Writers Need Editors – And Mine Wants My Manuscript Turned In, Now

Barbara Falconer Newhall in her San Francisco Bay Area writing room with desk and bookcases editing the paper print-out of her book manuscript, "Wrestling with God." Photo by Barbara Newhall

In my writing room with a print-out of the “Wrestling with God” MS. My editor is ready for me to turn it in, but I’m not. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

It’s time. Time for me to put the final tweaks and edits on my book manuscript so that my editor can send it off to be formatted – and published. It’s been years since I started work on “Wrestling with God.” I’ve written draft after draft and tried format after format. I’ve been wrestling with that manuscript and what I want this book to be as fiercely as I’ve been wrestling with God and who that might be.

And now my editor at Patheos Press tells me that, in addition to making my last-minute corrections, I need to clarify some points here and there with a few pithy paragraphs.

In other words, the book is still not done. Not quite anyway.

Editors are a good thing, btw. A science writer I worked for back in my Look magazine days, John Osmundson, gave me some advice that I’ve held close ever since.

Barbara Falconer Newhall at her home office desk getting ready to do final edits on her book, "Wrestling with God." Photo by Barbara Newhall

This is going to be harder than I thought. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Editors Are A Good Thing

Writers need editors, he told me. Editors keep you from looking like an idiot. They keep you from falling through the holes you’ve left in your manuscript, the ones everyone can see, plain as day, except you.

Also, editors are good for tapping you on the shoulder when you’re about to commit a gaffe. Like writing a newspaper headline that reads, “The Bachelors Are Back With Their Wonderful Balls.”

I’m not kidding. You could slip up and write such a headline. That one actually appeared once upon a time on the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Bachelors were a club of tony San Francisco single guys who threw big parties – balls. The club had faded from the scene for a time, and when the Bachelors made a comeback, the Chronicle society pages – unintentionally? — welcomed them with a raunchy headline.

The copy editor who let that headline get into the paper was gone, gone, gone by the time I arrived at the Chronicle, but the story was still being told around the newsroom with groans and titters.

To this day, headline writers continue to put their feet in their mouths. Here’s a hed from from Tuesday’s Houston Chronicle, for example, sent along by my colleague Bill Snyder:

Police: St. Louis officers kill suspect with knife.

Says Bill: “You mean the cops stabbed the suspect?”

I don’t think so. Not if they’re one of the U.S. police departments with body armor, MRAP’s and M16’s to work with.

Hmm. I see that I’m free associating here. Telling old stories and passing on political commentary and helpful writing tips. Anything to avoid settling down to the 241-page print-out sitting on the desk behind me.

Clearly, it’s time to stop procrastinating. No more excuses. My summer vacations are over. I’ve visited the daughter in Los Angeles, the brother in Seattle, the son in Minneapolis. It’s time to sit down and finish that book!

Just One Last Writing Tip Before I Go

Letting go of a book is not easy for writers, a speaker told his audience at a West Coast writers’ conference a few summers ago. It was the last day of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley workshops, and everyone was getting ready to head home to their writing rooms. The speaker, a successful novelist, wanted to give his audience some encouragement.

Barbara Falconer Newhall manuscript, "Wrestling with God" is on her desk waiting for her to sit down on her stability ball and get to work on it. Photo by Barbara Newhall

My manuscript awaits me. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Finishing a book is a challenge, he said. That’s because when we first get that idea for a book, we have such big, gleaming plans for it. We envision a work in which the language will sing, the plot will dazzle, the characters will get up and walk off the page. It will be perfect.

But the closer we get to finishing the manuscript, the clearer it becomes that what we’ve written is just a book. A pretty good book maybe, but one that, like ourselves, is far short of perfect.

We aren’t Shakespeare, it turns out. We’re just usins.

Come to think of it, maybe even Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. Maybe he had a heck of a good editor. Maybe he had lots of good editors. Or perhaps he crowd-sourced his work. Maybe he never finished anything, but kept one ear to his audiences, writing and rewriting his plays until they couldn’t help but turn into masterpieces.

That’s it. Enough procrastination! My editor is waiting for this manuscript. (That’s another thing editors are good for — giving you deadlines so you get things done.) I’m going to roll my stability ball over to my writing desk right now and sit on it. I’m going to grab a pencil and start slogging through that print-out.

But first, I think I’ll sharpen some pencils.

Read about other manuscript milestones at “Yea! A Book Contract for ‘Wrestling with God'” and “Yippee! I Did It. I Finished My Book.”




  1. Cheryl McLaughlin says:

    Just saw this piece and loved it! It’s even better to read it now that you have that book (you finally finished and let go) in your hands, your purse, or anywhere you’re ready to go and spread the word!

  2. David Stirrat says:

    Well done, Barbara! Fabulous job 🙂

  3. My friend Jache reports seeing this headline: “Liberian Leader Reported to Fire Officials for Defying Ebola Order.”

  4. George Alvarez-Bouse—Jache says:

    Yes, editors. An aid most of us who write do not have. Probably if they were there to look over our shoulders during our reading, research, and writing, we could avoid many of the corrections needed later. It seems to me that once you determine that your arguments are thoroughly prepared and logically aligned, then you check them one-by-one to make certain they square with the thesis. And look at your opening to see that it points in a gripping way toward it. I wish you well with all of that. P.S. Your use of ‘riff’ is apt I think; less expressive is your ‘slog’. The latter lacks ‘for me’ a sense of deliberation.

    • Thanks, Jache. Before I had an editor I had lots and lots of writer friends and a couple of writing groups. We exchanged manuscripts and gave critiques. It was helpful to think of these friends as “readers” rather than editors. Less of a looking-over-my-shoulder feel to their feedback.

  5. Congrats, Barbara! What an accomplishment – what a slog. Can’t wait to hear what comes next!

  6. Mike Shaler says:

    A wonderfully rendered ah ha moment in process. Thanks for this one, Barbara.


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