As a writer, I sometimes receive smart suggestions from readers or editors. They rewrite a line, ask a pointed question, or present an argument that prompts major rethinking: maybe an entirely new direction for a plot, or the elimination of a character.
A writer should feel elated and grateful for such help, but it’s not always that easy. First we have to resent the suggestion a little and resist taking it. Then we have to kick ourselves for not thinking of it ourselves. Finally, when we know that we really, really want to use that idea, we have to wonder whether it’s fair game.
Is it fair to take someone else’s idea? Does it make us less of a writer?
Of course it’s fair. It’s a reminder that not even the greatest writers go straight into type without drafting and redrafting, editing, and revising. It’s part of the publishing process. If a reader, editor, or copyeditor is being paid to vet our writing, the whole point is for their work to improve our own. The continuing brouhaha over whether Jane Austen was edited baffles me, implying as it does that other writers weren’t.
My friend Amy Timberlake, whose picture book The Dirty Cowboy won the Golden Kite award in 2003, has posted a generous and revealing account of all the help she received while writing and revising that book. But as Amy says, ultimately the writer can take credit: “You take other people’s good suggestions and you fit them into your story using your voice, your love of language, your pacing and pauses, and your sense of humor (among other things). Believe me, you tell your story your way. So if someone offers you a good suggestion—take it. Take it and run with it and make it your own.”
Amy reminds us that writing is a “communal art.” So if you’re a grateful writer, here are some ways to give back.
—Take a few minutes to read any cover letter that comes with feedback from an editor. It probably contains instructions for reading and marking the manuscript, and it almost certainly contains a deadline.
—Respond to every question or comment at the very least with a checkmark to show that you didn’t miss it.
—If you’re happy with the feedback and there’s an appropriate place to say so in print (such as an acknowledgments page), include that reader or editor in your thanks.