Publishing Tips

Working with an Editor

Tricia Dower

August's Publishing Tip comes to you from local Victoria writer, Tricia Dower. In her article, she explains the careful tug-and-pull of working with an editor, and reiterates what all writers know they'll one day have to do: kill your darlings.


Tricia Dower lives in Brentwood Bay, BC. Her Shakespeare-inspired collection, Silent Girl (Inanna, 2008), was nominated for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. She won first prize for fiction in The Malahat Review’s 2010 Open Season Awards and first prize for creative nonfiction in subTerrain Magazine’s 2015 Lush Triumphant literary awards. Her first novel was Stony River (Penguin Canada, 2012), and her latest novel is Becoming Lin (Caitlin, 2016).


If you've been published, you've probably felt the deft touch of an editor, whether on big picture matters or line-by-line copy edits. Having received my first publishing credit only twelve years ago, I don't feel expert enough to give advice, but I‘m happy to share what I've learned about working with editors.

It's a privilege.
Imagine, someone actually wants to talk about what you've written. And getting to work with a professional editor on someone else's dime is like receiving a windfall. But the benefits are more than monetary. The best editors call up a better me. They stretch me as an artist and as a human.

It's a partnership…
…not a boxing match with only one of us hands-over-head in triumph. My editor represents potential readers as well as the publisher and has as big a stake as I do in making sure my words don't show up in public with bed head and morning breath. It takes good will and communications to come to a shared understanding of a story's vision. I try not to be shy about asking questions when I don't understand what an editor is looking for. Luckily for me, Jane Silcott was persistent in probing my intentions for Becoming Lin. It enabled her to suggest strategies that reshaped the work, including plucking one section out of obscurity to star as the prologue. Her DNA is all over the finished book.

Be prepared to rewrite.
No point looking for, "I've never seen such a clean manuscript. I'd change two words at most." I doubt even Alice Munro is that perfect. My agent John Pearce was an editor for years before becoming an agent. On a hard copy of Stony River's manuscript, he crossed out whole pages with heavy strokes and added marginal comments on other pages: "Enough!" "Move on." "Who cares?" His candour and my subsequent rewrite opened Penguin's door.  Yet, even after praising the manuscript, editor Adrienne Kerr wrote a three-page critique so comprehensive I wondered how I'd keep what she (and I) loved while addressing all the issues. Wisely, she told me only what needed fixing, not how to fix it.

Keep an open mind.
An editor's advantage over me is professional distance from the work. I've learned to allow myself the time to digest a suggestion and consider why it might work before resisting.  Becoming Lin features first-person journal entries as well as narrative in close third. Jane Silcott felt a number of journal entries would read better as narrative. I couldn't see that at first but I tried one and then another and so on until I realized she was right. The journal entries that remained were more clearly distinct from the narrative, more focused and effective.

Know when to fold.
Not all publishers use the same style guide. I rarely battle over commas. I try to head off other conflicts by explaining up front why I've used a certain style. In Becoming Lin, I argued for American spelling throughout because, as an American, Lin wouldn't have used Canadian spelling in her journal and I felt it would look strange to use one style in the journal entries and another in the narrative. Jane agreed with me except for the word storey, as in "a four-storey building" because Canadian readers would find the American "story" too jarring.  So storey it was.

Expect some pain.
It hurts to cut anything I've written from the heart. In Becoming Lin I used a device to fracture time that threw Jane right out of the story. I'd used it often and was emotionally invested in it. Keeping my mind open (see tip number four), I dropped it for Jane's sake. Trouble was, the book lost some of its magic for me after that. My neurotic desire to please had expected psychological gold stars. What I got was a sense of loss. The story no longer felt like mine. "So, make it yours again," my husband said. And I did, finding ways to add back the magic for me and lose the confusion for Jane, growing more flexible and resilient in the process. I went through a different type of pain when rewriting Stony River. Adrienne Kerr's editorial letter arrived as my daughter-in-law lay dying. Weeks later, when I was able to attempt revisions, I found myself pushing words through a muddy trench of grief, each sentence hard won and precious still, four years later.


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The Malahat Review posts "Publishing Tips" as a bimonthly guest column on its Publishing Tipswebsite and in Malahat lite. Follow it in order to learn how to improve your professional skills, from the writing of cover letters, to what house style means, to choosing a rhyming dictionary, to having an author photo (as opposed to a selfie) shot. If you have a Publishing Tip you'd like to share, email The Malahat Review at, with "Publishing Tip Idea" in the subject line. Tips should be 750 words or less. If yours is accepted, you will be paid an honorarium of $50.