To Edit or Not to Edit

Recently a student with aspirations of becoming an author/illustrator asked me the simple question, “What one piece of advice would you give to a new author?”


“Get used to criticism,” I said. “You’re going to get a lot of it.”


We creative types tend to be precious about our work. The very idea that we might have to change the story, the theme, the illustration style, will get our backs up faster than a cat on Halloween.


“Change it?” we ask indignantly, “Are you kidding? It’s a masterpiece. How dare you?!”


It’s a bit of a shock the first time your editor sends you a three-page cover letter of general notes accompanied by a twenty-page PDF of detailed notes on your 500-word picture book.


That can be soul-crushing, but I’ve learned to take a deep breath, walk it off, cuddle the cat, drink a cup of tea and then come back with an open mind. I ask myself, “Will this make my book better?” and usually the answer is yes. Sometimes what we are trying to accomplish isn’t coming out as intended. The editor’s feedback is meant to help clarify what our story is trying to say. A good editor, an editor that you trust, will help you shape your story into something that is even closer to your vision than anything you could have done on your own.


That is what I told the student. For about a week after I sent my response, I felt really proud of myself. I gave myself a big pat on the back for my beneficence, passing on something I had wished I’d known when I was just a little “authorling.”


But, as is always the case with life, I realized that my answer was kind of wrong. At the very least, it was severely oversimplified.


Early in my career, I had experiences where an editor removed every bit of humor, meaning every bit of me, from my manuscript. I had an art director give me sketches (their sketches that they drew) to show me what they wanted me to draw. And I went along with it. I made the changes and removed any ounce of my voice and my perspective from my own work. I remember seeing the finished product and wondering how my name could be put on something that was so NOT mine.


I, like so many creative types, was so darn happy that someone was paying me to create, that I didn’t want to upset them lest they rethink the whole paying-me-to-make-stuff thing. If I had said, “Um, why did you hire an illustrator if you were just going to draw my drawings for me?” they might not want to hire me again. I wasn’t about to rock that boat. THEY WERE PAYING ME TO MAKE STUFF!


It’s easy to defer to someone who has been doing this a lot longer than you. And you probably should, in most cases. But even when you’ve been doing this for a while, you still might find that you are asked to make edits that make you question if it’s time to fight for your vision or change your vision.


I used to think that standing up for your project was akin to being a petulant child.


“I don’t wanna change it!” we shout as we stamp our feet.


But I’ve since learned that it’s not about whether or not you want to change it (I think I’ve proven over the years that I’m delighted to change my story if it will improve it) but whether or not you should change it. I’m all for stretching my boundaries and trying new things, but sometimes the things they want me to do with my words or my drawings are simply not my jam.


Making books is an art form and, like all art, it’s highly subjective. My editor might think that The Adventures of Ethel Pert Butter Churner* is the best thing ever written, while I might think it’s dull, has terrible illustrations and is a bit insensitive towards lactose intolerants everywhere. How can someone with such a different sensibility guide my work to be its strongest?


In a perfect world, we would all find our editor/art director soul mate. Someone who shares your brain and your vision. I’ve had the great fortune to work with a few creative soul mates. And I’ve been lucky enough to work with others who, while they didn’t share my vision, did manage to help me create work that I didn’t know I was capable of.


The next time a hopeful creator asks me for advice my answer will be different. I will say create from your heart but don’t let your feelings get hurt when your creation needs to change. Creating a book with a publisher is a collaboration and, as with all collaborations, be prepared to both make compromises and to stand up for your vision. Finding a publisher soul mate takes time and know that you will likely have to make a bunch of mistakes along the way. Just go out there and try your best.


I can’t wait to see what you create.


*Not an actual book. Yet…


Author and illustrator Ashley Spires is known for providing readers, young and old, with a good laugh.  She is the creator of the Binky The Space Cat series of graphic novels and the bestselling picture book, The Most Magnificent Thing. She can often be found jogging with her dog Gordon or cuddling her cats, Fran, Penny and Mina at her home in Ladner, BC. You can find Ashley on Twitter @ashleyspires.

Giveaway Information (from Stacey):

  • This giveaway is for a 20-minute Skype session with Ashley Spires and for a copy of Ashley’s newest book The Thing Lou Couldn’t Do. Many thanks to Ashley and Kids Can Press, respectively, for donating these two prizes (two winners with one prize for each person).
  • For a chance to win the Skype session or the book (USA and Canada mailing addresses only for the book), please leave a comment about this post by Wednesday, May 31st, 2017 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 2nd.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid email address when you post your comment so I can contact you to coordinate your prize if you win. From there Ashley will coordinate with you to find a mutually convenient time for the Skype Session or Kids Can Press will ship the book out to you. (NOTE: Your email address will not be published if you leave it in the email field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the Skype session or the book, I will email you with the subject line TWO WRITING TEACHERS – ASHLEY SPIRES. Please respond to my email with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Comments are now closed. Congratulations to sharwood who will receive a copy of this book and to Barbara who will receive the Skype session.