Category Archives: Editing/writing life

About doing this stuff for a living.

Editorial Maverick: introduction

Would people want to read about editing? If it means reading lamentations about agonizing for eight hours trying to figure out where Chicago says to put the comma, I’m guessing not. But I work differently from many editors.

For example, unless the assignment directly involves a style manual, I regard Chicago and AP as suggestion books rather than bibles. It’s that simple. To many editors, that would be heresy. Here is the logic: The list of purposes for the English language is varied, vast, and inexhaustible. The purpose of writing is to communicate information to a given audience. Does a former gang leader write in all lower case? Besides utterly defying the style guides, won’t that limit the audience? It might, but the question I would ask is not whether the sacred style guidelines had been profaned. I would ask whether this method was effective in reaching the desired audience, and why.

You cannot imagine the crickets I have heard in this career when I have asked the basic question: “Who’s the intended audience?”

Take the aforementioned gangster book. I would ask the client why he (I refer here to an actual book I once read for pleasure, not an actual client) felt this style would best reach his audience–which, by the way, was exactly who? We’d talk about that. I’d hear out his case, consider it. If I disagreed, I’d explain why. We’d have a conversation. I’m the editor who might be receptive to subversive style methods if they were effective, so I’d have an open mind.

In such a case, it usually comes down to whether the major style variation is lazy or deliberate. If lazy, the short version is “I think my shitty is as good as others’ polished.” It has no aforethought, just “I don’t want to grow.” But if it’s deliberate, it’s written that way not because their basic ceiling is shitty, but because that reaches out to the intended audience in ways I might never understand if I’m not part of the target market. I have to be open to that.

That’s part of what makes me the Editorial Maverick, I guess.

Advertisement

Do English spelling and grammar even matter any more?

Does that seem like a strange question coming from an editor? It shouldn’t–nor should one leap to conclusions regarding the answer.

I submit that the answer is a qualified yes. It has to be qualified due to these observable realities:

  • Not all communication is formal and professional. If we’re texting or PMing on FacePalm, do we really need to stress over mistakes? Not sure about your phone, but on mine it’s enough of a pain in the ass just texting understandably. There are many contexts in which I care about upper case, avoiding loose spaces, and so on. This one tends not to be such a context.
  • Language does evolve, however powerfully language conservatives rage against ‘deterioration.’ That there has been deterioration I think few can deny, but at any given point in time language differs from previous points of time, and its future will differ in turn. Look at the styles of 1800s and 1700s writing and you can see how it happened. There is never a time at which the orthodoxy is static, meaning that “perfectly correct” is a moving target.
  • As if that weren’t enough, many other countries have their own versions of English. There are more English speakers in India than in the United States. Australian and New Zealand English have marked differences, and I don’t recommend going there to try telling them they’re doing it wrong. Same for South Africa. Irish English and British English also differ from ours, with the added fillip that “The King’s English” is supposedly the mother tongue. Canadian English is akin to US English but with noteworthy British influence. If we’re going to talk about “correct English,” whose correct English do we mean? That of the largest numeric grouping, which would be Indian English?
  • Writers can be very effective yet be doing it “wrong.” When I get a ms that is written in some bizarre-looking form of English, I ask myself whether it’s effective. Some time back I did a line edit on a vanity book about of an elderly Alabama gentleman’s country music career. It sounded like what it was: a book written by a rural Alabamian nonagenarian. To edit it into some semblance of English perfection would have meant destroying the author’s basic tone. As it was, parts were a little repetitive and sometimes unclear, but his tone was familiar and regionally correct. His audience would understand every word of it, even find it warm and comforting; what was more, who would want to excise the author from his own autobiography? It’d have been lunacy.
  • At the opposite pole, I read a book by an L.A. gangster who converted to some variation of Islam and reformed. as i recall, it did not use upper case. It sounded like it was written by a moderately educated gangster. It was raw, real, personal, and effective. If he’d come to me as an editor, I doubt I would have tried to regularize his language. The way he wrote made it feel like the reader was getting to look at an otherwise inaccessible world. That I couldn’t think of a compelling benefit that would make it worth losing that feeling testified to the effectiveness of his style.

