What editors do

“I need someone to edit my manuscript.”

“Okay. What kind of edit do you think it needs?”

“AN EDIT! DUH! AN EDIT MEANS TO FIX ALL THE THINGS! SO I CAN [REJECT HALF OF THE FIXES AND] PUBLISH IT AND MAKE A BUNCH OF MONEY!”

And again I’ve come upon someone who wants something she has never taken the time to understand, and from the sound of it may have immunized herself against any danger of understanding.

Well, that’s all right. Nurses would be one example of a profession that deals with the same generalization based on lack of knowledge. “You mean a surgical nurse has different work than an ER nurse or a pediatric nurse? I thought it was all just nursing, you take care of them.” Like nursing, editing has different modes. Unlike nursing–which is more educationally specialized–a capable editor can operate in most or all of those different modes.

What distinguishes the editing modes? For the most part, it is the desired outcome.

“DUH! THAT’S WHAT I SAID! I WANT MY MANUSCRIPT FIXED [EXCEPT WHERE I PLAN TO FIGHT FOR MY WORDS]! HOW CAN THERE BE ANY OTHER DESIRED OUTCOME?”

Sure, Ralph. Whatever you say.

For the reader and writer who prefer to gain understanding than attempt to enforce their preconceived definitions upon a field they do not understand, here are some of the forms of editorial assistance:

The evaluatory read. Sometimes a writer admits that she cannot evaluate her own ms, and distrusts all the plaudits from “the girls at work,” mom, sisters-in-law, and everyone else who would never tell her the truth where it might hint at questioning her greatness. The reasonable outcome of the evaluatory read is a couple of paragraphs, perhaps a page, summarizing where the ms is at and what it needs to succeed.

That last is key. The client asks: so what do I do now? The question is fair, and we must answer or be wanting.

The developmental read. This can tell the writer where her manuscript is at with detailed pointers. It will not correct those flaws, just flag them and make suggestions. Wait, what good is it if it doesn’t JUST FIX ALL THE THINGS, DAMN IT? Try this on for size: editing can teach writers to be better writers. Try this as well: in the ideal world, ms problems would be solved by the author’s own creativity. Whose book is this, anyway?

So: if for instance a fictional character does not work, it’s the work of a developmental read to say as much, and to explain why, and to offer suggestions as to what might work. This input may inspire changes very unlike anything the editor would ever have offered. This is an excellent outcome if the author’s re-characterization resolves the problem.

But most importantly, the developmental read can get the writer the honest, educated critique she won’t get from her sister-in-law and mother and friends from work, all of whom tell her she is great. When she distrusts this chorus and wants an evaluation she can believe, she may ask for a developmental read. The desired outcome is honest, educated, constructive critique.

Not all constructive critique is gentle. If the client has a comma splice addiction, or is sloppy about clause order, there is nothing unconstructive about calling these out in rather icy terms. What would be unconstructive: failure to explain why these are problems, and to guide toward solutions.

The developmental edit. This is a developmental read, but with some selective fixes given for exemplary purposes. It should not seek to result in a publishable ms. It should serve as personalized, intensive teaching. It should get very specific about bad habits, plot holes, orphaned lines and scenes, and every other form of unwelcome practice. When I see a bad book’s author thanking an editor in the acknowledgements, my first guess is that said editor wasn’t asked for a developmental edit. Or if he was, he was ignored. If he was not, he should be ashamed of himself.

A developmental edit should have plentiful comments, not all of which should be critical. The author should learn what she does well. She should learn when the editor laughed, or smiled knowingly, or otherwise reacted. That’s what she wanted, to know what reactions she inspired. It is just as important to tell her her strengths as it is to propose fixes for her weaknesses, and anyone who doesn’t understand that should turn in his red pen collection.

The desired outcome is a deep, detailed critique, assessment, and list of suggestions for improvement–of the author’s writing, and specifically her ms.

The rewrite. Here is the north fenceline of the editing world, a shade south of ghostwriting. In ghostwriting, one would take (or extract) fragments and evidence, then create a ms. In rewriting, a ms already exists and for whatever reason the author prefers it rewritten in full. I consider it to remain within editing’s broadest purview because it begins with the client’s work, but it straddles the border.

