Let’s talk editing. I’ve been trained as a copy editor, have edited newsletters for content and grammar, and have had four separate editing experiences as a writer. I also began my publishing career as a proofreader, learnt a bit about graphic design, and was a desktop publisher. I’ve worked on text the traditional way and the newer computerized way. So I’ve pretty much covered the gamut. In my editing life, I received kudos in the Preface to the Handbook of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology as a result of my editing of that tome. And in my writing life, Lifeliner received Reader Views Best Biography award and She was a finalist in the Word Guild Awards. Good editing makes or breaks a book, and authors notice. In fact, a bad editor can make the original manuscript worse. A good editor is hard to find and worth a lot.
So what to look for in an editor?
I shall begin with my first editor, whom I worked with on a short story – which you can find in Eleven Shorts +1. I met her through my Creative Writing Prof at the University of Toronto. She worked for a small literary magazine in Toronto and was very much interested in my story Our Father. Back in those days, there was no email, but I had been typing my essays and stories on a computer since the 1970s. I handed her a printout of my story. Later, we met at a café, just like you see in the movies and read about in books, to go over the flow of my story, the characterization, the plot – content-type stuff. It was a bit hard for a young writer, as I was then, to hear her criticisms, but I took heart from her enthusiasm and went back home to rewrite it. We met again in the same café, and although the story was better, it still needed work. Again, her comments were all on the content side. We had not yet reached the point of editing the story for grammar and punctuation. The third time was the charm. After that, I copyedited it myself (I don’t recall if she gave me any notations on that or not).
It was a fulfilling process. It was the only time I ever felt like I was collaborating with someone over my written work, who was invested in me and wanted me to succeed, who wasn’t afraid to point out the flaws and was wise enough to tell me what worked. In short, was rooting for my story. If you find an editor like that, keep them!
My other three editing experiences were with my books.
One editor was faceless and nameless, which I suppose was rather like I was to the authors back in my editing days. Back then, only the Acquisitions Editor met with the authors and spoke to them directly about their book (the Acquisitions Editor was in charge of finding authors and developing their books; once written, the manuscripts went to my boss, then after her review, to me). I remember one time I really could not fathom what the author was trying to say and needed to speak with him so that I could edit it. My boss and the Acquisitions Editor were loathe to let me call him up. We had long discussions about how everyone, including me, at the publishing company had to keep the authors happy, and how they were afraid that my criticism would upset him. Since I was so young, they were afraid my youth and direct way would cost them an author. I assured them I knew how to speak diplomatically. I think we even went over what I would say as they began to be persuaded by my argument that I really needed to understand what he wanted to write so that I could edit it well and thus make him look good. The quality of my work was how I’d keep him happy. I got my way. After the end of our 15-minute conversation, he thanked me for calling him. And I felt pleased with myself for being able to keep him happy while improving the text.
But back to the faceless editor. The editor edited for content and then for grammar and punctuation. By this time, editing was no longer being done on the manuscript page with pencil or red pen, but in Word using Track Changes. And oy, were there a lot. Luckily, there are guidelines online on how to use track changes because if you haven’t used them before (or the inexecrable Word), it can be confusing. Some were very hard for me to follow because of wholesale moves of paragraphs and pages. There were demands to fill in scenes, clarify things, and so on. I don’t remember what all I was required to do, but it was disheartening to see so much marking up of my work. Yet I knew it would make it a better book. I recognized that the editor had spent a lot of time and attention on my work, both for content and for copyediting. That was the key: the obvious effort behind the markups.
Sometimes you may find you have an editor that whips through your manuscript. Maybe you’ll think having not many comments is a good thing. Unless you’ve written many books, all of which have been edited, and each of which in succession has needed less and less editing, a lack of comments and track changes or inconsistent changes (some sections show many comments, other pages are completely bare) are a sign of an indifferent editor. Dump em or ask for a new one if you’re with a publisher or using an editing company.
The intensive experience was painful, but I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that it made for a better book.
