True story of my worst editorial experience: I was hired to write a book geared to new real estate agents. Both of my editor's parents were real estate agents, and she asked me to include them among the many interviews I conducted while researching the book, which was to have a chatty, informal "feel." As the writing process went on, the editor insisted that I use less of some interviews and more of others, to the point where she wanted me to cut some of the strongest and most compelling interviews almost entirely out of the book. Gradually, it became clear that she was asking me to make all of the interviews with male agents more prominent, and to minimize or eliminate all of the interviews with female agents, except for one: her mother.
Not every editor will have the best motives, but hopefully when you're asked to edit something, you'll use the opportunity to give someone an honest, useful critique, and not to work out your own Freudian issues (if for no other reason than that you'll be elliptically humiliated on DKos if you don't). What follows is a mostly non-Freudian look at some of what goes into the editing process.
Kinds of Editing
When an editor talks about editing, there are actually two different skills involved: line editing and conceptual editing. Line editing is the actual marking up of the manuscript, making changes on a sentence-to-sentence level. Conceptual editing looks at a book on a more macro level to see what's missing, what scenes can be intensified, and what sort of story-level changes could be made to strengthen a work. Not every editor is good at both of these things, and it's harder to find someone who can sharpen a story arc or hone in on the missing piece that's keeping your chapter from coming together than it is to find someone who can sharpen your language.
The editor's job isn't to take a bad piece of writing and make it good. (If the work wasn't good and publishable it probably wouldn't have been bought in the first place, assuming it didn't fill some glaring need in the publisher's list.) The editor's job is to take a good piece of writing and help it to fulfill its promise. Making a work better and stronger isn't just about fixing the things that don't work - it's about strengthening the best parts as well.
Here's where the differences between amateur and professional editors come in - as well as the different expectations between amateur and professional writers. As a writer, don't ask someone to edit your work if what you're really looking for is blind approval. Given how much rejection writing can entail, there's certainly a need for blind approval, but that's what your mom and closest friends are for. Conversely, there's nothing less useful than a hypercritical editor, or the sort of editor who criticizes just to show how much he or she knows. So what should you expect an editor to do to your book? What should you be looking for if you're asked to edit a work? Here are some starting rules:
Tact counts. It doesn't matter how good you are if you alienate the writer. You don't get any points for sarcasm (or for laying it on so thick that your comments seem insincere). Make it clear that you get what the writer is trying to do and like and respect the work, or the writer will end up ignoring your suggestions. If you don't like the work at all, you probably shouldn't be editing it. If you don't have a choice, make sure you find a few sincere nice things you can say as a starting point before going after the problems. And go after the problems in bite-sized pieces that the writer can absorb. (If your edits are likely to be a shock, I recommend you call the writer to cushion the blow and sound reassuring before sending out your editorial letter.)
It's not your book. Don't make the mistake of trying to turn the work into the sort of book you would write. Your job as editor is to think along with the writer and help make the things the writer is trying to accomplish more effective. It doesn't matter if you would frame the narrative differently; what's the best way to strengthen the material that the writer has actually produced? How can the writer's vision be most effective? Are there changes or additions within the context of what the writer is doing that would make the work even better?
Criticism has to be useful. There's no point in suggesting something you know the writer can't pull off, even if it's true. The point is to give useful information, not to destroy the writer's psyche. Editing is tough enough on a writer when they're doable changes; don't torture the writer just to show that you have some sort of special expertise in the area. (Sometimes you may be able to make those suggestions in a second round, after the writer has made the initial changes and is in a position to understand what you're talking about.)
And a few starting things for writers to remember:
The better you are, the more criticism you get. If your work sucks, it doesn't take a lot of detail to tell you so. On the other hand, if you're a terrific writer there will be lots of subtle improvements you're capable of pulling off, and I'll have a lot of suggestions. It's not unusual to send out a 10-20 page editorial letter before I even begin line editing a book.
If lots of people don't get what you're doing, it's you. If one person doesn't understand what you're trying to pull off, then maybe it's that person, but if you get the same criticism repeatedly, then you're not getting your point across. If you have to explain the joke before people get it, it's not funny. Or, to paraphrase Bill Simmons, "If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the poker table, the sucker is you."
Don't make corrections blindly. If you really feel that the editor doesn't get what you're trying to do, don't jump in and make all the corrections anyway. Even when writer and editor are on the same page, you'll probably only make about 50% of the editor's suggestions. (Although you'll address all of them, accomplishing some in different ways and deciding that others don't actually help.) Often the purpose of conceptual edits is to make you think about how a scene works and point out weaknesses; it doesn't mean you won't find a better way to address those weaknesses than the one I suggest.
It doesn't hurt to be thick-skinned, but in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm totally not. (I may recognize that criticism and rejection are necessary evils in my chosen profession, and that criticism may have to be hard to be useful, but that doesn't mean I have to like them. I'm a total whiner when someone roughs up one of my books, even if I know the person is right. But once I'm done whining, I make the corrections.)