Qualifiers noted, I have indeed seen the quality of US English education and composition decline over my lifetime (don’t blame me). That gives it something in common with the rest of education during my adult life. With a dead battery, most people now are without their arithmetic. I was watching a frightful display of ignorance on Big Brother where someone thought London was in Paris, or Paris was in London. Most every day I read at least one adult female person refer to herself as “a women.” People not only don’t learn physics and geometry; they don’t even learn to adult. (There’s a verbing you might expect me to hate and reject. Nah; that word arose in reply to a genuine need, right around the time it became de-stigmatized to live with your parents once you grew up.)

All the more reason, some might say, to give no willing ground in the erosion of language standards. I understand the outlook on an emotional level. From a practical standpoint it feels like a King Canute activity. I’d rather fight for the differences that make differences, such as the abuse of “literally” to mean “figuratively.” We need that word. Without it we have no way to clarify whether a statement is hyperbolic or, well, literal.

In the end, my editorial outlook is that everything comes down to judgment and context. Does it work? If it does, any change requires a compelling case. If however its language causes it to fail, we need to rethink and adapt. There is no editorial Scripture, just some textbooks and style guides; they should be consulted but not worshipped or thumped at anyone. In the end we must apply our best understanding.

If it were as easy as just pointing to the arcana of the Chicago Manual and interpreting its holy words, this job would require far less experience and discernment. (I might start terming that crowd the “Chicago judiciary.”)

How I would go looking for an editor…

…that is, of course, assuming I didn’t have a bunch of contacts (or they all retired or died or told me to go away, etc.). If I didn’t know any, but did know what else I know, how would I do this?

I’d cheat is what I’d do.

But first, I’d quantify my project and what I wanted to happen. I’d decide whether it was a vanity or commercial project. If it was a commercial project, I’d have a marketing plan. I’d also decide how much I could afford to spend on editing. And I’d be realistic with what I could afford. A substantive edit on a full ms could run me into the $3000 range or more, whereas a short story would be rather less. A developmental edit would probably also cost less, but still likely to be four figures for a normal-length fiction ms.

Once I knew where I was at with means and goals, I’d go on FacePalm and join a writers’ group. The reason I would not join a writers’ group is that many of the participants are sure they know (nearly everything, but in particular…) exactly what editors do, and  few are fully informed. I don’t fault them for that; I don’t exactly know all that ER nurses do, for example, and I don’t need to become one in order to be grateful for one if I break a wrist late at night or can’t stop ralphing. But there is a a lot of stridency in writers’ groups, and much of what you would read would imply that editors are dream-slaying parasites who move your commas and tell you that you suck. If you spent much time there, you’d come away with such a bad attitude you’d have trouble finding a competent editor who would put up with you. That would leave the desperate ones. Do you want a desperate one? Check it out for yourself if that’s what works for you, but if it were me, I’d let the angstfest proceed without seeping into my mentality. Everyone has to own their own angst.

Now it’s time to cheat. This is not honest. I’d search for the term ‘editor’ on FacePalm and narrow my search to groups, and I’d start joining and observing. If there were public groups I’d observe those; if not, well, I’d have to find my way in. I would not introduce myself with a noob hello post. If the group said it was for editors only, I’d see how strict their vetting process was (usually there isn’t much of one, just answer a few questions). If I had to flex reality a bit to do that–such as liberally interpret questions about what kind of editing I supposedly did–I would probably do that. Whatever it took to worm my way in.

They’ll kill me for this, but it’s a lot better than the writers’ groups. Plus, when you see some of the people in editors’ groups claiming to be editors, posting heartfelt pleas asking people to tell them where to put a goddamn comma (because evidently it’s asking too much for them to just make a decision based on informed understanding and good sense), you’ll realize this:

Anyone can anoint oneself an editor. Anyone. While that might not make them the real thing, there’s no bar to clear.

This is how you locate and experience the large mass of people who don’t know what they’re doing. This is how you see the people you want to avoid. They’re making anguished pleas to “edi-buddies” to help them figure out some petty points of style precision rather than make a damn decision and live with it. You don’t need a degree or a certificate to be an editor, but you do need to know the language well enough to tell other people what’s correct, and to adapt it where necessary to the conventions of a style guide’s letter and intent. You also need to know the conventions well enough to know when to bend them, why you would want to do that, and so on. That’s the basic requirement. As a writer in English, surely you want an editor who isn’t still learning English?

