Monday, April 21, 2014

Field Guide to Editing, Part I: Mind the Gap

“Are you an editor?” Yes. “Would you edit my work?”

My specialties are fairly broad as an editor: I work as a content lead for humanities education projects and as a developmental editor for academic and speculative fiction writers. Even so, I have had to turn away three people recently who, after asking if I edit, asked me to edit a Christian devotional book, a memoir, and a mystery novel. And even when I suggested, politely, that I might not be the proper editor for them, I got the following responses:

1. I have edited it myself, so it shouldn't be too much work.
2. Just give it a quick read-through.
3. I just want to make sure it all flows.
4. This won’t take long.

Can you imagine walking into a doctor’s office with statements like that? “Here’s my arm: I bandaged it myself, so don’t bother with a x-ray--just make sure it looks good. Can you do it in fifteen minutes?” Now imagine the doctor to whom you’re speaking isn't your GP: she’s an ophthalmologist. She could, undoubtedly, check your arm. So could I, if all you wanted was to make sure the bandages were smooth.
Mt. St. Helens, 1980. Once known as the Mt. Fuji
of the United States for her symmetrical cone.

Implicit in these statements are two beliefs: the first is that editing is a simple process (more on that later). There is also that necessary faith in the written word the author has produced--and why not? It takes a lot of guts to write, and even more guts to expose your baby to any sort of scrutiny. Chances are, once you’ve finished writing of any sort, you tend to think of it like this:

A towering edifice of natural genius. And I’m just as guilty as anyone else. When I send my written work to an editor, I await word, not of changes, but of the editor’s effusive praise. I am absolutely certain that there will be very little to alter.

Unfortunately for you and for me, this will never happen. No matter what you send to an editor, be it the very words of the Bard himself, an editor's first response will be something like this:
Mt. St. Helens, also 1980*
*Disclaimer: no editors were involved in this eruption

I feel that way about almost every work that scrolls under my gaze as an editor. I might not convey this to the writer in so many words (Hey you! Your cone is lopsided!), but I can’t help but see it. An editor is trained to see things that would interrupt writers in the throes of creation: issues of genre, audience, consistency, construction, and yes, grammar and usage too. You may be aware of those things, but think of it this way: a farmer may grow acres of apples, but it is in the grocery that people think about how to present the apples so as to best catch a shopper’s eye. It’s a wholly different perspective.

And that brings us back to the first belief: that editing is a simple process. If all written work were as perfect as a symmetrical volcano, perhaps. But when something as simple as a CV cover letter must take genre, audience, and style into account, it’s highly unlikely.

Perhaps because ours is such a highly literate society, perhaps because editing and writing seem so related, or perhaps because so many of us wrote our term papers last-minute--my bet’s on the last one--there’s an enormous gap between realizing that you need editing and understanding what editing is. A writer, finished with his first novel, will cheerily hire an editor like me without the slightest idea of what he wants the editor to do, other than to make his novel “work.” (More on this issue here.)

“Wait, Ness,” you might say. “Didn't you imply that editors are specialists? That you ought to ‘trust the doctor,’ as it were, to fix my words?” Sure, editors are specialists. We all have niches and variations of ability, and no editor-writer relationship can work without trust. But that doesn't mean you, as a writer, cannot know what editing involves. You should know, as that knowledge will help you decide what sort of editor you need, a fair rate, and a realistic time frame. It will also keep you from being scammed. Unlike the ophthalmologist in my example, there is no specific professional degree associated with editing. (My own degree’s in history--not what you expected, is it?)

So let’s get to it: an impromptu field guide to editors.

Differentiations between editing types is so frequent a topic, you’re sure to see at least one offering every #Mondayblogs. But I suggest you look no further than the Editorial Freelancers Association’s rate chart. Not only does it differentiate between types, it gives you a sense of the monetary worth of each.

Developmental Editor (DE): This editor is in deep, sometimes working with an author before the document is even written. Think structure, audience, genre, character, and myriad other “big picture” elements. The line between a DE and a substantive editor or ghostwriter is sometimes thin.

Substantive/Line Editor: Line by line, word by word, looking for the big-picture elements of a DE combined with the gritty details of a CE.

Copyeditor (CE): Correcting usage, grammar, etc., usually to align with a specific stylebook. They’ll also notice logical flaws or other inconsistencies, and will usually compile a “style sheet,” or list of editorial choices made in your manuscript.

Proofreader: Most people call all editing “proofreading,” but in truth, proofreaders come in after the copy has been produced. Is anything missing? Was anything changed? Think polish rather than revision. (A good differentiation between CEs and proofers is here.)

Indexer: Have you ever flipped to the back of a book to find a word in the text? You’re benefiting from the work of an indexer. No, this is not something computers can do well. A highly technical and necessary niche.

That's it for today, my seismic scholars. Next, I’ll continue the field guide with a breakdown of developmental editing. In the meantime, pepper me with questions or quibbles (I'm looking at you, editors) in the comments section.

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