my goals by just making some tweaks.

You’re convinced that if you add a little depth here and there, slip in an extra scene or delete those two scenes that weren’t pulling their weight, you can make this story work. In fact, it’s not as bad as you originally thought, because—being the savvy author you are—you should be able to breeze through the book and find just the right places to fix the minor problems.

Soon enough, this novel will be in great shape, and you’ll have it back to your ______ [critique partner, agent, editor] within no time at all. You’ll probably beat the deadline you gave yourself, thus showing just how much of a pro you are.

Depression. Dear God, this is a total rewrite! [sob]

Once you began making changes in Chapter 1, you realized that also changed Chapters 3, 8, 14, 18, 23, and 30. And this realization has happened with every change you’ve made. You might as well throw the manuscript in the nearest fire pit and start over. I mean, wouldn’t that be easier?

Or what would be easier is to be a toll booth operator. No one really demands much of you there, certainly not three hundred pages of brilliance. Why did you decide to write this book anyway? You should have gone with the other story idea. In fact, what if you just wasted the last six months on an unworkable novel?

Acceptance. I’ve got this.

You’ve rolled up your sleeves and now recognize:

  • Yes, this is the story you want to tell.
  • You know what needs doing.
  • You have all the talent and perseverance needed to turn out a fabulous book.
  • You will love the final result.

As you dig further into the edits, you feel renewed hope and excitement. You actually enjoy hanging out with your characters, making sure they appeal to readers, getting their story just right. And when this edit is over, you’ll get to put on your Wonder Woman cape. Because yeah, you’re a kick-butt writer.

What stage am I in now? I’m at acceptance. But I went through all the other stages, and if you’re in one of those, hang in there. Maybe there are shortcuts through the stages, but I haven’t found them. I seem to go through grief every time I have to do more editing than I originally expected.

But I’m always—always, always, always—glad in the end.

Do you go through the editing stages of grief? If you’re editing now, what stage are you in and how can we talk you through?

ABOUT JULIE

Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.

Julie is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. You can visit her website here and also follow her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

43 comments to The 5 Stages of Editing Grief

  • Too true, Julie – all of it! This is also the process when you get edits back, and they’ve suggested something that you flat CANNOT do. No way. Nuh-uh. Nope to the nope.

    So you go through these steps (time varies) – and eventually admit that it’ll make the book better.

    Sigh.

    • It’s amazing how we still fight against it so much, isn’t it? Maybe there should be a disclaimer on all returned critique or edits: “This feedback has been known to cause frustration, self-doubt, and excessive drinking—of coffee, alcohol and/or your own tears.”

      But alas, we get through it! And the result is worth it. (Right?)

  • Trust and a working relationship with your editor helps, but getting the book to that point includes the steps you’ve mentioned. (Starting a new work after turning in my last ms, and I’ve rewritten the first chapter four times already.)

    • Absolutely true about trust! Having a great editor and/or critique partner helps you get to acceptance sooner, because you know they understand your story/characters and want the best for them too. Best wishes with that first chapter! It can be tough work to get the opening just right.

  • Martha Willey

    Love this explanation of the process. In the depression stage now. More tweaking needed to be done than I thought.

  • Hahaha! Love it! I’m so at bargaining stage. Definitely not looking forward to the next one 🙁

  • Holly Robinson

    Oh my gosh, Julie, I never thought of editing in those terms, but I’m currently in the nth revision of novel #7, and YES, I have gone through every one of those stages with this dang book! Thank you for my laugh of the day. I’m in the acceptance stage and nearly done, but man, what a SLOG.

  • ellajoyolsen

    I’m waiting for feedback from my agent on a long anticipated full. She’s taking a little longer than I thought she would and I’m vacillating between, “she’s going to say it’s perfect and she’s ready to send to the big houses, stat” and “she sees no hope for the novel, she’s tried to come up with ideas to make it better but really, there’s nothing there”. I’m dying in this pre-editing stage…

    • Aw, that’s another stage. Not sure what to call it, but waiting can be so hard. As writers, our imaginations are already overactive, and now we have all kinds of stuff we can imagine is happening with our book! Hang in there. Whatever it is, I’m sure you can manage it well. Wishing you all the best!

  • Lol, a very relatable post -especially the Bargaining Stage!

  • I feel like I start with the depression and then I get stuck. Does it ever get easier?

    • Jeri, I think it does. At least for me it has. But one of the best resources when you’re in depression is another writer recognizing that’s where you are and helping you step away from the proverbial cliff. Actually, it could be a group of writers, a close friend, or an editor. But someone who can also recognize this stage for what it is and help you get perspective can be a real help. If you’re not in a community of writers, I encourage you to find some. Hope it really does get easier for you.

  • Hey, Julie, you described the process perfectly. In my case, first edits I zip through the stages to acceptance. Second edits I’m in denial longer. Third edits–it’s anger, oh boy, is it anger. Fourth edits–you guessed it, depression Let’s not talk about anything beyond that, stages don’t just treble in length. LOL. But, like you, I’m always glad I went through the process to make my story as good as it can be.