What, Specifically, do Editors Look For?
Story arc. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Does the protagonist grow and evolve? Is there a sense of narrative that flows smoothly, without gaps or requiring mountain goat-like intuitive leaps on the reader's part?
Point of view. Writer Greg Frost suggests that writers "tell the story from the point of view of the character who hurts the most," and there's a lot of wisdom in that approach. As a writer, you're looking at one of the worst moments in your character's life, and how he or she got through those moments and learned and grew from them. If your character isn't the most appealing person onstage, readers may stop caring about the story you're trying to tell.
Language. This isn't just about grammar. (You don't want to ignore grammar, of course, but that's probably the easiest problem to spot and fix, and the one problem where mom and those close friends will be legitimately helpful.) How's the writer's control of sentence structure and pacing? Do too many sentences sound the same? Are there quirky, overused words or phrases? Is the language too passive in places?
Dialogue. Do the characters sound like real people? Does their dialogue ring true in the situations the writer puts them in? Do they have consistent voices? Do characters sometimes say too many words without a response from the person they're speaking too? Does a reader get a sense of the characters' body language while they're speaking?
Info dumps. Is the book filled with undigestible lumps of exposition that need to be dissolved into the narrative before the reader can hope to swallow them? Does a character ever turn to another character and tell her something they both already know, just for the reader's convenience? ("As you know, Bob," in the words of Yog's famous cliche.)
Organization. Does the story start in the right place? Does it go on for two chapters past the natural ending? Does it flow logically? Are we given key pieces of information when we need them, or does the murder weapon show up two chapters too late? Does anything seem jumbled or out of order?
Characters Do they seem believable? Is the protagonist likeable? Does she fit the way the author describes her? Are these people who can hold your interest for a whole book, or do we need to know more (or less) about them. Are there key details the author doesn't tell us about his characters, or things that just don't seem to fit? Do the characters fit the story, or are some of them still products of wish-fulfillment on the author's part? Are there Mary Sue-ish elements which need to be eliminated?
Plot. Does the plot rely on someone acting stupid for the story to succeed? Would the whole book fall apart if the hero and heroine had an honest conversation? Is it too linear, or not linear enough? Is there too much story for one book? Does it feel like a short story stretched beyond the breaking point? At key moments, is there something else that could go wrong to intensify the plot or the mess the characters find themselves in? (One of the key questions to ask as a writer or editor: "What else could go wrong here?") Is there someone who needs to die to forward the plot that the author seems reluctant to kill?
Blocking. Do the physical actions work as described? Here's where the editor needs to pay attention to whether the guns run out of bullets or whether cavalry can really charge over that terrain or whether two people can really fit together that way in zero-gravity.
Tone. Are there abrupt, unintentional shifts in tone? Is the tone appropriate for the level of emotional manipulation the writer is trying to pull off? Are there jarring moments where the language or other factors pull the reader out of the book?
Nagging issues. Do the facts line up? Are there things you're still not sold on? Make sure you pin down any little disquieting things and figure out what's really bothering you. Often it's an undiagnosed symptom in one of the other areas.
Perhaps the best (and funniest) commentary on what editors look at is in Mark Twain's famous essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses."
If you're planning to write an editorial letter (a good idea) rather than just hand back a heavily marked-up manuscript, here are a few guidelines for organizing it. Editorial letters don't have a set length - you may have a lot to say, or you may not - but the overriding focus is on organizing your comments in a way that makes them as easy as possible for the writer to convert into actual changes. If the letter is disorganized or jumps around a lot, the writer is likely to make fewer of the changes.
Start with large, structural points. If the language is passive throughout, or the weather needs to be more of a factor in the entire book, say so up front. Don't wait until the writer is halfway through the book and has to skip back to start making changes.
After you've made any large, global points, make smaller, scene-by-scene points in order by where they occur. If possible, list by page number and the first few words of text involved, so the writer can easily use a word processor's search function to find them. It's important to make these points in order; don't jump back and forth or ask the writer to keep skipping around.
Mention nitpicks, but make it clear that you know they're nitpicks, so the writer doesn't feel you're being hypercritical.
Don't forget to mention what's good in the book - or the writer may delete your favorite parts.
The Rest of the "How Publishing Works" Series
I do still monitor and respond in the previous episodes, so feel free to post questions or comments in them if you'd like.
Part 1 - Why bad things happen to good books.
Part 2 - Avoiding publishing scams.
Part 3 - Literary conventions (with an emphasis on SF Conventions).
Part 4 - Book packagers.
Part 5 - Submitting a manuscript.
Part 6 - Publishing lists.
Part 7 - Literary agents.
Part 8 - Copyediting.
Part 9 - Marketing and publicity.
Part 10 - Outlining.
Part 11 - Editing.
Part 12 - Ideas.
Part 13 - Contracts.
Part 14 - How Writers Get Paid.
Crossposted to Progressive Historians.
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