On editing

Howdy, peeps!

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 worry! It’s just an edit! Source

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.

8 thoughts on “On editing

  1. Right on every count; great article, Andi. I love coming over here to see what the fiction universe is really like on the inside…

    And stylesheets are CRITICAL in non-fic, too. I once worked for a client who had been running his online content empire — using a team with dozens of writers — for nearly 3 years and never had any kind of style guidelines. He drove everyone crazy all the time saying stuff like “Bullet points need to be like X,” and “Quotes should be like Y,” and “Why is this in passive voice??” etc. The CEO was doing this! So my job became wrassling (we say wrassling in the South) the unholy mess into a stylesheet/stylebook. It’s a headache when you have to do it backwards like that, but it’s SO worth it in the end.

  2. Great blog, Andi.
    An editor has to exercise so many skills, not least sympathetic cruelty! Seriously, without my tutor in her alternative professional role as editor doing a construction (=substantive) edit on my book, I’d still be sending it out, not realising that much of the black stuff was upsetting the balance between humour and pain, and making the tone uneven. Tough, to be told that some of the episodes which were hardest to write because of the content were coming across as borderline melodramatic. Probably because they represented baggage I needed to unload, too extreme to be convincing, despite the factual origin. But I trusted her completely and went with all recommendations except one minor suggestion, and the ms received a rave reception from my publisher soon after.
    There is no substitute for a tough, knowledgeable editor. None. Bless ’em all.

    • Hi, Suzanne. Thanks for stopping by. YES! But again, make sure it’s an editor who knows his or her stuff, and who you trust. There are not-so-great editors out there. The trick is finding the one who’s going to work with you and help you improve your stuff.

  3. Hey, Andi– thanks for selecting my question and giving such a thorough response! Love the photo of the partly demolished building–a cool image which describes the process perfectly. Sometimes things have to be taken back to the framework before they can be improved.

  4. Not that it’s always an option, but I favor the idea of two editors: One for shaping the story and for cleaning up the prose, and a second for the proofread. After multiple passes on the same manuscript, the editor can fall into the same trap as the writer, which is being too close to and too familiar with the material to see it objectively. Also, some editors are better at shaping prose or narrative, and some are better at spotting small grammatical mistakes. I’m better at the former. I’ve been known to overlook a missing article or two.

    If we could write perfectly the first time, none of this would be an issue.

  5. And that’s generally how it works in publishing. In the small industry I was doing a lot of editing for, however, ALL the initial editing duties generally fall on one editor, which sucks ass because once I’ve done a substantive edit, I don’t want to copyedit it. I’m too close to it. There are many reasons for why this happens in that industry; one being that it generally can’t (or claims it can’t) afford another editor. And I’ll tell you right now that what I got paid to do major, major edits was…well, it was just not pretty. I was basically editing for the luv.

    I want to make it clear that I believe in making something better, and in doing a full-scale edit, even though I was getting paid maybe a third of industry standard. Well, clearly, I had to stop doing that because it was a lot of time and hassle for very little money and I needed to focus my energies elsewhere. Sure, I could have just done a copyedit on some of these manuscripts. But I would not have felt that I was doing the author (or even the publisher) a service, especially if I felt there were major problems with the manuscript. But that’s neither here nor there. Generally, how it’s supposed to work is an author submits a completed, already substantively edited manuscript to a publisher who then hires a copyeditor. After it’s copyedited, a proofreader, maybe two, have a look at it. Substantive editors shouldn’t have anything to do with a manuscript once they’ve worked with an author and helped correct plot issues. Their work is done, and other eyes need to take over Absolutely. But there are segments of the industry that do specific genres in which that just isn’t the case, and I think the industry is weaker for it. But that’s just my opinion. 🙂

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