  • Victoria Marie Lees

    Oh. My. Gosh! This is so true. I’m at the Depression stage with my college memoir. I’ve invested years of my life into this book. I simply must complete this revision before I die. I’ve got to stop thinking about it and actually do it. Thanks for an informative post.

  • Love this, Julie! As a developmental editor, I encounter authors and their manuscripts in these various stages, and over the years, I’ve learned to perform author hospice. :o) So glad to see you show all this in a humorous light, as that’s the viewpoint that will keep us from getting as stuck in one stage or another as we can.

    As a writer, I have decided working on the computer was ‘limiting’ me (who knows how), so I decided to red pencil it on a printed copy. This led to various fairly violent acts against the innocent pile of paper — ultimately ending in a ceremonial burning over the grill…which was oddly satisfying.

    When authors approach me for an edit, I consider it an imperative to find out what stage they are in, and if they are aware of it. Denial can be disguised by courageous acceptance talk. Denial can also be disguised by anger (see burning pile of paper) or highly imaginative procrastination schemes or a deep dive into depressing self-recrimination. Denial is a problem.

    Even after the ceremonial burning, my rebellion and frustration and denial weren’t better. And now I had to face the fact that I’d wasted nearly a ream of paper…

    Great post — and thanks for sharing!
    Maria D’Marco

    • Thanks so much, Maria! This made me laugh out loud: “This led to various fairly violent acts against the innocent pile of paper — ultimately ending in a ceremonial burning over the grill…which was oddly satisfying.” But I love that you do author care as part of your process of editing. It’s so great to have someone like that on your side!

  • Beverly Turner

    So true. I’ve lost count of how many revisions I’ve completed. So many I told myself I was done. And my crit partners and beta readers had approved. But that nagging voice in my head kept insisting that I wasn’t and started coming up with ways to trim the fat, make it a tighter story. I got stuck in the bargaining stage for weeks and have finally slid into the depression stage. And yes, I’m experiencing that whole domino sensation of changing a scene in one chapter that means I have to change parts of six other chapters. ACK!!

  • Is there a stage for WEARINESS when you’ve already gone through the 5 stages of grief on a novel only to go through the 5 stages 20 different times before the book is sold? Whew! It happened so many times on a MG novel that eventually sold to Scholastic after 8 years, and my YA trilogy that finally sold to Harper after 7-8 years of major revisions. I’m tired, LOL!

    Actually, I wrote several more books during all this time, sold them, and now writing indie adult clean romance. Just launched my 11th indie romance in February. Writers are driven, dreamers, or delusional – at any given moment, haha! We are also – in this publishing climate – having to reinvent ourselves if we want to keep writing and publishing, but at least we have the chance now!

    • Wow, your success is well-deserved! I suspect few readers know how much we work on our books, but good for you digging in so hard and landing Scholastic and Harper. Hope your indie career is the peak of it all, Kimberly! And maybe you’re just weary from all that writing. 😉

  • Fae Rowen

    No wonder people like NaNoWriMo so much. No editing! Editing is not so bad when I’m just working on my own, but when I’m revising from a critique or, much worse, a developmental pass from my editor, it can be painful. And it’s never a fast process. I guess editing is like all the interior finish work when you build a house.

  • jeanne kern

    Love this, Julie. And seeing it laid out there actually helps a bit; I am not alone. (Nobody is helping me with the @)$& edits, but I am not alone.) And we do get flashes of acceptance along the road as we have to admit the book is getting better.

  • I never thought of it that way, but it is EXACTLY like traditional grief! I remember thinking there is no f’n way I can change that. Then, OK, fine, I’ll change it but it will suck. Then, oh, crap, it is better. Love the blog!

  • This blog brought out every emotion in me. I am just now passing out of the depression/weariness stage and have accepted that I’d better finish revisions on this bugger or I won’t be able to live with myself. There’s comfort in knowing so many (all?) writers go through these stages. Thanks, Julie!

    • Oh my, I’m giving you a virtual hug! It is tough being so weary of the editing, but I truly have been happy with every big edit I’ve made. I hope you find the same is true for you!

  • I giggled all the way through this post – not because I was happy that you were huddling with your wine, but because this is so so true. There’s so many times we get that great feedback and resist because it’s “so much work.” But hunkering down and doing it, even if we have to take wine (or Words With Friends) breaks, is what this writing thing is all about.

    • Even now, I can call up that feeling of my seeing the critique, my stomach sinking, my chest and shoulders drooping, and dread entering every pore of my body. “So much work!” But I truly believe that the difference between good and great is in the editing stage, as I know you do too!

      And you remind me I need to reactivate my Words with Friends account. 😉

  • […] brings all the elements of craft into focus. Julie Glover reveals the 5 stages of editing grief, Peter Selgin advises how to use adjectives wisely and judiciously, and Jodie Renner has tips and […]

  • Thank you Julie, I got waylaid in the Depression stage each time after years of fine tuning each book, four manuscripts, four stories I love. But I know they are not quite right. Each conference attendance gives me new tools and a better understanding of craft.
    Along the way many have said, “Put it aside and start a fresh one.” But no, damn it, I like them. And the problem is not with the stories, it’s with me.
    Besides, going through all-of-the-above – beats starting with a blank page.
    Cheers, Wendy.

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