Friday, July 15, 2011

That book was edited?

“That book was awful. Where was the editor in the process?”

Have you ever wondered that? Almostvoid has, according to a comment he left at our last Ask the Editor Free-for-all.

Editing is a collaborative business. For any book, the editor is only a part of the process. And especially in this world of independently published books, the editing can be buried deep. So deep that there have been times, when an author has thanked me in the acknowledgments, I've wondered what they were thanking me for.

I won’t pretend that the days of Maxwell Perkins will return, where an editor will see potential in a rough book from a guy like F. Scott Fitzgerald and then carefully hone and develop it.

Here is my ideal of how the editing process can look:
1) self-editing through numerous drafts
2) developmental editing, round 1
3) developmental editing, round 2
4) line edit
5) proofread

And this is the process before you submit to agents and editors. Unfortunately, today, steps 2 through 5 will cost money from your pocket. That's tough, considering it's an uncertain investment, especially for a first-time author. Will you ever make that money back? Writing has never been a more entrepreneurial venture.

Even if all these steps are taken, an "awful" book can result. Welcome to the subjective world of publishing, where one man's trash is another man's treasure.

Beyond subjectivity, here are some of the limitations of the editing process that might result in your negative opinion of a book:

1) You don't know how many of the suggested edits the author was willing to make. Many authors really don't want an edit. They want someone to tell them how brilliant they are. They brush off suggested changes while brandishing their creative license. I suggest that if you disagree with an edit, at least discuss it with the editor to uncover her reasoning. You might be surprised by what you hear.

2) Editors are not ghostwriters, and since most of us believe there is something sacred at the heart of each creative act, we will never tell someone their concept is crap. We are trying to help the author bring his project to its fullest fruition by capitalizing on its strengths. But reality is, not all ideas are created equal.

3) You don’t know the publisher’s agenda. Whether traditional, indie, or self, the publisher may have a reason for pushing a book through without extraordinary care to its perfection. Such reasons could be related to production schedules, media or event tie-ins, or political agendas. Did you know that the publisher even deems a certain number of proofing mistakes acceptable?

4) You don't know if the above editing process was ever completed. In an ideal world, after any round of substantive changes, the author would submit the manuscript for editing again, since "fixing things" on one's own—especially while still on the learning curve in your first few novels—creates the potential for a whole new slew of problems to arise. A third or fourth developmental round may have been called for, but financial constraints may have cut short the process.

5) You don't know how bad off that manuscript was when it was submitted to the editor. In the manuscripts of first-time authors, other writing problems can lurk beneath more apparent developmental issues. The resulting book may be as vastly improved as any one editing pass could make it. And when a more experienced author has worked with a trusted editor for a long time, it is tempting to submit a draft instead of a finished piece, expecting that the editor will do her usual presto-change-o. If your creative intention matters to you, maybe you best not count on that.

6) We hate to admit this, but not all editors are created equal, either.

What can you learn from this?

Since editing is collaborative, there is only so much you can do on your own—but the more you do, the better. When you hire a developmental editor, hand her the very best version of the work you can muster from critiquing by writing colleagues and diligent self-editing.

Try to open yourself to her perspective—as a fresh reader, she may be more right than you think. If she doesn’t “get” it, it just might be that you have some more work to do.

What else limits the editing process? Let’s hear your thoughts.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. I'm very 'early stage' in writing that I don't have any input for the editing process, but I'm bookmarking this entry because of all the great information and points you've made. Thank you.

  2. Editing is critical, but even when the editor is excellent ... as all who participate in the BRP blog are ... he/she can't make a silk purse out of sow's ear.

  3. Great, Barbara, glad we could help. Happy writing!

  4. Chris: Cliche alert, lol! Thanks for the allowance.

  5. I did edits on my current manuscript twice yet was still surprised so many opportunities for betterment were uncovered by my editor, Helen Ginger, as well as me.
    After she sent me her edits my eyes opened and I saw what my mind disregarded before.
    Morgan Mandel

  6. Excellent article, Karen. I agree. Sometimes when I get a complimentary copy of a book from a client, I'm surprised at the editing suggestions that were NOT taken and sometimes I cringe if they've acknowledged me and it doesn't look like it's been touched. So, you're right, the author is the captain of his/her own ship--they can take the editing suggestions or leave them.

  7. At the moment, I'm dealing with final copy edits for my next Blackthorne, Inc. book. Although I submitted what I considered a quality manuscript (and it was good enough for a contract to be offered), I knew that my first round editor would find plenty of things that could be better. We worked together and made the manuscript "perfect." But now I'm seeing things we missed as I go through copy edits. I also disagree with some of the changes, most notably the copy editors penchant for hyphenating words I don't think (nor does the dictionary) need to be hyphenated.

    I can only hope that my rejections of these will be approved and make it to the galleys, which for this publisher, are the actual ARCs.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  8. This is so true, and very well said. I see all of those factors in my clients' manuscripts all the time.

    I must say, though, that for whatever reason I have had very few clients who turned out to be the "just tell me how brilliant I am" types. You're entirely right that writing is becoming ever more an entrepreneurial endeavor, as the up-front costs for editing fall on writers' shoulders.

    Yes, it sucks for writers to have to pay for that work out of pocket, but at the same time I think there is a sliver of a silver lining in it. The mere fact that it costs money weeds out a lot of the less serious writers. The ones who do just want to be told they are brilliant but never are.

