All that red ink

The first time a writer receives his or her edited ms back from someone like me, I am told, the sheer volume of corrections can be traumatic. For years I wondered why this was so, because I understood how minor 90% of the edits were. I wasn’t seeing it through my clients’ eyes, for whom lots of corrections make it appear that their brainchildren have been found very wanting. I need an explanatory document to cover this subject, and this is a great chance for the general readership to see how the sausage gets made.

All this, of course, is my own practice. Other editors may do things differently.

The ms comes to me as a single MS Word document, in .doc or .docx format. If it is not in that format, I will convert it. There are specialty writer packages like Scrivener and so on, but I lack the patience or need to adapt to these. Compose it in whatever you like, up to and including Notepad, but I’m going to work on and submit it to you in Word format, at which time you can again do with it however you think fit.

Word has a feature called Track Changes. I use this feature in every case, and I can’t imagine a situation where any editor would not, even if the client stated that it was not necessary (which I also can’t imagine). This feature enables me to add comments in the margin, and will remember the original document as it was before I got freaky. When Microsoft figured out that change tracking was fairly easy to use, it launched immediate efforts to confuse the issue by renaming this the Reviewing Pane. No new features, just everything has to be rediscovered again. That’s all MS does these days, push the user interface around and make the software worse each time. This is why I cling to outdated versions until something forces me to downgrade (i.e. switch to a later version, which is never an ‘upgrade’ in any sense of the English language).

The differences between the original and my edited version will become the tracked changes. Each change will show as a strikethrough and replacement, taken out to the margin. The deletion of a loose space will show the same red line out to the margin as the deletion of a paragraph. Any formatting change, any minor typo fix, does not matter how great or small: it will produce yet another line of ‘red ink.’

The first thing I will do to the ms is a global search-and-replace (SAR) for two blank spaces, replace with a single blank space. This will remove all the incontinently loose spaces the client has left in the ms, including those s/he used to align text horizontally (rather than use tabs in the correct manner). If the client is older, and has clung to the obsolete standard of two spaces after a period, colon, or exclamation point, surprise: the ms has just received hundreds and hundreds of tiny edits, each of which has its own red line stretching out to the margin. If the client is younger, there will be fewer, but I can still anticipate a great many. I will repeat this process until it returns zero replacements.

As I make my first editing pass, I will correct any typo that I find. Some are usage typos, such as single quotes where doubles would better suit, misspellings, little stuff. I can expect several per page. Each will result in one more red line out to the margin.

Of course, I am also editing and commenting as I proceed. I want to explain some of my edits, partly for teaching purposes, and partly because I believe that my client has the right to know my reasoning. The client is far more likely to accept an edit if s/he gets some idea of the logic that prompted it, right? This is also more collaborative. Maybe I didn’t quite get the client’s meaning in a given passage. If I didn’t, and my edit distorted something, the client should reject the edit, reword it him or herself, or confer with me to decide upon a good solution. Adversarial editing, in which the client can’t wait to “fight for her words,” doesn’t happen with me because I’m not interested in clients who want to fight. If you’re a writer, and part of your career dream is a hostile editorial relationship, I am not the right provider for you. I’m interested in clients who want to produce and sell better books in which they can take more pride, and in doing my all to help them grow. If my input is unhelpful to a given client, there is no meaningful relationship in play.

When I finish that first pass, I will usually take my eyes off the ms for a couple of days, then do a second pass that I call the normalization pass. As I did the first pass, I missed some things. I should rethink some things, and I should definitely tone down the sarcasm in some of the comments. Above all, my handling of the author’s habits evolved over the course of the edit, which means the first part sounds different than the latter parts. The second pass allows me to make that voice consistent, to apply the lessons holistically. It also generates a bunch more red lines out to the margin, both comments and new edits.

So now approaches the magical moment, the time when I will return the edited ms to my client. This person trusted his or her months of effort to my good offices. I am human, and I like to make people happy. I’m a businessman, and I like to meet and exceed the client’s expectations. Thus, I hope that s/he will love the outcome. I desire to hear that s/he finds the read smoother, clearer, more economical, and better than s/he imagined s/he could sound. I hope s/he will absorb the lessons I took time to impart, and is eager to publish and move on to the next big project, energized by a sense of quantum leap in ability. I understand that s/he will reject a few of my edits, and that’s fine. I hope I did a good job making the case for most of them.

While I’m all jazzed to hear my client’s impressions, on the other end of the wire, my client is opening the Word document to a sea of red ink. S/he can’t even follow all the changes; it seems I found multiple faults with every single sentence. To him or her, nothing s/he wrote was ever just good as it was, or so it appears from the storm of crimson lines. It must surely be a horrible shock, at least the first time.

And probably 80% of those red lines, perhaps more, are loose spaces, punctuation fixes, and repaired typographical errors. Their quantity says nothing about where the client is as a writer, except that:

  1. The client is still using extra spaces. They all do. I have never yet broken a single client of this. I guess I should rejoice that this will save them from outgrowing my services.
  2. The client made typos, as I do, as does everyone, and each one found is one fixed, thus reason to sigh with relief.

In other words, that the client is much like most writers, and the quantity of red lines by itself says nothing. Truly. It lacks even correlation with quality of writing. Someone could write a lousy novel requiring full rewrites of many chapters, yet do the SARs him or herself and have it proofread before it went to me, and there would be fewer red lines when I was done–yet those red lines would mean much more, edit for edit.

Before you get your work back from an editor who invested any effort at all, and had any sort of standards, be prepared for tons of red lines, and realize that the majority are nearly insignificant. And don’t take one look at it and think: Oh, good lord, I’m a disaster with a keyboard. I should just shove this in a drawer. I’ll never make it.

The true message is quite opposite. Absorb that one.


2 thoughts on “All that red ink”

  1. Another excellent and valuable article, J.K. I do have a minor quibble. I find all the “s/he” usages annoying and disruptive. I understand the idea, just can’t get used to it. Just feedback. I respect your choice.


    1. Thanks for the kind words. The grammatical and literal gender issues in our language pose problems that do not admit of easy solutions. As writers, we are faced with clunkiness or sexism as our options. While I’m never going to enjoy clunkiness, I enjoy even less giving in to the innate sexism of our language. Another alternative would be to adopt one of the newfangled gender-neutral pronoun and adjective sets that have been proposed. That one would probably annoy you, and I know for sure it would annoy me. So, when facing all my potential choices, I choose the one most likely to be most acceptable to the largest number of readers as I perceive it, and most honestly reflective of my own world view. But that’s not to say I’m blithe about fact that some people don’t much care for it. I wish I had a solution that worked well for everyone.


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