At some point, you’ll learn enough about editors and editing to have some sense of the kind of person you’d like to work with. Identify one of those and search out their professional presentation (blog, webpage, Facepalm page, etc.). Cyber-stalk the hell out of them; see what they are about. If possible, see what sort of work they have done. If you feel that they can help you, get in touch.

Keep doing that until you find someone who is available, fits your budget, and feels like a good partner in the process. The reality of a good writer/editor relationship is that it’s not Lofty Expert bossing around Rank Noob. It’s partner helping partner: brainstorming, discussing, communicating. It’s always okay to ask an editor their rationale for a decision or recommendation. Good ones should be pumped to show off their depth, excited to see clients succeed and grow, and confident enough to be very sharing with knowledge. We are knowledge workers. We should not hoard knowledge; that smacks of a fear that we’re going to run out of it. We should demonstrate its depth and breadth by sharing it generously and thus giving best value.

If you’ve had bad editor relationships, don’t open the discussion with the next candidate by telling all your horror stories. Know what I think when someone does that? I think I am not much interested in the job, because I am not much interested in being the next chapter in the Litany of Editorial Sorrows. What I’m hearing is someone saying: “I am a pain in the ass who doesn’t take their share of responsibility for what goes wrong, and you are being considered as the next casualty of my asspainery.” If you had a contractor come out to bid, and you spent the whole time telling them how much all your past contractors sucked, how competitive a bid you reckon you’re going to get? You might not even get one at all. If you do, you’ll be paying what a lawyer friend of mine calls the “asshole tax.”

You might notice that I didn’t send you to Fiverr, Sixerr, Sevenerr, FourHundredSixty-Twoerr, or some other site where those who purport to be editors often sign up to obtain work. In the first place, that’s doing it in the wrong order. If you have seen editors in groups and learned what we really do, and you simply do not feel drawn to or impressed by any of the people in the groups, then perhaps you’re willing to resort to one of the hire sites. If it were me, I’d keep looking harder in the groups. Surely there’s got to be someone who sounds good to work with. In fact, since I belong to them, I know most have some great editors because I’ve watched what they say to their colleagues.

I’m not saying there aren’t good people on hiring sites. I know of great editors with presences there. I’m saying that it is very hard to tell them one from another without seeing them interact; that any clod can create an appealing EightyTwoerr profile; and that in fact you can get a lot of cheap ‘services’ there because there is a subset of the editing world that is as desperate to edit as most novice writers are to be published. Why are they that desperate? The question could have many answers, though “massive student loans for a degree in Comparative Literature at venerable Piltdown College and really hate working at McDonald’s” is not a terribly rare one. The salient point is that hire sites will probably be die rolls and you might or might not get good value. They are the equivalent of hiring some struggling guy named Ernie off LostCatsDoor to rewire your house. There’s the off chance Ernie can do that as well as a journeyman electrician. There’s a much greater chance that if Ernie could do that, he’d be a journeyman electrician, and he is not.

By finding someone by the way they communicate with their peers, you can find people who are not desperate. That’s because they are established and capable. They will rarely be cheap, but they will offer you far better value for your dollar. That’s what I’d want if it were me. The hell with what the investment costs me; what does it pay me? What’s the benefit? Size up the benefit and see if it’s worth what you pay for it. Oh, and let’s say your target is wonderful but can’t fit you in for six months. In that case, ask them for a recommendation. That would be a much better start than wandering onto Forty-Ninerr and picking people like throwing darts at a board.

If you were hoping this would tell you how to get top-grade services for desperation prices, I am glad to have shattered that hope because it is not realistic, and gives me a chance to share an essential lesson. That’s one thing we do: get paid to give the truth with the bark on. While it is not automatically true that you get what you pay for, it is nearly always true that when you establish a very low willing-to-pay price, you also establish a very low ceiling on the likely benefit you can gain. Anyone who offers to “edit” your full-length fiction ms for $300 is probably just going to run spellcheck and grammar check, then send it back and put their hand out to be paid.

Hell, you could have done that. And should have.

 

Current re-read: Yankee Hobo in the Orient, by John Patric

The first time I read this book, my (purchased well used) copy was a gift I soon intended to pass along. Kind of blazed through. This time, with a copy I plan to keep, I’m giving it better attention.

