The glory of Galleys

I can't think of a greater solitary pleasure than getting galley proofs through the post. It's the precursor to 'the book' or 'the magazine' and it validates the writer as a 'real' professional. Working through galleys is something I love to do - although it's nitpicking effort and galleys are often poorly printed or copied, and the print is tiny - it's a chance to give final polish to my work.

I also read galleys for other people. And one client is a published novelist who uses me not because she's too busy, or too lazy, to proof her own galleys but because she can't resist 'improving' her story. And her behaviour is a cautionary tale to all new and emerging writers.

Thinking like a writer

Let me put it this way. The editor chose the story you sent them. They liked it. They offered to publish it. You agreed. Then, at some point down the line, you saw ways to make the story better. Maybe this was when you got galleys, maybe just before it went online, when they asked you to check html proofs, maybe even earlier, when you got the contract. So you suggested some changes to them, didn't you? Of course you did.

Thinking like an editor

This is how it feels to an editor when a writer starts to suggest substantive changes to a piece of work that's been accepted for publication. You sit down at the table. You order a meal. The waiter brings it. It's good! Halfway through the dish, he whisks the plate away and returns with a similar looking plate, but full where yours had been half-eaten. 'The chef says that he thinks you'll prefer this one,' he says. 'Because he's improved the recipe since you placed your order.' You gaze at the heaped plate, knowing that you've already eaten a good proportion of a perfectly nice meal, and you feel the first twinges of indigestion: you can't eat this much! You also feel a little slighted - why didn't you get served the really good meal the first time around?

Being a professional with edits and proofs

So if you see ways to 'improve' your story and they require more than a couple of word changes, and the re-siting of some punctuation, stop and think. Maybe the editor liked the story because it was a bit rough-hewn? Maybe your improvements will turn it into something the editor isn't as keen on? Even if she or she does like it, you're suggesting:

So if you decide to suggest substantive 'improvements' to a piece of work, please proceed with care. You can always make those alterations and look for a market that accepts reprints to take the story for a second run. Of course every writer has the 'right' to suggest changes. Just remember every editor also has the 'right' to reject your work if he or she thinks you're going to be a difficult colleague. If you aim to make a living from fiction, learn to be brave about ignoring flaws that you spot in already accepted work and just aim to do better in future.

Back to my novelist - she has been known to remove whole chapters of her work and submit newly written ones at the galley stage! Her agent gets around the problem by not letting her see the galleys. She agrees to this (with some dubiety, I have to say) and she isn't allowed to contact me to talk about the proofs, it all goes through the agent. And do you know what? I change less than 0.3% of the galleys and when she gets the final printed book she's always perfectly happy with it.

Be aware that the desire to perfect work is often about the writer and his or her doubts, not about the work and its quality. My novelist finds it hard to let go of her stories, but when she does, she's thrilled with the outcome.