March 19, 2013
Editing can polish a good manuscript into a piece of fine art. It can also shred a fine manuscript into a mess only fit for lining an undiscerning gerbil’s cage. Being able to tell the difference comes from confidence born out of the experience of writing and discovering what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately the responsibility falls to the writer, but how can a novice author be expected to know when to stay with what they have written or take the advice of the self-professed gurus of literature?
In the broadest sense, editing comes in two forms: structural, which concentrates on the story, and copy editing, which is meant to clean up grammar errors and make awkward sentences flow better. For my novel Hollow World, I recently placed a small ad on the job board of the American Copy Editor’s Society. I specifically mentioned a need for copy editing, as Betsy Mitchell is doing my structural edits.
Ask most authors and they’ll tell you that copyeditors are gifts of the gods. People who save you from embarrassment and make you look better than you are. The general rule is to always listen to your editors, and I would agree with that, if you’re certain you have a good one.
The copyeditors that I worked with at Orbit are phenomenal. Their level of detail, not only at finding stupid little typos, but at watching the larger picture and finding inconsistencies, or outright errors in the story is amazing. These are the people who check the spelling of every made up word. Check the timeline, check the time of day, check to make certain the same speech pattern is used with the same character. You don’t have to tell them that Bob always substitutes yeh, for yes, or that Karen avoids any kind of contraction—they discover this on their own and look for breaks in the patterns. They learn your style, then make it better. When they find a problem they very politely highlight and ask: “David had a red tie on in the previous scene, now he has a burgundy tie, is this correct?”
Mostly copyeditors ferret out mistakes in language changing:
The soldier sheathed his weapon and extended a hand to help the courier to his feet, his face downcast.
His face downcast, the soldier sheathed his weapon and extended a hand to help the courier to his feet
To better show whose face is downcast. To get rid of those pesky dangling participles they would change:
Drawing back the curtain, the morning sun flashed through gaps in the leafy wall of trees lining the road.
As Arista drew back the curtain, the morning sun flashed through gaps in the leafy wall of trees lining the road.
Or how about:
Lord Valin was an elderly knight with a bushy white beard known for his valor and courage, but never for his strategic skills.
Lord Valin, an elderly knight with a bushy white beard, was known for his courage, but not for his strategic skills.
Because of the misplaced modifier and because valor and courage are redundant.
My editor even knew that I have a pet peeve with any sentence that contains more than one “had” in a row, as in: …when everyone else had had the good sense to get out of the way. At such times the double hads would be highlighted and the comment in the margin would be: “Reword to avoid “had had”?
Such corrections are phenomenal, but not all editors are created equal and aspiring writers planning on self-publishing, or those aiming to have their books professionally edited in order to get an agent, need to be very careful. Some freelance editors (that I’ve found in multiple searches over the years) are actually aspiring authors believing they can help improve your work.
It’s easy to tell the difference. Copyeditors do things like look for repeated words, improperly used homonyms, and that pesky participle. Any problem bigger than this and they merely highlight, and politely comment on in very brief terms as in the aforementioned: Reword to avoid “had had”?
Well-intentioned aspiring writers do things like taking this sentence:
He’d be an alcoholic if he had to look people in the eye the way she was.
And changing it to:
If he had to look people in the eye and dispense such news, he’d surely become deathly depressed, and he’d probably develop an addiction to alcohol or even heroin.
Or better yet, changing:
His mind refused to go there, wasn’t ready to, and remained focused on the sink and the dispensers.
His ears almost refused to hear what she’d said, His mind simply wasn’t ready to accommodate her words.
And yes the capital on “His” was a typo the would-be copywriter actually inserted into the manuscript sample I sent out.
These and many more changes were accompanied by the note:
Suggestions for improvement:
Try to avoid so many negative sentence constructions. Rewrite them. Instead of “I’m not going out,” say “I’m staying home.”
Try to use the word “even” less often.
Contractions are OK in informal writing, but keep them under control.
Take advantage of opportunities for literary devices such as stronger verbs, alliteration and the old rule of “show, don’t tell.” (I sneaked in words foreshadowing the possibility of death: cryptic, cadaverous, deathly. If I pushed too far, you can always change it back to your original version.)
You might devote more attention to the rhythm of your writing. You can practice little things like parallel structure, choosing just the right-sounding word and listening as if you were publishing mainly to an audio-book audience.
The fact is I agree with most everything in this note, but I’ve also discovered that while many people know the basic rules of writing, few are capable of actually applying them properly. I suppose it is kind of like riding a bicycle. You could watch others and learn a great deal about what to do and what not to. You could get a PhD in the study of physics, but all of that won’t make it possible to hop on a bike for the first time and ride it like an expert. (I have to admit I found the last sentence particularly entertaining given that Theft of Swords is up for an Audie award.)
What bothered me the most about this would-be editor’s submission was the level of confidence with which the editor presented the changes, and I realized that a novice writer might be persuaded to destroy a perfectly good manuscript to appease a less talented, less skilled, “editor” because of the adage that authors need to trust their editors. Writers tend to be a self-conscious lot, and it’s easier for many to accept that they aren’t as good as they had hoped rather than think individuals who earn their meals fixing manuscripts are idiots.
And if you’re still wondering if the “editor” was really that bad, consider that the whole point of hiring a copyeditor is not for structural advice at all, but merely to clean up the grammar, punctuation, and typos, but this “editor” changed the following sentence:
He also expected his mind to focus on all the things he’d never done, the words he said or ones he hadn’t.
He also anticipated his left un would focus on all the things he’d left undone, the words he’d neglected to say, or the ones he’d said but wished he hadn’t.
A copy editor that inserts typos is probably not one you want on your project.
If you’re an aspiring novelist, and looking for copyediting, get a sample—send a few pages of your work for them to demonstrate their capabilities—and then look to see what kind of changes come back. If they’re correcting objectively verifiable mistakes (unintentional misuse of the English language) you’re on the right track. If, however, the editor has it in mind to educate you on how to write “better”, or merely are trying to rewrite your work to better suit themselves, explain that you are looking for a detail-oriented copyeditor, and their failure to read the ad correctly is indication enough that they aren’t what you’re looking for.
To find out more about Michael J. Sullivan and his work, please visit his website.