John Patric was an interesting guy. A die-hard libertarian and frequent traveler, he said the things one was not supposed to say. The travels in the book happened late in the Great Depression, but he updated it after World War II. We thus have someone writing about a Japan that was already embroiled in land warfare, but had not yet become involved in the general global war; he has impressions of his travel, but also perspectives on a Japan under occupation following the incineration of many of its cities (two with nuclear weapons). He was also a Pacific Northwest homie, born in Snohomish, WA and making his residence down near Florence, Oregon (southward along the coast).

What’s great about Patric is the sophistication and general fairness of his outlook toward Japan and its people. He compares costs of living in terms that avoid the common oversimplifications of relative value. His goal was to paint a candid picture of Japanese society and attitudes without quivering in fear that someone might brand him Not A Good Murrican. Even though Pearl Harbor was about the most fortunate way in which our entry into war could have come about–and yes, it’s true; they destroyed two fairly obsolete battleships and bottomed three more, while whiffing on the carriers that would have been grave losses, and came to be the most important ships in the war–his times were those in which Japan was made out The Ultimate Demon by our customary wartime fanaticism. Saying anything remotely positive about Japan was about as popular as the word “retarded” is today. Patric didn’t care.

Patric observed a Japan in which people lived with great frugality, where fancy lodgings and things were mainly for tourists who would not tolerate the sorts of accommodations and travel most Japanese chose. Insofar as possible, he avoided the spendier options in favor of local custom.  He understood that tourist industries are designed to insulate the traveler from the truth while thinning his or her bankroll. I suspect Paul Theroux is a fan.

The result is a travel essay that did not follow the beaten paths, that saw Japan’s natural strengths and weaknesses, and that was able to apply hindsight to earlier observations. My copy was printed in 1945, when the future of Japan was uncertain from a Western standpoint.  If the book has a weakness, it might be his libertarian political ranting; Patric indulged himself in this way with as few f-bombs given as about any other subject he explored. Given that we now can see that libertarian economics ultimately lead to monopolies and corporate fascism, I find that part a bit naive given that Patric was a bright enough guy to have worked that through to its logical outcome.

Recommended for sophisticated readers who, like me, love old school travel writing.

A new sample critique service

Some writers might want editorial input on style/flow/syntax/etc., but not at the cost of submitting a full ms for a developmental edit. A more manageable length would be a very economical way to improve one’s writing, and a good introduction to the editorial relationship.

For a flat fee of $50, I will deep dive on any writing sample up to 1500 words (an industry-standard six pages). This is longer than the customary sample edit provided upon request, and would give the writer enough space to develop a basic short story. In addition to my own detailed commentary, I will focus on any specific concerns you might present. Fiction and non-fiction are both fine.

The result will get you the frank truth that those first readers closest to you might hesitate to present, from a practiced eye with long writing and editing experience. Eighteen and over, please; I stay within my limitations, and I do not have pedagogic training. Younger writers should seek out a teacher who works with young people’s writing on a daily basis and knows how to serve age-appropriate feedback. While I reserve the right to decline to work on material I consider objectionable, in practice that’s rare.

To begin, get in touch by going to the To hire me page and scrolling down to the contact section at the bottom. I look forward to working with you.

Current read: How I F*cking Did It, by Jen Mann

When I bought this book, it was with an eye toward Mann’s comedy. I find her hilarious. How can anyone resist someone whose pseudonyms for her husband and children are Ebeneezer, Adolpha, and Gomer? She is (in)famous for her love of the word “fuck,” as you might gather from her title. If there is one core truth about Jen Mann, it’s that she is consistently herself and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of that. The fact that she has an enormous mom following suggests to me that she often says what others think and feel.

This, however, is the story of how she became a high-earning author. That’s why I am recommending it as a read for aspiring writers. She is quite candid about how her career got a jet-assisted takeoff with a viral blog post, but one might well remember that having the blog made that possible. She discusses the varying methods of promotion she has tried (or wishes she had in hindsight), her experiences with agents and publishers, and becoming comfortable with the public. My own takeaway was a confirmation that I might never attain anywhere near her level of comfort, but that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t pay attention. It just means I’m not real outgoing that way, not nearly as much as I ought to be.