Who would want a complete rewrite? The author who wants to publish, and has created a ms, but doesn’t have time or energy or wherewithal to complete it herself. Perhaps the author is deceased and her heirs discovered the ms. Perhaps life circumstances have clobbered her with too much to do. Perhaps she has admitted to herself that she can’t write well and doesn’t want to learn, but still thinks she has a publishable story.

Okay, that last would be rare. But reasons can arise. Mine not to reason why; mine to consider the job and decide whether I want it. The desired outcome is a publishable ms, ready for formatting–although one could argue that the best outcome would come from having another editor provide at least a line edit. The more the editor becomes the writer, the more he himself is in need of editing support. Just because his title is ‘editor’ doesn’t mean his every written word materializes into existence in a state of grammatical and contextual perfection. He of all people ought to know that he can and will make mistakes.

The substantive edit. In a sub edit, as I usually call it, the expected outcome is a publishable ms. It is possible that the end result might need a few last executive decisions from the author, but it should be ready for formatting and proofreading other than those.

A substantive editor has humbling freedom, for he has the right and duty to change anything. Ah, the Ogre Appears! No. That right and duty do not imply that the editor should wield this mandate in random, arrogant, incontinent, or sloppy fashion; it’s still the client’s book, not his. He should try to stay off her stage, let her take the bows, preserve as much of her style and authenticity as he can. But in the end, what he can’t do is let the end result be worse because he was unwilling to act. That would be dereliction of his core duty, and betrayal of his client, who trusted him with her project and has agreed to pay him to perfect it.

A writer who hires developmental editing and absorbs its lessons will often not need a sub edit, or if she does, it won’t take nearly as long. Just as the best dental professionals are those who guide patients toward lifestyle choices that would ultimately put dentistry out of business, the best developmental edit can enable a good writer to bypass the need for a substantive edit.

A line edit is the step below the substantive edit, and it does not question the fundamental content. It isn’t going to remove a chapter or write a character out. Think of these three words: tone, style, consistency. How does the narration sound? Are character voices consistent and distinguishable? Are there ripped seams showing where something was taken out but not all the effects were addressed? Is it clear? Do the wording choices make sense; should they be improved?

A copy edit, which is one step above basic proofreading, could be described as correcting the writer’s English. It will check for consistent spelling of names, consistency of detail, punctuation, and so on. My guess is that this is what most people not in the industry believe that all editors always do; that we are a sort of grammatical Stosstruppenkorps comprising crabby, bespectacled hall monitors who knew from earliest literacy that they would spend their lives nitpicking people’s English mistakes. And that they get together with others assigned to the same stormtrooper platoon to laugh at their friends’ typos. (“Can you believe this? She put two spaces after a colon!” “Baaahahaha! Hey, lady, 1945 called–they want their typing rules back!” “Did you give her a high colonic, baaahahaha!?” “No, but I think she will bear the wounds on her soul through several incarnations. It’s all good.”)

You get the idea. Ever read Catbert the Evil HR Director in the Dilbert cartoons? Purring at cruelties? I have learned that this is what many people think we do. It is to editing what patient sanitation assistance is to nursing. Is it true?

Not of me, and not most that I’ve known.

For one thing, there is no point nitpicking anyone’s English unless one is being paid to do so. Why work for free? For another, most of us want to help and teach, not slurp up the shattered souls left behind us. And for another, the world of editing is far more diverse than that. Most of us can handle any editing mode, but we need to know which mode that is and conform to it. If someone just wants me to fix her English, she might not want to pay me more to tell her that one of her novel’s characters is deeply offensive, or to start rewriting the ms. I call it “playing my position.” I don’t want to be called as an ineligible receiver downfield. And if we have platoons, I have yet to discover them. I don’t know of any editorial hangouts and I don’t go to writers’ forums.

Lastly, being hated is lousy for business.

So: for those seeking editing, it is well worth while to consider what sort of editing one needs. That’s also a good question to pose to the editor: what would best help this manuscript? A capable editor should give a responsive answer to the question, and be able to justify it in detail.

And when one reads a flawed book and is tempted to sniff, “She should fire her editor,” one should remember that said editor may have operated within a limited purview. Maybe the editor was eager to give the ms the treatment it most needed, and the author decided against that, requesting another mode instead. And even then, perhaps the author rejected much of the editorial input and modification.

There is no way to know. But it does help to know just how many different modes the presumed or theoretical editor had available. And that in the end, that choice was not entirely his.

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