Monday, October 22, 2012

How To Tell You're Working With A Good Editor

Good afternoon everyone,

Today's blogpost is a result of my reading Amanda's excellent explanation of how a bad editor can be a huge hindrance for your work and your craft. This prompted me to think about how you can tell good editors from bad editors. I thought of four main distinguishing characteristics.

Now if you're working with an editor already, and these things aren't happening, I'm not saying you should kick the editor to the curb, but definitely have a talk about the relationship you have, how it's working and where you want it to go. Your work ultimately should be the best it can be, and the people you bring on board should help, not hinder this process.


I. They're willing to explain not only WHAT'S wrong, but WHY it's wrong - I'm probably going to draw flak for this, since a lot of editors decry "I'm so busy!" or "I shouldn't have to hold hands!" but I'm not talking about this in terms of walking a writer through every tense shift and incorrect verb. I'm talking about the bigger picture issues of plot structure, word choice and paragraph construction. That's not hand-holding, that's doing the job you're paid to do. If you explain why it's wrong, then the writer can learn to not make the mistake in the future, and everyone wins.

II. They do more than proofread - Editing is more than pressing F7 or skimming something and looking for obvious typos and errors. Proofreading is ONE part of the editorial toolbox (as is wonderfully explained by this handy infographic), and sadly a lot of "editors" (note the quotes) are glorified proofreaders. You have to go past just the correctness of the words and get into the context and subtext of what's written, looking to see if what's meant is being said (and vice versa). Editing is as much an art as writing, albeit with different brush and color palette.

III. They can distinguish between different types of editing and can tell you what sort of edit best benefits the manuscript in question - As that infographic points out there are different types of editing (I would go one further and distinguish line editing from copy and substantive, but that's just me, and I'm old school), and knowing which to apply to a manuscript is as much experiential as intuitive -- yes for big, bloated, error-filled manuscripts you want to dive in substantively and rebuild it from the foundation, but when a manuscript isn't so error-plagued, an editor shouldn't suggest a purgative and reconstructive effort when all that's off is a few words every now and then and maybe a strange flashback that needs massaging.  An editor too eager to rebuild what isn't broken shows inexperience and a lack of respect for a project.

IV. They make the manuscript sound the way the manuscript is meant to, NOT make it sound the way THEY want - Rewriting (gasp!) is something that happens in editing. Words get put in, chopped out and shuffled around. Yes, there are suggestions for changes in tone or tenor, but there's also going to be an editor's changes in-text. It's a dangerous power for sure, as someone can blot out a whole page and rewrite it in an entirely new way...but before panic takes you, remember these are just suggestions (and they should come with a reason, see above) and if they're trying to rewrite it the way they think -- then they're not doing their job. Editing isn't writing. Editing is making existing writing better. I don't mean that there should be zero rewrites within a manuscript (that's just not possible, especially in early drafts), I mean that the tone of the rewrite should reflect the original text, not take it on a Mr Toad's Wild Ride to some new arena that isn't the manuscript's intention.

Authors, I hope this demystifies a little what an editor should do, can do and is capable of doing. Editors, I hope this educates a little and reins in what I've seen to be as overstepping boundaries and doing harm to author-editor relations.

Happy writing.