As I’ve said before in this platform, my typical first question to a prospective client can be offputting: Is it a vanity or a commercial project? Oh, definitely commercial, they usually reply, as if a vanity project were something less worthy. I then ask them about the marketing plan, and I get silence. The difference between a vanity project and a commercial project is that the latter has a marketing plan and the former needs none. Why be so blunt at the start? Because only a truly commercial project is likely to recoup my fees for the client, and as the industry pro it is my duty to know such things and proactively guide the prospective client. It would be dishonesty by silence to let someone imagine they were going to make Big Money if I knew at the outset that was improbable.

That’s why I recommend this book. I haven’t even tried to interact with an agent or a publisher in recent years. That world evolves. Mann’s experiences are modern and relevant to the marketing of literary property as it occurs today, including the question of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. She discusses how she got her name out there, how she moved past her comfort zones, and in short, how she got past all the boundaries that my marketing adviser keeps encouraging me to surmount. She knows better than I do, and I’m listening.

A small bit of descriptive writing guidance

My current read is a series by an author with a significant body of work. For me some of his presentation flaws are less important than the overall storyline, which I like. I bookmarked a spot that I could sanitize into a useful example of what not to do, and what to do instead.

Rarely do I approve of constructions such as “he felt.” When possible we should always be showing rather than telling. What is worse: telling when we are already showing, thus creating redundancy as well as awkwardness. (One could even make the case that it insults the reader’s intellect. [“Put it back!” she sobbed. She felt sad. ] Well, duh; that’s usually why people sob. Does the au think readers are too stupid to infer that?)

Dialogue tags are often key to avoiding the need for overt description of sentiment. While the conventional wisdom is that everyone said or asked, more descriptive tags have their moments. Actions described alongside them can also make extra telling unnecessary–and that’s what we want. The context is maritime, age of sail and scurvy. Here’s a sample:

===

As usual, Montoya chose to be pessimistic. “And the sick ones?”

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped. He was becoming irritated by the Spaniard’s bad moods.

===

What’s wrong with this? A few things. First–looking last–is ‘he was becoming irritated.’ Better to say that he found the Spaniard’s moods irritating. We might safely assume that they are bad, since good moods are unlikely to irritate, and it happens Montoya’s attitude is well established in the story. But we won’t need to edit it, because it’s not coming with us. More important here is the inept/excess description. We don’t need to say that Montoya is usually pessimistic, because if that is true, this is already well established. One could then say:

===

“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

===

What did we lose? Nothing. Especially in light of what will remain of the next part, which should end after ‘snapped.’ This can work because Montoya’s attitude problem is a long-known reality to the reader, and the dialogue tag ‘snapped’ conveys all the irritation the reader needs. So we get:

===

“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped.

===

Quicker, cleaner, no longer redundant, and allows the previous storyline and tone to carry the mail. We got rid of one full sentence and most of another. We drop from 42 words to 28–a one-third reduction.

This is why editors tend to shorten mss rather than lengthen them. Even seasoned authors tend to over-describe, and novices tend toward it all the more. And that’s okay, provided they have and heed competent editorial guidance. One can tell when this did not occur, and it can make a great story read average, or an average story read badly.

Trying to take my own advice

One supposes one’s clients are going to enjoy this.

The general public does not realize it, but I work on many uncredited projects. If you reviewed my credit list, you’d think I don’t work very often. While there are slow times, I’d guess there are as many items absent from the list as present. Most of the time it’s by my choice.

Wait, why wouldn’t I want credit? The most common reason is that the author rejected too much input or seemed likely to do so. It might amaze the world how many people will seek out competent guidance, then go right ahead and do it their (ill-advised) way.  It happens in other ways, such as the author asks me not to and doesn’t offer me a print credit. Or the book content queases me out, though not quite enough to refuse the project entirely.

In this case, a valued colleague got in contact with me. Her favorite uncle, a genial but near-deaf nonagenarian, had written a novel and wanted to see it in print while he was still with us. It was obvious to me that my colleague loved and appreciated this old gentleman and wanted to make him happy. Problem: The novel was not publishable in its then-current state. Another problem: Her bailiwick was exclusively non-fiction. She felt unqualified to handle the necessary rewriting.

