“Fiction does its work by creating a dream in reader’s mind.… One of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow…the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.”*
To achieve this goal through good editing of a fiction manuscript, two opposing kinds of intelligence drive the editor-writer relationship:
- If you’re the writer, you are the dream-maker, seeking to impress your imagination on the reader, to keep the reader immersed in your lucid, fictive dream.
- If you’re the editor, you serve as the ultimate reader, seeking to impose common rules of grammar, mechanics, and story structure to resolve any errors or distractions that might cause the reader to break from the dream.
No sane editor makes a claim of infallibility, but misaligned goals and differing professional experiences can result in problems in the editor-writer relationship.
Here are some cases where, beyond simple human error, you and your editor might get crosswise:
1. Editor doesn’t know the conventions of your genre.
Root cause: You didn’t ask the right questions or vet this editor properly.
a) Wrong reader.
Long ago, I showed an urban fantasy MS to a PhD creative writing prof, and asked if the draft showed any sign that I could write. Prof hated all genre, but especially fantasy and believed that writing such tripe revealed weakness of character.
My MS asserted that the ancient gods still walk among us (a dozen years before Neil Gaiman submitted his first MS), but PhD prof’s feedback so discouraged me that I abandoned it.
Meanwhile, that PhD prof spent four years writing a novel about a woman doing end-of-life care for her mother. Don’t know if that book was ever completed or found a publisher. It’s not a subject I’d ever choose to read in fiction. We weren’t suited to each other, were we?
b) Unstated goals for structure.
Make sure your editor understands the convention of your book’s genre**, and what you seek to achieve in your story structure. For example, if you are following a beat sheet or other formal structure, tell your editor so that part of the first edit is to verify your intended structure.
2. Editor adheres strictly to a style guide — Chicago or other grammar/style guide — with no flexibility for context, dialog, genre conventions…
Root cause: This editor might not have extensive fiction-editing experience.
For example, dialog should sound like real people talking. Appropriate edits for dialog:
- Check for correct-facing curly quotes that open/close dialog, with correct punctuation.
- Ensure clear attribution of each speaker (he said; she said).
- Identify overuse of dialect.
You and your editor should be able to negotiate what your manuscript needs in relation to what your editor can provide. To establish this, ask the editor to return the first 25 page to you before you commit to an edit of your entire book.
On the other hand, you can’t bully your editor into believing your story is stronger than it is. Your editor should be pushing you to do better than what’s in your current draft.
3. Editor writes long notes to teach you grammar rules and marks up your MS to highlight a bunch of mechanical errors, like your twelfth-grade English teacher.
Root cause: You didn’t provide specific guidelines for how you want the editor to budget time spent on the manuscript.
a. If you haven’t mastered grammar, usage, and punctuation rules, and don’t recognize common errors: For a first edit pass, pay the editor to identify patterns that you need to correct. For example:
— Paragraphs frequently begin with a gerund phrase.
— Over-use of passive verbs or complex verb phrases, adverbs, pet circumlocutions, or wordy phrases.
— Misuse (or mistyping) of common homonyms.
— Nonstandard punctuation.
If you are writing for publication, you need to learn to identify and fix these errors yourself—though you shouldn’t need to memorize Chicago or Latinate grammar rules. Take the editor’s basic advice and teach yourself to apply the fixes. Don’t pay an editor to fix a bunch of common mistakes in your first draft—that’s not your best learning experience as a writer.
b. If you know the rules, but (or course) commit errors: The best editor I ever worked with provided no editor’s standard markup. He just circled mechanical and style-guide errors, and wrote W.C. in the margin (for “word choice”). He saved his editorial prowess and time to attack my errors of logic and clarity, assuming that I’d recognize the circled errors and fix them myself.
If you are an experienced editor, ask for copyedit corrections with minimal editorial explanation.
Tip: Provide your editor with a style sheet and usage guide for special terms in your manuscript.
