Monday, May 12, 2014

Field Guide to Editing, Part II: Go With the Flow

In my previous "field guide" blog post, I wrote about typical things an editor hears upon being given or pitched an editing job. Stuff like, "This shouldn't take long," or, "I edited it myself." There's a gap between what clients expect and what editors actually do. This guide is to help narrow that gap.

The e-book industry is booming. E-books are already outselling hardcovers, and while they don't appear ready to challenge paperbacks just yet, e-books may eventually replace all books. E-publishing has exploded, making it easier for any given novelist to get a book out to the public.

There is a problem with the e-book market, however: the glut of books, many of them poorly produced. The reason for this poor production is because costs are pushed back to individual authors, who do not have the funds or apparatus of a large publishing company. Because of this, many authors give up once the writing is completed: they find a public domain image for the covers and edit their own novels.

"Edit your own novel!" I wish I could tell you the number of blog posts I've seen from people who tell writers that this is the way to go. The #amediting hashtag on Twitter is full of writers who say they're editing their
Editors were here.
own work. But let me tell you something: you can revise your novel, you can review your novel, and you can even overhaul your novel, but one thing you cannot do is edit your novel. You can't do it; I can't do it. Rumors to the contrary, George R.R. Martin can't do it. And even though Fifty Shades of Grey seems like it hasn't been edited, it was: once off the fan-fic forums, E.L. James released the first digital version with a small press.

Editing is a necessary investment for self-publishers, just as it is for any author or press. 

To be sure, many writers do realize this. On any given day, I usually have a request in my inbox to edit a novel. The requests vary. One might be labeled "copyediting," or a writer might ask me to edit the first 10,000 words only, but the main thing all of them say is:

I want to make sure it all flows.

Flow! It isn't a technical term, but everyone knows what "flow" feels like. Who doesn't want a story that flows? Who wants to look at a block of text and come to a standstill of confusion? Or read prose that stumbles and shifts and loses its path? No way. We want flow. We want prose that looks like a river, bold and precise and beautiful.
If your story flows like the Colorado,
you might want to do some revising.

Do you want flow? Then you want developmental editing, also known as content editing. Developmental editing is about the big picture: where concerns of story intersect you, the readers, your market, and yes, an occasional style guide. A good developmental editor (DE) is a flow doctor: she will take that lazy river from its source to its mouth.

What is Flow?

Let's look at the meaning of flow, from the standpoint of development. If I asked you to define what you mean by flow, what would you say? In my experience, an author asking for "flow" is usually concerned with pace. Pace is the rate at which the reader moves through the story. How quickly does the story seem to go? Are there places where the pace is too slow or too fast? If you've put down a book because it dragged on too long or you've sat confused at the sudden ending of the first Thor movie, you've felt the results of poor pacing.

Developmental editing covers a lot more than pace, however, and many of the elements also affect a novel's flow. Character, consistency, tone, and even syntax can make a reader stumble over the words or stop short. Did Molly, an agoraphobic, just walk out of her house without hesitating? Is Jack inexplicably cracking jokes over the body of his best friend? Too many five-word sentences?

A crucial area in which a DE can help is assessing your audience. It is important for a writer to enjoy her story, but all potential readers will not approach her story in the same way. Sometimes flow means keeping your readers from snagging on your words because of their own knowledge and experiences. One of the first things I do with new clients is develop a readership profile, which serves as an editing and marketing guide. The profile includes a list of the kinds of readers to whom the book will most likely appeal.

But I want my audience to be everyone!

Anyone can read your book. But you should tailor your work to make sure people in your main readership are hooked into and will not stumble on your story. If you're writing a medical drama, your readers will be keen on the details of the emergency room; if your starship captain is walking on Mars, sci-fi readers will know the sky shouldn't be blue unless it's sunrise or sunset. There are conventions to each genre that you can either keep or ignore, but your work will be a dialogue with those conventions through reader expectations.

I am not prejudiced.

I once got this objection from a potential client. He thought my detailing the uses of a readership profile meant that he was not capable of seeing those issues for himself. But as I said before, no one can see in absolutely objective terms. Everyone has bias. You will want to know if bias gets between you and your readers. You will also want to know if words or events you've chosen to write will trigger a bad reaction in a reader.

I do know how to write to an audience, and I had beta-readers.

You're on the right track! Beta-readers are especially crucial. A writer like you will probably already have an idea of readership, even if you haven't written it down. The main help you'd get from a DE is knowledge of the trends in your genre/industry, followed by specific examples of how to tailor your manuscript to better reach your audience.

I've been an editor for eight years, and a DE for five of those years. While I've worked all over the editing spectrum, development is my favorite. When you're a DE, the story matters--it's a creative process. You have an opportunity to work with an author to create the manuscript the author always wanted--sometimes before the writing even begins.

Development also includes a lot more than the "flow" issues I've outlined here. If you're interested in learning more about developmental editing, a good resource is Scott Norton's Developmental Editing. The Editorial Freelancers Association also has a useful article on development.

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