Two other editors had provided evaluatory reads–finding all the same problems she had–but weren’t willing to undertake a rewrite. Would I be interested? Well, I said, I’d at least be willing to look it over and say either yes I could, or no I couldn’t.  The novel is set around 1970-73, and concerns gay cowboys in northern Wyoming.  For someone who is neither a cowboy nor gay, I was rather a good match for the project. I’ve at least been to northern Wyoming, lived rather near to it in that timeframe (northern Colorado), have an aunt and uncle who went to college at Laramie, and have ranching roots in the Kansas Flint Hills. I can’t rope a calf, and it’s been a very long time since I rode a horse. But I know the difference in meaning between cows and cattle, have bucked some hay, have felt a truck begin to slide on an icy road, and have been snowed on in Wyoming on the first of June.

Very few editors answer to anything like the above description. Perhaps most importantly, I understand why people live in places like Sheridan. I get the sort of amused pride they take in the hardships their state can inflict on daily life, and how they view the world around them. If I had to do any research, I wouldn’t quite come off as a dude (kids, this was once the term for an effete wannabe Westerner, and still is to a degree in some places). My aunt and uncle, now running the family ranch in Kansas, would have helpful knowledge on more than one level. There’s someone in a club I attend who is from Green River. I was at least alive and in a nearby region circa the book’s era. And if I had to start phoning people in Wyoming who didn’t know me, and try to obtain information from them, at least I’d be unlikely to alienate them.

My colleague was right. The ms was a mess. It happened in a world events vacuum; it head-hopped; there were time jumps of months at a time; those subjects the au did not understand (for example, the world of women beyond cooking), he skimmed; names were common to the point of character confusion. The au was present in the story (most amateur authors just have to insert themselves). The sex scenes were, well, not very sexy. Dialogue was not natural. Every voice was the same. The au had done most things wrong.

However. While I had not known this colleague for all that long, we had experienced immediate rapport based upon our revulsion for some of the more speech-policing aspects of editors’ forums. You might imagine that she was overjoyed at the possibility of getting a substantive editor/rewriter who had at least some idea of the story subject matter and region, and the resources to learn more. Did I know a brand inspector’s job? No, but I could see why they’d be necessary. Stuff like that. It also moved me that she cared enough about her uncle to want to do this for him.

Normally the minimal likelihood the book’s revenues would  recoup my fees (since the au would certainly not market it) would be an early discussion. This relates to the first question I ask most prospective clients, because I have an ethical duty not to take money based on mistaken premises. If an author doesn’t have a marketing plan, it’s a vanity project; while I’m glad to work on vanity projects, me being the experienced industry person the client has a right to expect the benefits of that experience. If one were a safari guide, and someone was about to leave their stuff in a situation where bonobos would surely swipe it, one would not be free to say to oneself “maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t” and blow it off. The experienced, hired professional is there to foresee what the client does not realize, and to offer proactive advice.

Here that was irrelevant. In the first place, the client had his own primary advisor, one at least as competent as me, and didn’t look to me for guidance of that sort. In fact, he and I would never have contact (his interest in online interaction being limited, and his hearing not conducive to the phone). In the second, the client was not stupid. He understood his own motives and they weren’t commercial; they were bucket-list related. He just wanted to see his book in print.

Well, I thought, if he wanted to spend this much money on a trip to Egypt to see the Pyramids while he could, no one would discourage that. If his dream is to see his name on a book, and he can afford to, why shouldn’t he?

My colleague had very reasonable expectations. We agreed that making the book a home run was not practical due to the storyline’s basic weakness, and wouldn’t make sense. We were going for “much improved” and I saw ways in which that would be possible. She was pleased that I signed onto the project, but there was one slight drawback. The client told her he would just put back anything taken out that he wanted back in, and that dropped my non-credit red flag. I don’t urgently need credits, but I do need credited outcomes to reflect competent editorial guidance. I have had situations in which I completed full rewrites, following which the author went back and (to be blunt) re-butchered some parts. It is always the client’s right, but that makes me look subpar, and in such cases I reserve the right not to be credited. This would be an Alan Smithee.

The only surprising aspect of the work is a luxury I haven’t had since my freelance writing days: my very own editor. In most professional situations, I do not have another editor to backstop me. While it’s true that this is substantive editing (a mode in which a proof-ready ms is the expected result and nothing’s off the table), it verges on rewriting. More than verges in many places.

So here I must practice everything I spend so much time preaching. What must I require of myself?

