The author’s dilemma
It’s tough for writers sometimes. They spend months, maybe years writing, then editing, polishing, and perhaps sharing with critique groups and beta readers. They may send their work out several times and have it rejected. Perhaps they look at it again before it goes out the next time. Then finally comes the day that the work is accepted.
And then the serious editing begins.
Yes, it’s tough for the author. Fortunately, though, by the time we go into full editorial mode, we’ve usually had the script a while and the writer has gained some distance. They’ve also grown as a writer, so it leaves some space for negotiation.
We’ve just finished a cycle of publication and I’m now about to settle down to the editing of the next batch. I’ve kind of missed it. Yes, sure it’s great getting your hands on a finished book yet one of the most creative acts for the publisher is working with an author to make sure the book is the very best it can be.
My method –step 1 – the global edit
Here I’m basically checking that the story works. I’m looking for any major faults in the plot, any characters that are not properly developed or inconsistent and importantly if the structure works.
I’m looking also for logic – is there cause and effect, does the text consistently speak to the same reader and does the timing all work?
A common fault is a certain weakness in the resolution. Often it can be too melodramatic, or it can be something and nothing, a bit of a damp squib or the writer may have created a deus ex machina – literally a god swept on to the stage in some fancy contraption to wave the magic wand and set everything right.
As I do this read through, I’ll also keep my eye out for any general or repeated faults that I’ll ask the author to address at the same time as looking at the major problems. Examples could be overuse of colons and semicolons, persistently wrong setting out of dialogue and overuse of certain words.
Less obvious examples of these are taken up in the third stage.
Step 2 – writing balance
Is there a good balance of narratives – exposition (as little of this as possible), action, dialogue, inner monologue and description? Is the voice right and is it consistent? Is dialogue handled well? Has the writer used the right combination of tense and person?
Are they showing most of the time and only telling when absolutely necessary or when it provides a break from scene after scene? Getting this right is an art, not a science.
Is the pace right? Yes, we often need fast pace but we also need some variety; otherwise the reader can get tired.
Is there tension? There should be quite a bit, with the right number of cliff-hangers and page-turners but also some places again where the reader can rest a little.
How has the writer handled point of view? Is it consistent and is it also consistently close to or distant from the character? Yes, it can be changed but has to be done very skilfully.
All of this again art not science.
Step 3 – word level
Does everything make sense? Are the best words used everywhere? Is there too much reliance on clichés? Can these be changed for other language? Are there any phrases that are overused? Does every single word and sentence contribute to the whole?
Importantly, is there a darling that needs killing? An exquisite sentence that shows up all the rest but that is totally out of place? Get rid of it or bring everything up to that level. Except that that might make the whole script too rich. But don’t get rid of it all together. Keep it somewhere safe for a rainy day.
I complete all editing electronically, using Word documents and the review tool in Word. I’m scrupulous about renaming documents – adding in my initials and the date to the title and insisting that authors do the same. If we exchange more than once on any day we add in letters: a, b, c etc.
For the first edit, I’ll add comments in the margin and give more details at that end.
For the second edit I’ll do the same, perhaps actually adding in suggestions. For the third edit, I’ll add some suggestions in the text itself by using track changes.
I also use track changes for the proof read. I suggest here that the author hides the mark –up and only switches it back on if something doesn’t seem right.
The author’s role
Authors really must react to every suggestion made – and only occasionally to justify their original choice. More often than not authors come up with something better than what the editor suggests but they do acknowledge that the editor has correctly pinpointed something that is not quite working correctly.
A creative partnership
We recognise from the beginning that this process is still a creative one. Editors and writers must work together with open minds and expecting to produce the very best. The text deserves this. I was gratified to be told recently by a writer I’d edited that she’d enjoyed the process and found it very productive. And she is a very well qualified writer. Perhaps we are getting something right.