    What I get from clients these days is random draws from the slushpile. I don't say that to be harsh, it's just the way it is. A lot of it is pretty rough stuff. Consequently, I'm often the bearer of bad news. I'm the one (and I'm sure you empathize with this) who has to tell them "this manuscript needs to be re-written" or "there's a giant plot hole near the beginning which is going to affect everything that comes after" or whatever it may happen to be.

    Thus, I'm always a little nervous when I send my feedback to the writer, wondering whether I'm going to get:

    1. Thanked for my hard work and for the feedback that will help the writer fix the book,
    2. Deafening silence,
    3. An argument about how wrong I am about everything.

    But somehow, the vast majority of the time, I get thanked. And I think this speaks to something wonderful about all the aspiring writers out there. They may well have a long way to go before they begin producing professional quality, publishable work, but their hearts are in the right place. They genuinely want to improve. And they're smart enough to have gotten some help in that department, rather than flailing around for years in isolation.

    Once in a while, but really only about once a year, I'll get a client who was paying to have their ego stroked and isn't happy to have been told the truth instead. But they're very much in the minority.

    Great post. Thanks.

  9. Sometimes what you're paying for is a person who does not have the investment in the work the way you, the writer, does. I edit for other writers and I love doing that. But when I have a manuscript of my own that I feel has been looked at and worked on so much that it's ready, I don't send it off to an agent. I send it to another editor to read. And, yes, I pay for her time and work. Those fresh eyes, that new perspective, that professional who can see the details where I've focused on the big picture, is so important.

  10. There are also people who say they are editors, but they are most definitely unqualified. The writer who is not adept at spelling, grammar or sentence structure has no clue. My advice is to get a test edit and give it to a friend who does know something about grammar and sentence structure so you can get an idea of the competence of the editor. Or be sure your editor has good references.

  11. Kathryn, this is a great post. Those of us who edit professionally recognize how vital it is to become a partner with the writer for the duration of the editing process. Our joint goal: to produce a high quality, marketable manuscript.

    For that to happen, however, the writer needs to be open to suggestions, ideas, and change. This doesn't mean that every suggested "fix" must be accepted as is, but it does mean that each one needs to be addressed and implemented in a way that is acceptable to the writer without compromising the quality of the book.

  12. Linda Austin, you have raised an issue that is of serious concern to any writer who seeks an editor. Currently, I am working on a plan to qualify editors according to ability. An author has the right to expect a great edit for the dollars spent. Competent, professional editors cringe when those who profess to be among their ranks do lousy work. It gives us all a bad name.

  13. Great post, Kathryn. As usual you hit some major points that are important to all writers. I like the fact that you pointed out that the editing is a process, not a one-time deal. Some new authors don't realize that.

  14. Kathryn, I've read a lot of great posts on The Blood-Red Pencil, but this one may just be the most useful! I belong to a wonderful critique group, but some critiques I've gotten--and given--seemed less than useful. This crash course in Critique Talk will prove invaluable. Thanks!

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

  15. Morgan: As authors, there are only so many details we can wrap our heads around at once. What a shame if we let our books go to press with a powerful story thread or character or place underdeveloped. Thanks for role-modeling the fact that even experienced authors benefit from editing!

  16. Heidi:
    In so many smaller aspects of my evaluations, such as word choice and dialogue clipping, etc., I'm simply putting forth suggestions that point toward deeper meaning. But other comments, such as the need to earn the inclusion of historical detail, are ignored at the author's peril. I've watched as this one discarded suggestion stood between an author and sales success.

  17. Terry:
    We talk about hyphenated words here all the time, since hyphenation seems to be on the downswing. Bottom line: if it can't be misunderstood, you don't need the hyphen.

  18. Jason: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Authors have to make decisions on edits based on what they can live with. And of course, sometimes they must fight for their artistic voice. But some people fight for the wrong things! They don't see that much can be changed without losing their voice or their vision.

  19. For readers confused by Marian Allen's comment, please click the "Newer post" link for an associated post. And thanks for the comment, Marian!

  20. Helen: Yes, that lack of investment you mention is crucial. The gap between "what the author intended" and "what the reader perceived" must be identified.

  21. Linda Austin: When getting hung up on grammar, though, always keep in mind that its purpose isn't rule-following, but clear communication that serves the story.

    Linda Lane: Your project is worthy, and love the stated focus on a high quality, marketable manuscript.

  22. Maryann: If only we had unlimited funds, right? It's all a balancing act. Some tips on how to get the most from a free critique by clicking on the "Newer post" link.

  23. Great post, Kathryn. The operant word is collaboration. Like most editors and many writers, I've been on both sides of the creative divide, and I am not infallibly brilliant in either role. (Strike that and make it not infallible and not necessarily brilliant. No. Oh, never mind.) As editors, we should accept that rejection of some of our feedback and suggestions might be the right or best course for an author, just as authors need to consider that editors might be right about proposed rewrites.

  24. Thanks for your comment, Larry. And, like you, there are many times I've wished to go back in and edit my comments here at BRP (No! Don't use "there are"!).

  25. Love all of your columns. I self-edit, and edit, and edit, and edit ... and still, when the proof arrives, I edit some more. I think line by line is critical, and admit that it is the one I skim over-confidently that is most glaring when seen in hard copy.
    I never skim when editing someone else's writing ... and am learning to walk away and read something else before editing mine yet again.


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