  • Don’t keep doubling back to fix things and self-edit. Just do the job, move forward, get the work done.
  • Feel relief that I’m not the only experienced set of eyes on this.
  • Place my faith in those other eyes, which have more experience than I do with copy editing (if not with fiction editing).
  • Realize that I will make major mistakes I’ll need to repair, and be at peace with imperfection. If I let perfect be the enemy of good, I will get neither.
  • Remember that if it’s not good enough, I have an editor to tell me.
  • Have the guts to send the ms to the editor rather than self-editing forever.
  • Be the kind of writer I would wish as a client.
  • Fricking learn something about how my clients feel, and take that knowledge with me.

We’re working on all that.

The state of the editing world

Remember when The Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro Bodine decided that buying a metal hat, loading up a trench coat with tools, adding some goofy gizmos to the family truck, and claiming to be a “double-naught” made him a master spy?

Reading editors’ groups, I often think of Jethro. If I said on editors’ groups even a fourth of what I am about to say, I would be ejected. On the spot.

Stereotype: The editing world is full of red-pen-wielding grammar fascists who could play in professional word game leagues. They know their stuff.

Truth: You should hope for the stereotype. It exists. It’s also full of unqualified hopefuls who first christened themselves  editors, then ran to ask a bunch of editors what an editor did and how to do it.

It’s unclear to me how we got here. I suspect part of it is the general decline in written English mirroring our quietly engineered decline in education (nice dumb little worker drones supposed to just do as they’re told, never question authority). The decent English is still necessary, but fewer and fewer people can provide it. Those who feel they can do so thus consider it marketable, and they’re not always wrong. (They soon learn that most people who want correct English do not want to pay a fair price to have it fixed.) The student loan insanity surely contributes; people graduate from hoary Stuffshirt College with English degrees and owing the full cost of a small house. If they have liberal arts degrees, they reckon, that qualifies them. And in the cases of a few individuals, perhaps it comes close to doing so.

What is clear to me: Many people who anoint themselves editors lack even an understanding of what editors do. Most are available on the eEditor-flavor-of-the-month.com hiring sites. Before you go on one of those sites that promises to hook you up with an “editor,” please do bear in mind these observed realities.

For example: On editors’ forums, large numbers of new posters introduce themselves to their new colleagues something like this: “Hi! I’ve decided to be an editor! Will you tell me where I can learn grammar?”

The correct answer is “No.” In the first place, a comprehensive understanding of the language is the foundation for starting a career in editing. The cart does not go before the horse. Such an understanding normally takes decades of quality reading combined with some targeted education. If you have to ask that, you won’t qualify in the foreseeable future. A degree or certificate helps, but it does not make up for a couple of decades spent reading.

Or: “Hi! I want to be an editor but do not know how to market my services!”

Good luck, because very few of the people reading your post have any idea about marketing themselves. Marketing is the stumbling block for almost everyone in the literary world, and few overcome that. Also, not to be too blunt about it, but you do realize you are asking people for the real secrets of how to cut into their own work flow? That takes serious brass.

Or: “Hi! I have an English degree so I am now an editor!”

Really. Okay. I have a history degree. Am I now a museum curator?

Or: “Hi! I’ve been agonizing for 72 hours solid and just cannot decide whether this should have a hyphen, en dash, or em dash! Help!”

No. In case no one has told you this, it is your job to make those decisions. It’s a goddamn punctuation mark, not an invasion of the Asian landmass. Decide. Do something intelligent. Are you saying you cannot do something intelligent?

Or: “Hi! For the last 56 hours solid, I have been poring over my Chicago Manual of Style 8.110 and cannot decide whether or not to capitalize ‘Scienceology.’ Please give me a ruling!”

No. In the first place, this is only a serious question if your project requires strict adherence to CMS. If that is the case, then don’t go to the replay booth. Check in with MADD: Make A Damn Decision. You are engaged and paid to make those decisions. If you lack the guts to make decisions, you can’t edit. At some point, the quarterback has to throw a pass, the ref has to whistle the play dead, etc.

In the second place–if the style manual is just your personal Scripture–I have terrible news for you. In such cases, style guides are for guidance. They are not issued from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. Again, when uncertain, do something intelligent. If you do not know how to do something intelligent, how can a reader trust you with his or her work?

At this point in the composition, I felt that the natural question was: Why does this bother me so much?

