Second, editors are going to ask for changes because—well, because they're editors. Playwrights understand that no matter how brilliant the words they put on paper, how detailed their stage directions, the play's director is going to have a major impact on the interpretation that audiences ultimately see. So it is with editors. This is not to suggest that editors will insist on making changes where none are needed, but simply that authors&msash;particularly beginning authors—should start from the understanding that this is a partnership, and so allow some space for input from their (senior) partner.
Three important observations: First, just as it is to be expected that one's editor will suggest or demand certain changes, it is natural that one's first reaction to these revisions is to have a minor meltdown. I have yet to receive something back from an editor that I didn't (initially) regard as ridiculous suggestions that would undermine the entire point of the piece. I always begin by complaining to my wife and colleagues about the morons with whom I have to contend; if, that is, I can get a word in edgewise, as they complain about their editors and referees in turn. That's all just a normal part of the process. Because, let's face it, we are all of us really lazy and absolutely hate having to do revisions. Just once I would like an editor to tell me, "Hey, that was perfect! I can't think of a single thing to change!" but it is never going to happen.
Usually, about the fifth time I read the comments through I start to grudgingly confess that there is maybe the remote possibility that this or that suggestion might, in fact, have identified something that could be worked on a bit. As the deadline approaches, I roll up my sleeves and actually try to rewrite the offending passage, a struggle that requires me to throw out my previously written words: an act in my mind akin to abandoning a child. In the end, however, as I rewrite this bit or that from the new perspective of the 'mistaken reading' by editor or referees, I come to realize that the new version is actually quite an improvement. Indeed, having completed the new draft, I generally wince when I look back at the previous version, and shake my head to think I ever felt it ready to go out.
The key here is: NEVER EVER respond to editorial suggestions the same day (probably not even the same week) as one receives them. One needs time to absorb what the editor is actually saying, to work through the emotionality of even this partial rejection, and to start seeing the possibilities arising out of the editor's feedback. That first day, one should simply acknowledge receipt of the comments and promise to attend to them in the immediate future. That's it. If some comments need to be resisted, resist them later when one is calmer; and one has already made the other x number of suggested changes—which demonstrates that one is open to change, is reasonable, flexible, and merely raising the possibility that perhaps -- in this one instance—there may be good reason to go another route than with the editor's recommendation. Such an approach is far more likely to be successful than the incoherent rant that is likely one's initial, instinctual response.
The second point here is that one needs to choose one's battles carefully. Sometimes one needs to say 'no' to development editors (or agents and publishers) if the changes they are insisting on are inappropriate -- the recent controversies over authors being asked to change characters from gay to straight or black to white come to mind. Most publishers would not hold these principled refusals against the author, though they may well choose (for purely commercial reasons) not to continue with publication of that particular manuscript. On the other hand, authors who endlessly debate every little change, who refuse to budge on any suggested revision, quickly acquire the reputation as "difficult to work with". And then one's career is over. With hundreds of equally competent manuscripts vying for the six or eight available slots in an imprint's monthly publishing schedule, there is no need for a publisher to invest time and effort in a difficult or unresponsive author. Eventually, even megastars like Charlie Sheen get fired if they are sufficiently unprofessional. One may even win the battles over a particular manuscript, but then lose the war if the publisher decides not to bother accepting future submissions.
If one feels the need to retain complete and utter control over every aspect of one's writing, the only viable solution is to self-publish; with the obvious perils that without development editing, one's ego may quickly outdistance one's competence.
Third, developmental editing is an iterative process. One submits the initial manuscript; the editor provides detailed feedback; one resubmits with the required revisions, and perhaps the occasional argument why this or that suggested change is better some other way; and the editor re-edits the revisions. My experience is that a polished first submission requires at least two, and usually three rounds of suggestions and rewrites. Other manuscripts have sometimes taken as many as six, though that does start to get tedious for both sides.
Again, it is important to view this as the editor working to make the manuscript as strong as it can be, rather than an obstruction. The goal here is to produce the best book possible, not just to get published. If getting published were the goal, one could self-publish and be done with it.
Note too, that it is important to make one's revisions on the same copy as the editor. These days, that usually means using "Track Changes" in Word, though some houses I'm told still prefer hard copy. The editor needs to see that the suggested comments have been addressed—either that the change as been made, or the author has provided reasons why the change is being resisted. It is not uncommon (and often quite interesting) to get a dialog going over this or that revision as comments go back and forth over two or three iterations. Sending a 'clean' copy back with all your changes, on the other hand, will likely drive your editor crazy as s/he has to reread the entire manuscript again, with a copy of the original next to it to compare line by tedious line, just to ensure that all the suggested edits have been attended to, and whether the revisions were successful.
This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy-part-2.html