Thursday, October 6, 2011

Surviving a Book Edit

Philip White

The title of this blog post may have drawn more readers if it read “Surviving a Shark Attack” or “Surviving a Tsunami” but, though it may lack the same drama, I hope this particular musing will be more useful for the would-be book writer.

I have been working on my book (shameless plug alert!), Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War Alliance, since March 2009. From its genesis, it has gone through multiple metamorphoses, with entire chapters re-written and axed, new sources discovered and integrated, and days spent at the Churchill Archives Center, the National Churchill Museum, the Harry S. Truman Library and other archival treasure troves.

When I first settled on September 1 as my manuscript submission date, almost nine months ago, it seemed a lifetime away. After all, I’d already put hundreds or even thousands of hours into the project, had what I thought were five complete chapters (of 11) on my hard drive, and was rolling along with the remainder.

However, the deadline that once seemed so far off soon appeared right before my nose, like the knights caught unawares by Sir Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Liz Murphy, archivist at the National Churchill museum, came across a batch of pertinent Churchill letters just days before, and I was still hurrying to incorporate this new material. I was also hastily acquiring rights for photos from the Potsdam Conference and Churchill’s 1946 visit to the U.S., while trying to cut bloat from certain chapters. Arrggh! I thought I had this under control! How did it become this mad panic?

Anyway, I got the manuscript and images away a couple days early, and took a deep breath. Two weeks later, my editor mailed back a Yellow Pages-sized packet of paper, with red pen to indicate her first read comments and blue pen to show comments from the second pass. The first eight chapters were smooth sailing, but numbers nine and eleven were anything but – too much detail, too long, too everything other than ready to go to print. So I spent an entire day cutting away, and eventually, after four and a half days of hard work, sent back my response to her comments. In the midst of cutting almost 20,000 words, re-formatting a chapter and putting my pride to the sword, here’s what I learned:


As I’ve written before on this blog, I am not a naturally organized person. But I’ve developed some habits and systems to force myself to be less haphazard and they’ve proved effective. When I first opened the UPS envelope from PublicAffairs, I laid each chapter face down in its own pile on the kitchen table, with chapter one on the far left. Completed chapters went into a “Sept 2011 edits” folder.

As I moved through each section, I jotted down notes on my tablet to remind me about global changes, such as replacing the use of “C-T Day” (referring to Churchill and Truman’s March 6, 1946 visit to Fulton, Mo.) with “Churchill-Truman Day,” and removing overly complicated numerical details. I then addressed these as I went along. Though the temptation was there to discover the scope of my challenge, I did not so much as peek at chapter two before I was done with chapter one. It was agony. Nonetheless, these simple steps proved highly effective.


I recently read an old article on David McCullough’s writing, and discovered he works in a converted shed in his back garden. He built this haven so his grandkids wouldn’t have to tiptoe around the house while he was working, and so that he could focus. The bonus disc in the HBO adaptation of John Adams also features this hideaway.

Now, I doubt my tyrannical homeowner’s association would tolerate such a structure even if could summon the practical muster to build one (my wife will laugh when she reads this, as I can barely hammer a nail into the wall to hang a picture). So, when it came time to hunker down I left the family at home and went to the library at my alma mater, and when it closed, to my local Starbucks. Hey, good enough for Obama’s chief speechwriter, good enough for me. The combo of a large desk and silence at the former and my noise-canceling headphones and enough caffeine to kill a small horse at the latter did the job.

Know Thy Limits

With the afore-mentioned caffeine coursing through me and my enthusiasm stoked, I wanted to plough through the night on the first day of this process. It wouldn’t be the first time. But about six months ago I “hit the wall,” as a friend and fellow writer describes it – I can no longer work until 3:00 a.m., get up three hours later and repeat as needed. So I stopped at 1:45 a.m. that night, got six hours sleep, and then put the stovetop espresso maker back on. I had a lot more clarity in both my main job and the editing process than if I’d pushed myself to the limit of exhaustion.


Though much of the weekend was a write-off, I spent at least two hours with my sons and wife each day, worked out, and got enough sunshine to replenish my vitamin D levels so I didn’t feel like a cave troll. When pushing hard to make a deadline, it is tempting to shut every other part of your world down, but that’s counter-productive. By making time for myself and those around me, I kept myself focused and emotionally stable when I returned to my labors.


When you’ve spent more than two and a half years on a book, you become too close to it and the people who inhabit its pages, to the detriment of perspective and the authorial agenda – i.e. what to keep and what to discard. In my case, I wanted to honor the time commitment of each person I interviewed by recording as much of their stories on the page as possible. This added depth to the narrative and gave history a human touch, but it also slowed down the pace and distracted the reader (my editor).

Initially, I reacted poorly to the red and blue ink on the page – particularly in the chapters with entire pages crossed out. But once I’d examined my motivation for keeping those passages and recognized that it may not be constructive, I got over myself and forged ahead. That being said, there were certain sections she wanted to cut that I knew should stay, so I retained them and was ready to advocate for them. To develop and maintain a productive relationship with your editor, you must trust them and recognize that their comments are going to make your work better – ego by darned!


“Good enough” is not good enough! It’s pointless to put in full effort in the research and writing phases if you’re going to phone it in during editing. Sure, you may be sick of the sight of your manuscript, but you must close out strong for your book to be its best. If you need to ask for a few extra days so you can do another complete read, then do so. Above all, don’t submit your final version until you’re sure you’ve done everything possible to make it a success.

To those of you who’ve also been through book submission and editing, or indeed thesis review, I pose a question: What have you learned about the process and yourself?


Randall said...

You are far more rational and methodical about this than I am. Time for me to think about getting with it!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I agree that the editing phase is not the time to coast. I also concur that one needs to listen to one's editor: trying to fix our mistakes is their expertise, even if we want to fight them the entire way.

PW said...

mcheathem - thanks for your comment. Indeed, the ego is the biggest barrier in the editing process. I think that too often,we writers forget that our editor wants the same thing we do - to produce the best possible book, to garner positive reviews, and to sell as many (electronic and physical) copies as possible. Embracing this reality makes it a lot easier to take constructive criticism and to press on toward the finish line. It's not a submission, but a collaboration.

Nest step for me - the dreaded copy edits!