Tag Archives: editing

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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Pediatric editing

I don’t do it.

I do not do it to be a honey;

I do not do it for any money.

I do not do it, Sam I am.

Anyone who finds me tiresome has an easy way to make me turn and run: ask me to offer feedback on a kid’s writing. I call this ‘pediatric editing.’ I won’t do it.

Does that not sound like the most heartless thing on the planet? What, Mr. Editor, you won’t help my child? What kind of monster are you? Jesus, man, just fuck you.

In fact, when I refuse, I am being very kind. When asked to perform pediatric editing, here are my choices in order from least to most abhorrent:

  1. Lie. Like a thief. Like a Turkish hand-tied rug. Like an affluenza teen, actor on the job, or professional spy. Lie and tell the kid that his or her writing, story, etc. are very good, whether they are or not. Downside: deceitful, creates false optimism, makes me hate myself and my work, with the people who asked not far behind. Upside: keeps me from potentially destroying a child’s literary ambitions; the self-hatred will pass.
  2. Refuse. Just say no. Decline to read, edit, or review the minor’s work. Downside: well, I dislike them for asking and at least it’s now mutual; I look like the horrible evil snob. Upside: I don’t have to impale a child’s literary ambitions; they’ll never ask me for that again; my integrity is intact (not that they cared about that).
  3. Do it. Carry through, providing honest critique and corrections. And since I am not a schoolteacher and am not qualified to stand in for one, and am used to working with adults, there’s an excellent chance of soul immolation simply due to the frankness of the feedback. “This literary device is childish.” “Your protagonist is dull and lifeless.” “You need elementary grammar instruction.” Downside: the self-hatred will never end; I will deserve that self-hatred because I’m supposed to be the adult and thus know when I’m out of my depth; the kid will either be crushed, or if it’s that rare kid who can handle the feedback, will come back with a rewrite looking for more. Upside: I wasn’t the snooty editor too good to help precious Kortneigh refine her elfy/vampy/wolfy urban para YA novella; Kortneigh’s parents will never speak to me again, though, so that’s a mixed benefit. There is no point doing something to satisfy people if you know it will mortify them.

I generally have a low opinion of lying, and I have an even lower opinion of hurting kids, so I go with 2). I ain’t doing it.

Ma and Pa Kortneigh have no business risking her dreams by asking me to comment on her work. It is unkind to her and to me. They should direct the question to a pediatric editing specialist: a qualified English teacher, who will probably be delighted to coach a precocious kid and who is used to pediatric writing.

That doesn’t mean I can’t help Kortneigh, though. She and her parents need to ask me the right question. That is not “Will you please review and comment on her story?” That is: “What advice would you give Kortneigh to improve her writing?”

“Why, Ma Kortneigh, I’m delighted you asked. I will be glad to help.

“First off, young lady, kudos to you for wanting to express yourself. My advice is simple yet complex: write and read.

“Write–write a lot, and write for critique. I am not qualified to give you critique because I’m not a teacher. Is there a student writing group at your school? If not, I’ll bet your English teacher would be willing to mentor you. To grow, you must have critique, and you may have to give some to get some. You will learn a lot that way.

“Read. Read good things. If you like garbage–my guilty pleasure happens to be violent westerns–no reason you can’t read it as well, but look for and note the reasons why it is garbage. Do read good work in the area in which you want to write. Do you want to tighten your writing? Read C.J. Cherryh, and you’ll learn what tight writing can be. How to craft dialogue? W.E.B. Griffin’s earlier work, though your parents should be advised of adult themes. Want to watch straight-up mastery on display? Winston Churchill. How to craft unforgettable characters and moments? Frank Herbert. I will offer you reading recommendations on any aspect of the craft.

“And when you get good, be kind.

“Best of success.”

 

Why you don’t lie to your editor

Are you surprised to find that some writers lie to the person they hire to help them succeed? Don’t be.

The reading public, which I love nonetheless, at times lacks a clear picture of the author/editor dynamic. In most people’s perceptions, the editor/author relationship is a battle between conflicting views of “what’s best for the book.” I do not operate according to that model. If the client thinks s/he knows better than I do what’s best for his or her book, and began this relationship simply to fight with me, I have better things to do than play the game. Maybe that person just wants to win an argument for ego’s sake, or is simply disagreeable.

