Every now and again I ask readers and colleagues what they’d like me to blog about in an upcoming piece. This week, I’m addressing a question that a reader on Facebook posted to my “YO! WHUT SHOULD I BLOG ABOUT?” question.
That question is: “When you edit for others, what do you find most challenging?” Thanks, Joan, for posing that.
I think I’ll answer this question by first explaining a bit about how I edit a project. Once I have the project in my email box (because that’s pretty much how it works these days — if you want a trip down history lane, ask me how to do hardcopy editing), I download it and here’s what happens. . .
Okay, maybe not THAT. Heh. But you never know. Anyway, let’s continue.
1. I’ll read through it once to get a feel for the author’s style and approach. I’m also looking at plot and subplot(s), and automatically cataloging possible problem areas.
2. Then begins the edit.
3. Once the edit’s done, I send it back to the author to deal with. And I wait.
4. Manuscript comes back to me, I check it over, and do a final read-through. Send it back.
That’s the broad overview. If you’d like to know more about editing process, I discuss that here.
If it’s a substantive edit, that’s going to involve a lot of work depending on the skill level of the author (for a breakdown of the different types of editors, see my post here). Basically, a substantive (or developmental) editor is looking to fix plot holes and character issues with you. She is dealing with the “substance” of a manuscript. In a perfect world, a substantive edit occurs before a copyedit. When a manuscript goes for a copyedit, it’s generally understood that all the plot issues have been worked out and it’s just there for a glorified proofread.
In many instances, that’s not always the case, and I’ve had to function both as a substantive editor and copyeditor on the same project. Which means there’s a lot of back-and-forth between me and the author.
So if the project requires a substantive edit, what I’m going to do first is focus on plot issues and characterization issues and I’m also going to have a look at stylistic elements. That is, how the infrastructure is holding together. Which means I’m going to tear up your grammar, rip your dialogue out by the teeth, pull your adverbs apart and stomp on them, hammer down your transitions, wrench out what feels like dead weight in your plot.
That’s right. I said “feels like.” Editing has an intuitive element to it. The best editors are well-read across many different genres, excellent grammarians, versed in the craft of writing (from another perspective), and thus have a very well-developed Spidey sense about what works and what doesn’t in a plot in a particular genre. The best editors are able to figure out the author’s voice and style quickly and figure out how to work within both to help the author achieve her goals in the manuscript. The best editors are masters of observation, too. They’ll be able to spot inconsistencies in your plot and characters fast, and they’ll note when details shift ever so slightly. They are operating on three different levels when they’re going through your project. The macro: big picture (what your overall plot is and where it’s going); micro: consistency in names, places, dates; and a weird reader level: how the story works for a reader who’s a fan of the genre.
Back to what I’m up to during a substantive edit.
Your manuscript is going to look like the aftermath of a condemned building when I make my initial pass through it. A giant pile of wordage that I tore out and left scattered amidst the twisted pipes and busted-up studs, sheetrock, and bricks or wood that had been your structure.
Don’t freak out.
This is normal.
I’m also a contractor of sorts. I’m like that dude on HGTV who looks at a cramped, crappy house and can see the potential, but it’s going to take some rippage and tearage of walls, floors, and maybe ceilings to get you there. But we will get there. Trust me.
So, Joan, to answer your question with regard to a substantive edit, the most challenging part is the first major editing pass, when I’m highlighting, red-lining, and suggesting deletions, additions, and re-writes.
Once the substantive edit is done and the author has sweated blood, bullets, axe handles, and assorted garden implements to do a re-write and address my suggestions/queries then hopefully it’s time for the copyedit. Basically, this involves going through and checking grammar, spelling, typos, consistency, and facts (if warranted). For example, I once copyedited a literary fiction manuscript about a woman who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII and moved to the United States. She was a pianist, so when she got to the States, she set out to purchase a piano. Problem was, the brand she chose wasn’t sold in the U.S. the year the woman bought it. I caught that and flagged it.
Things like that are details that good copyeditors pick up on and check. To help with that, one of the things that I do during an edit is to keep a “style sheet” particular to that project. The style sheet contains spellings of names and places that the author is using, terminology particular to that manuscript, and, in the case of fiction, names of characters. That way I can ensure consistency throughout the manuscript. If there isn’t, that’s a question I’ll have for the author. For example, a character’s name changing from something like Mark to Mack during the course of a plot. I’ll tell the author to choose one and stick with it.
If I’m charged with just doing a copyedit on a manuscript, then that’s all I do. If I see something glaring that should have been caught in a substantive edit, I’ll flag it for the author, but it’s not my responsibility as a copyeditor to rip it out and suggest a re-write.
So to answer your question for a copyedit, Joan, the challenging part is the initial pass, again, when I’m getting a feel for the author’s style and noting things that need to be added to a style sheet.
I’ll say here that every manuscript presents its own set of challenges, depending on a variety of things, including the skill level of the author. But no matter that skill level, every author needs a good editor. Here’s to finding at least one!
Happy Friday, all. And happy reading, happy writing, happy editing.