Last November, when I sent my book manuscript off to my editor at the University of North Carolina Press, I heaved a sigh of relief that that was finally done. After more than two and a half years, I’d fostered my idea for a book into an actual book manuscript. Waiting for his feedback, I felt like a kid anticipating Christmas morning! It was, of course, an immense relief to hear that his first reading was positive with only a few minor and completely right-on suggestions for sharpening both my craft and the tale at hand. (I think it’s safe to say my book will be the most complete history of red wolves that has ever been published. Visit these links for other posts I’ve written about the book and lessons learned.) But I didn’t get only his feedback… about four months later I found myself in possession of three different external reviewers’ comments. The press had asked a literary expert and two scientific experts to review my manuscript. I was then given a few months to incorporate their comments into the final draft.
… And that is what I’ve been up to for past eight weeks! At first it was incredibly difficult to drag my mind back into the depths of the red wolf’s story. I chiseled away at the easy edits first, things that required only word changes, or sentence- or paragraph-level tinkering. That helped me get back into the groove of the writing and the story arc. When there was nothing small left to twiddle with or smooth over, it was time for the heavy editing. I made a checklist of the more substantial edits and figured out a game plan for how to attack them.
In particular, I dreaded pulling sections out of chapters and rearranging or rewriting them. Because this meant needing to rejigger transitions between paragraphs and major sections, even rethinking the order of how information was presented to the reader within a chapter or across multiple chapters. I’d put so much thought and care into weaving things just so, that pulling threads here and there and trying to cut sections out to reweave elsewhere demanded thinking at a depth and a level on the subject that, well, frankly I got over when I mailed the manuscript in months before! Not that I’m a lazy writer (or maybe I am?) but after expending so much time, focus, and energy on researching and writing the book, it was difficult—almost mentally painful—to crack open that inner portal to get back to the deep thinking that had consumed me for most of the past two years. There comes a time for every writer when they must shut the office door, turn off the phone ringer, and plant their butt at the desk (or living room couch, or dining table… or wherever beckons with the right writing vibe). I always love it when I’m in this work groove, but often it takes a lot of foot dragging and procrastinating to actually get there.
Despite the mental wrangling of the past few weeks, I have to say without reservation that the book writing and revising process has made me a much better and more effective writer. It can be hard, demoralizing even, to take it on the chin and absorb constructive criticism about your writing. But as long as you keep in mind that it’s not personal criticism, it’s constructive criticism, then you have so much room in which to improve both your product and your writing craft. There were a few times when I cringed reading the reviewers’ feedback. But after I let their comments stew for a few days and then came back to them, I saw the merits of their points and began plotting how to adjust the book to address their concerns.
Good writers, I think, act on meaningful suggestions in a productive way. But the thing is, to become a good writer you have to learn to remove your ego from the equation and not be offended by another’s qualified input. Once I learned to do this, the external reviewers’ comments moved from the pain-in-the-rear category to the absolute-liquid-gold category. I can’t thank my reviewers enough for the carefully thought-out comments they noted for what was working, what wasn’t, and which areas needed additional perspective or research. And I can’t wait to send the revised final manuscript back to UNC Press… again!