“If I’d had more time, this would have been shorter”*
As Janet Walden-West once observed, when The Lovely Lillian invites you to pen a guest blog post, well…here we are…
One of my favorite scenes in the old movie Amadeus is when Constanze has taken some of Mozart’s work to Salieri to consider him for a royal appointment. Salieri is overcome when he realizes that every page of music is an untouched original, perfect from the first “draft”. This, gentle reader, is not real life. (It wasn’t real life for Mozart and Salieri either, but it’s still a terrific screen scene!)
All good writers know that every first draft will become better and better with editing. In fact, one of the challenges for many writers can be to turn off “editor brain” and actually get the first draft of a manuscript completed. I have a friend who has written and re-written the first chapter of her novel many times. She simply can’t get it “perfect”, and so she can’t seem to continue. While one may debate the relative merits of “NaNaWriMo” (National Novel Writing Month), I believe one of their strengths is in their message of “just write—don’t edit” so that you can complete the first draft of your story (however short or long it may be), and then begin the work of revising and editing your manuscript.
But what is “editing”? Editing is, at its essence, the crafting of language, content, and style of your manuscript that allow the reader to forget they are reading words on a page and help them dive into the story itself.
I’m a natural-born editor. I spent six years learning the nuances of English grammar and diagramming sentences in jr high and high school. As an IT support person, I regularly point out split infinitives and dangling participles or mismatched nouns and verbs on the screen when I’m showing someone how to set tabs or create a table of contents. As a writer, I think this gives me a great advantage in crafting my stories with strong vocabulary and clear grammatical structure. But, as a writer, I know what I mean to say, or how I intend things to sound. Eventually, every writer needs someone else to read and edit their story—a fresh pair of eyes and perspective can be invaluable to the well-crafted success of the final version.
What, as an aspiring or professional writer, should you expect from an editor? It’s more than correct spelling and grammar, and as you venture into the world of editing, it’s helpful to know how people define their roles and their service toward the success of your story. There is a certain amount of flow among the different types of editing, and a good editor will often provide a mix of services. For instance, if you hire a proofreader, they should not neglect to point out a narrative structure problem that they notice, but it is not actually their job to do so.
Let’s take a look at some common editing services:
This is the most basic, and yet the most detailed service, in which a proofreader is checking your work for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and consistency throughout your work. This work is generally to make corrections, rather than stylistic changes. Proofing is typically done after other forms of editing and layout.
Copy editing, like proofreading, provides the word-for-word focus on language and grammar; but a copy editor is also looking for overall language, vocabulary, and language structure and style.
A good editor does their best to leave the author’s unique narrative voice, or style, intact. Stylistic editing polishes that voice, providing the reader with the best possible experience from sentence to sentence so that as they read the manuscript, they get lost in the story. Specifically, stylistic editing is checking the language to clarify meaning, eliminate anachronisms or clichés, adjust the reading level and tone for your target audience, and smooth dialogue. Stylistic editing occurs at the sentence and paragraph level, adjusting syntax for better flow, smoothness, and how the sentence “sounds” in the reader’s mind.
A substantive or developmental editor works at the page or scene level, looking at your work as a whole, examining plot structure, character development, and story arc through the narrative structure, logical consistency, and organization. This editor may suggest changes/additional/deletions to entire paragraphs or sections of your story to improve the narrative flow.
An editor may provide a summary evaluation of your manuscript to highlight areas where changes may be needed. The editor will note weaknesses in your narrative structure and flow such as repetitive or ambiguous language, as well as faulty story structure, gaps in the narrative flow, or anything else that pulls the reader out of the story and into an awareness of reading words on a page.
Should I pay for an editor?
You-as-author should definitely take advantage of offers from knowledgeable friends, beta readers, and fellow writers to review your work. You could pay for editing services, and there are some excellent reasons to do so, such as if English is not your first language, or you have been unsuccessful in previously submitting your manuscript to an agent or publisher.
If you choose to work with a traditional or small-press publisher, they will provide an editor and most likely a separate proofreader for your manuscript.
We often hear the phrase “money flows to the author” as a warning against services that require fees toward publication. And you should indeed be wary of these kinds of services—Google is your friend for researching their legitimacy. However, if you choose to self-publish, then you need to recognize that you-as-author are publishing through you-as-publisher. And you-as-publisher will have many expenses that any traditional or small-press publisher would pay toward the successful publication of a manuscript. You-as-publisher will need to pay (with time or money) for many services, such as editing, proofreading, print and epub book layout, book cover, promotion, etc. I say “pay with time or money” because you may choose to do some of these yourself. And if you have the time to learn the available tools, and the skill to make your work look professional, then you can do many of these things yourself.
However, as a self-publisher, it is truly in your best interest to pay for at least one professional service of proofreading and/or editing. Again, you-as-author know what you mean to say in your manuscript, and no matter how carefully you read and edit, you may miss mistakes because your brain knows what it expects to see. You may also miss certain logical structural problems, such as four people getting on a boat at the end of one chapter and two getting off the boat at the beginning of the next chapter (true story).
One of my most recent editing projects has been the Lawless Lands: Tales from the Weird Frontier anthology of 20 short stories, coming out this summer from Falstaff Books. I’ll share an example of how important it is for many different people to review a manuscript. Every story was submitted by each author, who presumably provide a manuscript they believed to be their very best. Each story was edited by one of the anthology’s three editors, then returned to the author for a final draft. These final drafts were submitted to the publisher, who provided them to a proofreader, whose proofs were returned to the authors for “final-final” approval. All 20 author-approved “final-final” manuscripts were provided to the publisher to be prepared for print and epub galley proofs. When we received those proofs, I noticed on one of the stories that the subtitle had a mis-spelling. This was after the author, editor, proofreader, and publisher had all reviewed this manuscript and signed off on it. But when I turned the page of the galley proofs, the error “jumped” out and caught my attention. I am sure my co-editors and some of the authors may have found similar last-minute corrections on one or two pages. There is a legend that one of the large publishing houses has long promised a million-dollar reward for the first book published without a single error—they have never paid out.
So the purpose of editing is not necessarily to make your manuscript error-free, although of course we all strive for that goal. The underlying purpose is to provide that smooth ride for the reader to be drawn in to your story, and not to consciously notice the words on the page while they are engaged in reading it. An editor will help you-as-author craft and polish your story to be the best that it can be.
Margaret S. McGraw is co-editor, with Misty Massey and Emily Leverett, of two anthologies of short stories about the wildest West that never was: Weird Wild West (eSpec Books, 2015) and the upcoming Lawless Lands: Tales from the Weird Frontier (Falstaff Books, 2017). Margaret writes fantasy and science fiction; blogs about prompt-writing, con reviews, and book reviews at WritersSpark.com; blogs about the journey of writing and publishing at TheMillionWords.net; and edits fiction, academic, and technical writing. Find Margaret on Facebook or Goodreads as “Margaret S. McGraw” or follow her on Twitter @MargaretSMcGraw.