Image: Matthew Loffhagen
It occurred to me recently that if you’re new to this writing adventure, you may not really know what us editors do and why we’re actually quite a helpful bunch.
So, in an effort to be extra helpful, I’m going to break it down into two parts: Part I, a description of the different types of editing, and Part II, the general guide lines by which we editors work.
My intention is that through Part I you’ll have a good idea of which sort of edit will be the most useful to you and, through Part II, you’ll get a good idea as to the inner workings of an editor’s brain and why, sometimes, there is a reason that we do or say something that drives you a little bit mad.
Most importantly, through both articles, I hope you truly come to believe we are here to help you.
You may be surprised to learn there are several levels of editing and, depending on the shape of your book, one may be better suited to you.
If you have a manuscript waiting hopefully for someone to appreciate it, waving at you each time you eye it suspiciously in the folder marked ‘PRIVATE!’, the descriptions below will give you a good idea of what to ask for when, with a rush of adrenaline, you finally submit it.
The developmental edit
The developmental edit is a very intense level of editing and can be employed at the very beginning of the writing process, perhaps with just one or two chapters written; the very basics of a plot set down. You may even recruit a developmental editor to hash out an idea without a manuscript at all, looking at whether or not it’s marketable and, if so, how to proceed from there.
The basis of this level of edit is quite simply to help you develop the thoughts going around in your head. The editor will look at not only the premise of the book, but also, if it’s fiction, whether or not the characters are solid and three dimensional, if the language suits the genre, if the plot is complete or has holes, what you are ultimately hoping to achieve with your writing.
At this point in the writing process, the editor will not be focusing on spelling and grammar; those are the decorations on the cake. This stage is the mixing of the ingredients—have you got the correct proportions of flour and cocoa; will that amount of sugar mean the final result is tongue-twistingly sweet; are you sure you want Chocolate Mud Cake and not Victoria Sponge?
The copy edit
This is also a very intensive level of editing and is particularly useful to writers who have a finalized manuscript. It is here where an editor gleefully flexes her fingers, dons the spectacles, and grabs the scalpel to really dissect the work.
It sounds a bit gruesome, doesn’t it?
But this is an incredibly beneficial step in the process of producing a marketable book and if you have just completed your manuscript, first of all crack open the bubbly as that’s a celebration in itself, but second, very seriously consider investing in a copy edit.
A good copy editor will do the following:
- analyze each line of your prose for sense and flow;
- tighten the language where it meanders off course;
- note inconsistencies with characters and plot; and
- flag up any confusing phrases or sentences.
This is actually the moment you have half been dreading, half looking forward to—someone else is reading your work! It’s a nail-biting moment, you will no doubt be wearing a hole in the rug in front of the computer as you pace, waiting anxiously for a response.
Here’s where I’d like to take a moment to assure you that your editor is not only an impartial judge with a wealth of experience, but someone who loves writing and literature and wants to help and encourage anyone brave enough to try it.
Suggestions and proposed amendments from an editor are not a critique on you, your thoughts and your ideas. They are tools to help you hone your art.
This is the last stage of the editorial process, the final tidy-up, the spit and polish before you show it off. Here’s where editors become thoroughly annoying with their obnoxious comments about apostrophes and ‘your’ versus ‘you’re’.
This is the stage where we look very closely at the very basics of the language:
- Spelling—from the perspicacious application of impressively large words, to the eye-rollingly dull correction of “its” versus “it’s”;
- Grammar—the nuts and bolts of language structure, for example, have you applied your quotation marks correctly, should that be a colon or a semi-colon; and
- Consistency in style—if you’re going to impress your readers by bandying Latin phrases around, your editor will ensure they’re all italicized.
Now, I acknowledge that it’s very frustrating, and tedious, being corrected about the ‘little things’—things you know you know, you just made a mistake—but let me take this opportunity to tell you about my very well-spoken mother.
When I was a child, Mother-dearest had the delightful habit of interrupting me mid-story and correcting my pronunciation of a certain word. Not only that, but I would have to repeat it to her until I got it right.
“Carry on with your story,” she would then say cheerfully, only to be met with sullen glare.
I know frustrating. However, several years on, I have forgiven the interruptions because they have stood me in good stead. Now when I say “Mother-dearest”, it is without the sarcasm.
The moral of that little story: do not underestimate how important it is to have the very basics of the language polished and shined. Sure, when a reader’s eyes are skimming across the page, he’s not going to take in “its” versus “it’s” … unless its wrong. Then its glaringly obvious, isn’t it?
And, while on my soap box, speaking with several years of editorial experience under my belt, I cannot tell you how many times I will look at the text of a book “just one more time before I send it to press” and catch a comma that shouldn’t be there, or a heading that’s different to the others.
You might think that you’ve looked at every single word and grammar symbol at least four times in the last week and you are quite sure that everything is present and correct, but I will tell you now, there will be a mistake somewhere. It will probably be very small and only the most anal-retentive reader will notice, but there will be a mistake.
So my advice to you, have your manuscript proofread. If you have invested so much time and thought into the production of it, give it the respect it deserves by having a second pair of eyes look over it before you publish.