3. Editor provided too much | not enough editorial guidance.
Root cause: You didn’t ask for the specific kind of edit you need for the current state of your manuscript.
These are the rough categories of kinds of editing, from early writing stages through a publication-ready manuscript:
Detailed help in defining the structure and key elements of the book, in early conceptual and draft stages. For writers working on a first book, this kind of edit can be tackled in a critique group or other informal consultation. A developmental editor typically charges hourly fees similar to what a professional writer charges.
Support for rewrite or structural fixes in a complete or nearly complete MS. In some cases, a publishing house might offer a contract for your manuscript but require a substantive edit—for example, to cut a 270K-word manuscript to 150K words.
Not all editors have substantive editing skills. If you want to hire this kind of editorial support, you have to ask for it specifically, with these considerations:
— It can be expensive and require more than one iteration.
— You should review the editor’s portfolio and references to ensure a “fit” with your work.
— You’ll be building your writer’s callous, as described in my earlier post, Is that Blood on My Manuscript? Or Are You Just Happy to Ream Me?
Verify and correct story details, grammar, and mechanics.
This is what many people expect “editing” entails.
Proofreading / Production edit:
Read for typos and other text errors; verify front matter, back matter, page numbers, chapter heads, typography, and other book-design elements.
Typically, editors offer proofreading at a lower hourly rate than for copyediting.
You might choose to use the same editor as for copyediting, or you might choose a different reader. Not all copyeditors have experience with production edit issues. Ask!
Note: You will also read the final manuscript for these kinds of errors. However, don’t fool yourself into believing that you don’t need a proofreader, even if you have professional experience. Your eyes will deceive you into seeing on the page that which you believe is there.
Modest Checklist for Editor Engagement
You are paying an editor to help improve your writing, and to ensure your readers receive a quality product. Here are brief tips for identifying the right editor for your current manuscript:
- Has experience and enthusiasm for your genre.
- Offers references you can verify.
- Has experience with the type of edit you require.
- Listens, and then answers your questions in ways you understand.
- Will let you purchase 1-2 hours of editing/consultation, to ensure a “fit” for your goals.
- Bonus: Belongs to a professional editors association
Or has long-term ties with a publisher or a local small press.
A “first brief consultation” is your touchstone. A first editing sample will help you both understand whether:
- You and your book are ready for the depth of critique this editor can offer.
- You understand this editor’s comments and know how to take action.
- The editor’s estimate for the work meets your budget concerns.
- This editor can help you meet your goals for quality storytelling.
However, you might also encounter trauma, even if the editor provides comments on only a handful of pages. It’s perfectly OK to decide:
- This isn’t the right editor…for any number of reasons, including “it just doesn’t feel right.”
- You aren’t ready—or your book isn’t yet ready—for deep editing.
Perhaps you received enough feedback to work on the manuscript before engaging an editor.
As writers, once we have a complete manuscript in hand, we often become eager for readers to have it as quickly as possible. However, one or more experienced readers or editors might convince us to slow down:
- Do more self-editing.
- Let the MS rest on the shelf for a few weeks before revising again.
If one editor’s response feels harsh, take a breath and let the manuscript rest for a few days or weeks. Come back with fresh eyes, ready to undertake the necessary tasks to ensure your story creates a lucid dream in readers’ eyes.
* The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, John Gardner (of Grendel fame)
** You know your book’s genre, right? By both category and subcategory?
Or perhaps you don’t—many new writers don’t understand the literary and marketing requirements for clear identification of genre category.
If you don’t know your book’s genre, this should be a major discussion point in your first editing experience.
[…] We’re Both Professionals – What Can Possibly Go Wrong? […]
I wish I had seen this BEFORE I purchased an editing service. I got an editor who had no experience with mysteries, wanted to delete most of the clues and red herrings and thought the final reveal was a waste of time. And even after all that he had not figured out who dunnit! A very expensive mistake I’m not going to repeat.
I’m so sorry to hear this!
A poor editing experience can be traumatic, in addition to being expensive.
Best wishes for your next book.