(For confirmation: if you go to any message board meant for writers, you’ll see enough ego on display to last you weeks. Let it be known that you’re an editor, and you can begin the countdown to your first typo, and a smug callout from a small mind who considers that s/he has just taken a scalp. They are rarely worth one’s time.)

Perhaps some editors do work in such an adversarial way. I prefer a discussion/consensus model, and I find that the better the writer, the better that works. The best writers crave feedback and specifics, and they will beat both out of me–exactly as they should, if by some lapse I fail to volunteer them. I cannot get away with a terse statement to them like “that’s incorrect.” They want to know my whole reasoning. This in turn makes me a better editor, because I had better not propose anything I’m not willing to defend. And if I don’t also have the solution to offer, I’m in trouble. What good am I if I can’t tell my client how to improve? Better writers make me a better editor. With them, the consensus model works best because the better writers have more grounds for valid counterpoints, which means we can put our heads together for the best outcome. Viewed another way, when someone can’t write and can’t storytell, the person doesn’t have much to defend. I can and will help that person, but he or she doesn’t usually have the ability to debate how things should be.

By now, not much surprises me, but some things disappoint me. I have had clients accept a lot of developmental feedback, then stiff me. My fault, really, for allowing the situation to get to that point. In one case, though, I was deceived from start to beyond the finish. It involved an Alan Smithee, and I think the story can now be told.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept, Alan Smithee is a pseudonym sometimes seen in cinema credits. It replaces the name of a person who did not want name credit. I use a similar method when I do not want to attach my name to a book, which can be for many reasons. The most common reason is that my client won’t listen to me, and stands firm in believing that s/he knows better, deciding to override my guidance.

Some time back, I heard from a writer with an incredible story to tell. This client, who went by an obvious pseudonym, told me that s/he had met a renegade who supposedly performed blatantly illegal activities at the behest of legally sanctioned individuals, had had a change of heart about those activities, and decided to tell the story. My client was expecting any moment to suffer great retaliation for talking about it (the renegade supposedly being either dead or beyond reach of retaliatory acts). I read the ms. There were minimal specifics about the illegal activities, but lots of sociopolitical rants, and over half the book told the tale of an abusive relationship that had no bearing on the book’s billing. Why did this renegade open up to my client? The answers were vague, where any were forthcoming at all.

I gave my frank impressions: the story’s billing was deceptive, the logic was flawed, the rants were illogical and alienating, the tone was self-serving, and the book wasn’t going to be very good. I wanted much more about the cloak-and-dagger stuff, less about a bad childhood, and much less about a very bad relationship.

My client rejected most of my guidance. S/he was often very coy, the sort of person who won’t just come out and say something, but will drop enough hints to enable one to Google. I was able to verify some of the renegade’s story, though in many cases there seemed to be two sides to that story. The client claimed to have promised the renegade to leave certain parts in; naturally, they were the very worst parts. I did trim out a lot of the fat, and I obtained the addition of a minimal segment of cloak and dagger, but in the end my client only acted on about 15% of my guidance. This client therefore wasted about 85% of the money spent, and I could do nothing about it.

I came to realize that when my copy arrived. (I do not negotiate a complimentary copy, so this was at my instigation. I take pride in being one of the first customers to buy a copy at retail. Seriously, when someone pays you thousands of dollars, the very least you can do is buy your own damn copy from your client.) I shook my head in disappointment. Early reception and sales confirmed my expectations, with those few reviewers calling out the book’s deceptive nature. The positive reviewers were obvious sock puppets. It was all rather sad.

Not long after, my client contacted me: retaliation was coming, might catch me in the target area, and s/he would no longer be able to connect with me by normal means. In so doing, this client dropped enough information to confirm what I had considered 90% certain from the start: the client was also the renegade. All the stuff about getting the renegade to tell his story was twaddle. All the stuff about material the writer had promised the renegade not to alter? Baloney. How challenging it must have been to keep up the whole charade, with the author wondering if I were just playing along, or whether I could possibly be that dumb. Maybe that’s why the client ignored so much of my guidance: going along with the pretense made me look stupid, and thus not to be heeded.

