The difference between editing features and editing fiction

Allison Tait blog
Posted on June 16, 2014

Untitled design-1Mr7 and I had a little chat the other day that clarified for me something that has been bothering me about editing fiction for a long time.

He was upset because he’d been asked to create a ‘crazy critter’ out of leaves at school and his ‘crazy critter’ was, apparently, too crazy.

“She just wants me to make it like everyone else’s,” he wailed, outraged that his crazy critter had not passed muster. “She says it doesn’t look finished.”

“Was it finished?” I asked, mildly, knowing, as I do, Mr7’s gnat-like attention span.

“It was!” he said. “It was just different to everyone else’s. She said I hadn’t listened to instructions.”

“And had you?” I asked, mildly [repeat comment about attention span here].

“Well, ye-e-es,” he said. “But I liked my idea better.”

I thought a moment. “Here’s a tip,” I said. “Give the teacher what she wants. When she asks for something, just fulfill the brief. Then come home and whip up the craziest critter you can ever imagine. Sometimes, you’ve just got to do what’s asked of you.”

In an ideal world, children would be as creative as they wanted and the crazier the critter the better. But the teacher was clearly looking for something specific and, to avoid having to sit in the classroom the following lunchtime, Mr7 was going to have to give it to her.

This is what writing for magazines and newspapers is like. In order to get paid, a writer must hit the brief. If the story comes back because you’ve added creative elements and forgotten to add salient points, you rework it and give the editor what she (or he) wants. Hit the brief, even when you think your ideas are so much better.

This is how I’ve been used to being edited.

When you write fiction, you effectively set the brief. You can make your critter as crazy as you like. Then, when your editor comes back with her feedback, you have to decide how much of it you’ll take on board. It’s a crazy writer (in my opinion) who decides that the editor has NO idea and they will forge ahead with their own vision, regardless. But. And this is a big but. It’s your story. Your name. If you think something really needs to stay, and you can articulate why to yourself and others, then keep it.

This has been a huge learning curve for me over the past few years. Having the confidence to say ‘nope, the crazy critter needs to look like this because it’s mine’ is a big leap, but it’s an essential one.

Mr7, in the meantime, went to school the following day, produced a perfect, on-brief crazy critter – and then came home and created a monster.

Have you learned something the hard way lately?


  1. Zohra

    Great tip!

  2. Shawnnita

    Wow, thank you so much for this! I’m still very new and in the learning phase so this is very helpful! Thanks 🙂

  3. veggie mama

    oh, amen! Nail the brief, create later.

  4. Kym Campradt

    Writing and parenting advice in one – love it! And thank you!

  5. Helen K

    Good advice – applies to lots of areas of life too!

  6. Emily

    I love this. I have written for others my whole life so it’s definitely something to keep in mind. Thank you.

  7. Sarah Ayoub

    Lol, Kudos to Mr 7 for knowing what he wants AND for standing out from the crowd.

    I was able to hold on to a few cultural things in HISASW, because that’s how things were done in my family’s tradition, even though the editor thought they were not realistic (they were). But I compromised in other areas. Interestingly, one of the biggest criticisms from my target audience who loved the book was the fact that the formal was mentioned, but there was no chapter on the formal. I had one initially, but cut it out as part of that compromise. Sometimes you just have to stick to your guns, but I wouldn’t change the editor I had. She was great.

  8. Amanda Kendle

    Oh, I am always learning things the hard way because the easy way is too boring, but I really just wanted to comment to say that I love Mr7 and his crazy critter attitude and I hope my Mr4 will be the same (I suspect he will or already is). Except that he’s still at the age where pleasing the teacher is even more important than crazifying your critter, but I’m sure this will pass.


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