In part, I guess, because I have known people who were underserved by self-described “editors” they found off hiring sites. One has a hard time imagining these as the same people who asked in messed-up English where they could learn grammar, but perhaps there’s overlap. I also don’t like that it also trivializes and commoditizes what we do. People figure they can sign up for a couple of professional associations for credibility appearances, sign onto a hiring site, offer to “put an edit” on people’s work, and boom–new career! Some of those people will actually just run spellcheck and grammar check, accept all the changes, and put their hands out for money. I have seen the outcome of this. Others will torture themselves for ten hours because Chicago hasn’t told them precisely how to format this usage or that abbreviation.

To channel Jed Clampett, them stone tablets must be might’ heavy to tote around the office.

Everyone starts somewhere. For me it began with about forty years of voracious, broad-spectrum reading. I became aware of the various style books and accepted their potential as resources. Liberal arts degree surely helped, especially the literature classes; I still have the inch-thick stack of typed papers from those days (and I cringe any time I read them). As for editorial demeanor and priorities, I learned from some outstanding people, all of whom I am pretty sure read voraciously since early childhood. Could a specialized certificate or degree have substituted for experience watching the pros? Not quite–but I’ll admit it would better me on some level, if not enough to spend that money obtaining the paper.

So what is the state of the editing world? It contains a great many competent people, some specializing in this or that: tech editing, non-fiction only, or one of the standard editing modes such as developmental editing. It also includes a great many unqualified posers. Many are desperate from a financial standpoint, and will take any editing job for any compensation at all.

It’s the Wild West with red pens and tired tropes.

How to pick out an editor

Since you probably do not follow editors’ forums, I’ll spill: There are a great many people who first decided they wanted to be editors, then set forth to learn the English language.

For the record, that is not the proper order.

A high degree of English proficiency in at least one dialect is the baseline expectation for an editor, which means having been a voracious reader for at least a couple of decades. If one has to go on editorial forums and ask about punctuation because one’s chosen style guide doesn’t dictate one’s every action,  one evidently doesn’t know enough about the language to make those decisions oneself. That’s like a military platoon leader who doesn’t know basic small unit tactics outside a field manual, and is afraid to improvise under fire lest s/he break a rule.

Writers take harm by hiring a less than competent editor, or by hiring the wrong editor. I’m not the right editor for everyone or every situation; no one is.

How would I go about it, putting myself in the writer’s chair?

I would learn what editors do. An amazing percentage of writers do not understand that there are different editing modes with different objectives and requirements. In nearly every case, my first job is to explain my job to the prospective client. They come in thinking “editing is when you fix all the things and crush my soul, duh.”

I would be clear and realistic about my goals for my project. If it was meant to make money, I would develop some marketing strategy beyond “hope to get discovered without doing any actual work.” I would take a guess at the type of editing that might best help me with my goals. I would prepare to be told otherwise, but I’d at least give it some thought.

I would ignore all the gig-economy.com sites where people can just list themselves and be hired directly. I would talk to other writers, ask about their experiences. I would eavesdrop on the Facebook groups for editors. I would observe the state of the art, all the people who need a committee meeting and an emotional support group to know where to put a comma, who treat the interpretation of a Chicago Manual of Style passage like rabbinic scholars treat Talmudic passages. I would look for the people who answer the questions, and how they answer them. I would pick out a few that seemed knowledgeable, intelligent, and successful enough to share their knowledge.

Then I’d get in touch, one at a time, but at first I’d let the editor direct the process. This would not be me abrogating my right to decide; rather, it would be meant to show that I wasn’t a control freak, and to observe the editor’s screening method. I would want to decide whether I liked that method, whether I found it helpful and promising.  I would not profess to know anything about editing, though I would at least have done some basic homework. I would wait to see how well the editor guided me to a wise course of action and cooperation that would take into account my concerns and goals, about which I would expect to have been asked.

I’d keep doing this until I found someone that completed a good team, that I could afford, and above all was a knowledge sharer rather than a knowledge hoarder. This distinction is of paramount importance. Successful and skilled people tend to signify their success and skill by sharing knowledge in a generous fashion. They are never afraid they will run out of wisdom because they know how much they know. They are concerned not with being paid for every tidbit, but with giving the maximum value and support for any form of payment.

It’s expensive enough. You might as well get someone good–and that’s how I’d go about it.