Now, of course, I had much better reason to doubt most aspects of the tale, including its fundamentals. It was not all lies; I had verified a few of the less controversial parts. The renegade was a real person. The illegal activities? I came to believe they were all inventions, and that I didn’t get specifics because the renegade/client didn’t want to author any more fiction. The author’s naive belief was that people would buy a book purportedly full of Shocking Revelations, and not mind when it turned out to be mostly a story of bad childhood and bad relationships, combined with the renegade’s desire to spin the entire story to his/her own glory and the detriment of the renegade’s enemies. Somehow, the client believed that the buyer would not feel scammed.

If the few purchasers felt taken in, I understand that. So do I. If someone isn’t honest with me, it will limit my ability to help that client. In this case, throughout my editing work, I’d had to operate as though accepting the cover story. In reality, I hadn’t been talking to a person who had made an arrangement with a renegade just before that person planned to disappear, and who thus was not a direct participant with no ax to grind. I was talking to the ax-grinder in person, and the ax-grinder had had to supplement lies with more lies.

That simply piles atrocious upon bad and flawed.

Why do that? In the end, I think that the better writer believes that the relationship is about quality, and the worse writer believes that it is about control. The better writer wants to discuss, to hear justification, to brainstorm, to learn, and to produce ever-improving literary product. The worse writer fears a loss of control, and in service of control, may keep secrets. Or tell lies. Or defend the illogical. Or bicker without need. In the end, the worse writer knows his or her work is worse, and that the fundamentals boil down to:

“Well, my client, the bad news is that neither the story nor the writing are very good, but we could fix those.”

“But that’s my style, Mr. Editor! That’s my story!”

“Well, if you insist, then your style and story are bad.”

“I cannot accept that answer. I will keep looking until I find someone who believes in my work.”

“Very good. Best of success to you.”

Allowing major change, the thinking goes, would lose the battle for control. I do not consider that so. Allowing major change would teach the writer to be a much better writer with a more evolved perspective on his or her products, better able to defend decisions and less likely to need to do so.

But if they lie to me, it is fair to say that the percentage of the truth I am told sets an upper ceiling on the percentage of the available good I can do them. And once I learn of the lie in mid-book, while I will finish what I started, there won’t be a second project. I don’t care much for being deceived. I find that most people who live mostly by lies are not offended when caught lying. It’s not the first time, and won’t be the last. They do not expect a consequence if they continue lying; all debunked lies are now water under the bridge. Lie too often, for too long, and it becomes more addictive than an opiate. It becomes reflex, habit, first nature. Before deciding how to answer, the person ceases to ask him or herself ‘what is the actual true answer?’ and asks only ‘what answer would best suit my needs?’

Now, if someone came to me with an explosive tale of intelligence work that would shock the nation to its core, here is the first thing I would say: “Let us have one understanding. What truths you do not wish to tell me, tell me honestly that you will not tell me those, and I will not press you. But do not, even once, tell me a lie. The moment I believe you have is the moment I reserve the right to drop the job like a live grenade. If you cannot live by that agreement, let’s go our separate ways here and now.”

Like anyone else, editors live and learn.

I want to call this author out, but I can’t quite

Last few days, I’ve been rereading a moderately successful SF series. I hadn’t revisited it for twenty years, since back before anyone paid me anything to write or edit. I won’t go so far as to say that I had no critical perspective back then, but years of doing this stuff professionally do alter that perspective. I am more perplexed now than before by the popular acceptance of bad writing.

Not that I ever sniff “well, clearly she should fire her editor.” We’ve been over that. In the first place, I do not know whether she had one. In the second, I do not know whether she heeded him or her. In the third, there are many different types of editing. The most I could ever say would be something like: “The book does not reflect competent copy editing.” That may be the the publisher’s fault, as in one spectacular screwup where the house printed and distributed an early draft by mistake. I am not joking. They really can be that stupid and haphazard.

No, the problem is greater: I have to live with these people, and with my words about them. That wake-up call came at an SF con. I have no idea what the panel’s subject was, but one of its participant authors rang a bell. I sat there trying to remember why. Something vaguely familiar here. And then it came to me–I’d read one of her books, and panned it on Amazon. Odds she would remember me, even if she happened to look at my name tag? Very low. Odds of me meeting her socially at all? Not so low. Odds of me feeling awkward? Bank on that. Yes, I would have stood by my words, but the issue is that I’m in the business too. In theory, at least, she was a potential client.

Now let’s consider the leap from a harsh Amazon review to this  blog. One might write many reviews on Amazon, or elsewhere, and have them lost in an ocean of snippy “obviously she didn’t have a good editor” junkfests. To dissect this author by name, in this space, would take it to the next level. That would single her out as an example of what not to do. She would probably learn of it, from a devoted fan or message board if not through her own searching. People being people, she would wonder who the hell I was, and what she had ever done to make such an enemy of me. She would remember my name, whether or not she were fool enough to reply here, and the memory would be unfriendly. It would not be that I said anything unfair, or that I didn’t mean. Her best rejoinder would be: there are tons of books out there with similar flaws, or more grievous ones. Why single me out? And while we’re at it, this is my work twenty years ago. You of all people ought to know that we evolve. Why pummel me today as if my older work represented my current standard? How would you like to be judged and strung up for writing you did during the first Clinton administration, hm?

She’d have a point or two, and such a reasoned reply would be the best case scenario. Authors can be sensitive. It could get awkward. Could she harm me professionally? Not really, but she could make sure I didn’t soon hear the end of it. What if I’m on a panel with her someday? Even if she did not notice, or did not bring it up, I know I’d be pretty uncomfortable. The issue would not be that I had been critical. It would be that I had made a vindictive-seeming, special, personal effort to hurt her. If I were here, I wouldn’t like that either.

So we’re not going to talk about how authors come up with motifs they evidently consider very clever, then hammer them so hard that each mention might as well come with “thissss…issss…significant” background music (props to my bro John for that joke, moderately edited and recycled). We’re not going into how “She felt…” are two of the worst words in narrative fiction. And we’re not going to say who is so guilty of contrivance that the story becomes predictable. And no, before some of you who know me personally begin to suspect, she is no one I have ever met in person. But I might.

And that’s why we won’t be citing examples. It’s also why I write rather few reviews on Amazon (along with not much wishing to donate free labor to the behemoth). If I don’t feel comfortable being objective and candid there, silence is best.

What fills in the gaps?

To look at my credits list, you’d think I rarely work.

As I was updating it today, it occurred to me that people might like to know what fills those gaps.

Alan Smithees: more often than you might think, I work on a manuscript with the specific proviso that I not be credited. This could happen for one or more reasons. Perhaps the author and I have a vast difference of opinion on the book’s overall quality, and the author would like a copy edit that does not address the fundamental (in my view) flaws. Perhaps the book covers subject matter with which I would rather not be publicly associated; perhaps I find its expressed viewpoints to be odious, or stupid, or paranoid, whatever. (Sometimes all three.) As a general rule, if I’m not proud to have my name in there for whatever reason, this is what will happen.

Tech editing: I do some tech writing/editing on the side. Not a large amount, but when it comes in, it is very intensive. It pays better per hour than anything else I do, which is a sign that I undercharge nearly all my clients.

‘Lancing: yes, I still do some small-time assignment writing. Most of it doesn’t pay enough to be worth my while, so I leave the majority to the starving English BAs who have discovered that we let their costs of college attendance balloon up above a typical engineer’s gross salary, yet let our precious businesses take away their gainful employment prospects.

Serials/short stories: most jobs shorter than a novella, I no longer pull up the credits page to update. This also includes small charitable projects, in some cases. As the list gets longer, I am more willing to prune out the less significant bits.

Evaluations: a good percentage of my career gets devoted to books I’ll never work on. Here’s what happens: potential client contacts me. Book needs a ton of help. I present critique and cost options. Potential client realizes that she has two choices: pay a lot of money for a book that will no longer sound like her (because her style is bad), or find an editor who tells her what she wants to hear. By and large, I am much patient with bad writing than bad story conception, because it’s easier to fix bad writing than to make a bad story worth reading. In 90% of such cases, the author either hires me for a pure copy edit without crediting (at my request), or sniffs in annoyance and seeks out one of the aforementioned starving English BAs, who understands that her paycheck depends upon telling that author what she wants to hear. The end result is nothing that winds up on the credit list, but it does occupy my time and energy. And no, I do not charge money to evaluate a ms, unless it’s…

Developmental editing: often the client desires a complete and detailed markup of the ms, with commentary. The idea is that the solutions are best supplied from the author’s creativity informed with sound feedback, and that I will substantively edit the ms after the author has reworked it based upon feedback. I get paid for each pass of this, but it doesn’t produce an immediate addition to the credit list.

Professional development: some of my days are taken up reading stuff I would not read for pleasure, or attending workshops or conventions, and so on. This doesn’t add a credit, but I consider it a priority to add theoretical learning to the practical expertise that develops in the course of regular work.

General reading: editors and writers must read as voraciously as possible. Most are addicts who can read during any bit of wait time, some even unable to wait patiently for anything without a book. There are days when I just have to open a good book to remind myself how it’s supposed to be done, and to remind myself what I should aspire to and will never become–and to be at peace with that truth.

In between all of that, now and then, a new credit hits the list.

Being a writer’s nurse

It may fall to me to doctor people’s books, but that really doesn’t describe my role. I’m more like a nurse. Doctors don’t actually do much hands-on; they mostly diagnose and prescribe, whereas nurses’ work is more hands-on overall.  This may explain why I so easily empathize with the many nurses in my world. If I just read mss and gave advice, I’d be more like a doctor. Since I fix them myself, I’m more like a nurse. It got me to thinking.

Nurses do a lot of work designed to help people in the long run, but some of it hurts, and some of it terrifies the patients. I think some of them come in with attitudes the nurse must also deal with. This is easy to relate to. Every time I make a change to the writer’s ms, there’s no getting around it: I’m saying it was lacking something. Writers who have never worked with an editor generally don’t know what to expect, and they choose various stances going in:

Defiance: “I will fight for my words!” No, you won’t, because I won’t fight back. I’ll make my point, then let you decide. If you value my guidance, you’ll take it into consideration. If you do not, then that’s your choice. If you ignore me often enough, I’ll ask not to be credited–which you should see as a very bad sign–and you won’t have to worry about whether or not to engage me next time. I want to work with writers I can help. Not every relationship is a good match.

Terror: fear of ‘red ink.’ Some writers are so fragile that a marked-up ms is more than their psyches can take. In those cases, no matter what I do, we count down to the day when I bump the wrong nerve, at which time I’ll become the most recent sob story told to the next candidate.

Pessimism: “Why do you need to read the whole thing to tell me how bad I am?” I mean it. I get this. And the answer is that I need to read the whole thing, in the form in which I would be editing it, in order to assess what it needs, how much work it takes. I have had potential clients who had great mss that interested me very much, about which I was quite optimistic, come in with this attitude. I think it’s like with me opening my mail, when I kind of brace myself for bad news. Except this is mail they asked for, and it’s supposed to do something positive, so I don’t understand the thinking.

Excitement: yes, I see it, and fairly often. Not always from the first contact, but once we discuss the types of editing and I offer an assessment of where I believe we should go. There is a point where the uncertainty yields to optimism, and we have a sense of common purpose.

I grant that the analogy seems flawed on the face of it, since the nurse is not the doctor…at least was not, traditionally. Now, quite often, s/he is in that role, and I welcome it. I have had much better treatment from NPs than from MDs, to the point where I’ll endure an appointment with an MD only if there is some compelling reason I can’t see an NP.

So, nursing. When you imagine the ideal nurse, knowing that such a person represents a theoretical ideal rather than a realistic expectation of anyone, what do you imagine? Here’s my list:

  • Someone finding that fine compassionate balancing point between emotional detachment and emotional involvement.
  • Someone finding that sweet spot of balance between enforcing rules for the sake of having rules, and paying no attention to any rules.
  • Someone tough enough to take a stand where it matters, and strong enough to yield a bit when that makes the most sense.
  • Someone whose care promotes optimism, without offering false optimism where it is not merited.
  • Someone who understands that, in the end, the greatest impact of the outcome is born by the patient, not the nurse.
  • Someone deeply skilled in the art, yet ready and willing to learn new methods.
  • Someone who knows when to get someone else involved, but doesn’t pull that trigger just to avoid the hard stuff.
  • Someone who is just accountant enough to consider costs, but not nearly accountant enough to think of nothing but costs.
  • Someone who knows that a patient may often disregard his or her advice, and doesn’t take the disregard as a personal affront.
  • Someone who can take an obstreperous or difficult patient and make him or her a partner in his or her own healing.

If we replace the medical terms with their literary equivalents, that might just gather up the list of everything I seek to be as an editor (and am not, oftener than I would like).

Let’s not take the analogy too far, though, lest my clients have nightmares about hospital gowns and enemas.

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.