Another editing experience was with a freelancer. You can find freelancers through editor associations, on the Internet, or through Twitter. I thought the freelancer would copy edit as well as content edit. But not really, as I learnt. Since then I’ve re-learnt that copyediting comes right at the end, only after the manuscript has gone through content editing and is done done. When looking for a freelancer, ensure you know what they will do. If you want and they say they will do content editing, don’t expect copyediting. They may point out some obvious punctuation or grammatical errors, but it won’t be a complete job in that way nor should it be at that point.
The freelancer wrote a memo pointing out the big picture issues, with specific comments chapter by chapter where warranted. The editor also wrote comments on the manuscript itself (in Word) regarding specific paragraphs or sentences or characters, which were referred to in the big picture memo as well to ensure I knew what the editor was seeing and what I needed to respond to.
There were some cultural issues that I had not thought of because we all think that since we speak English, we’re very similar us citizens of Canada, the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand. But we’re not. There are differences in vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, word usage, and ways of seeing things. It may be best to find a content editor who lives in the same country or continent as you do if you don’t want to change your cultural references and deal with grammatical changes that don’t apply in the country you live. Yet the opposite could be good too. UK and US authors seem to think everyone knows everything about their cultures and way of living and don’t need to explain them in their books. As a reader immersed in British culture and highly exposed to American and living in Canada, I can understand most of the inside stuff. But many probably don’t. Thus in our new global-reading world if you want your cultural references exposed so that you can explain them in some natural way in your story, find a content editor across the ocean.
I was able to have some back-and-forth discussion with the freelancer, and that was quite helpful to me. But it still didn’t reach the level of collaboration I had with my first editor and that I still miss.
That brings me to how very important communication is to the editing process. You want an editor who
- can write an opening memo about what they see as the big picture. You want them to invite comment, which tells you they want to understand what the author is striving to achieve. In that way, they can do the best possible job on a (difficult) manuscript;
- is willing to read your explanation notes when you first submit a manuscript;
- understands the need to read past email correspondence with previous editors in order to catch up to where the work is at, if your manuscript has gone through a few editors;
- is willing to ask you questions if they don’t understand something while they’re mid-edit (like I did with that author back in my editing days). Some may prefer to wait till the end, but a savvy editor will realise that sometimes they have to do it earlier in order to finish editing the manuscript well and not perpetuate errors;
- is willing to discuss points of disagreement rather than bullying their edits onto you;
- shows an interest in your work (or at least can fake it) so that they spur you on through this hard process;
- is willing to answer your questions, knowing that it will make your book better. And that’s the ultimate goal of every editor: turn a manuscript into a great book.
When the editor has poor communication skills or won’t take the time to comment properly and completely, then going through the editing process will be a depressing and frustrating experience. It feels like standing on shifting sand. It may even make you second-guess your manuscript because you will have no idea what works and what doesn’t work.
If your editor shows poor communication skills, dump em or demand a new one if you’re working with a company or publisher.
A copy editor does not necessarily need to be your collaborator, but if you intend to write more than one book, you need to find a content editor who will become one, an editor you feel confident sticking with over the long term from book to book. However, once you find a good copy editor, stick with them. Too many are sloppy and don’t seem to have figured out the amazing tool of find-and-replace.
In the old days, a copy editor needed eagle eyes. Reading the printed word on the static page meant that if you found an inconsistent spelling of, for example, “recognize,” then you had to spot every single iteration of that word in order to fix the spelling. What you didn’t want to end up with was a book that had both “recognize” and “recognise” in it. Today, it’s so easy to fix. No eagle eyes needed! The first time you spot an inconsistent spelling or misspelling, you press Ctrl-F, type in the wrongly spelled word in the Find box, type in the correct spelling in the Replace box, click Find to find it, click Replace, do it word by word instead of Replace All because you never know what the computer will end up replacing, and repeat from the beginning of the manuscript just in case you missed a misspelling earlier and for every verb tense of the word. Then resume editing where you left off. Or if you need to stay focussed on the editing, open up a document where you list all the inconsistent spellings and misspellings to find and replace when finished. In the old days, you also had to spot double periods, missing spaces, double spaces manually – some of which required visual recognition skills. Today, after you’re all done editing, after the author has gone through the track changes, then the copy editor or proofreader can run a final find-and-replace of all those pesky details. It’s fast and easy.
You may want to ask your prospective editor if they know how to use that function and if they do. I made the mistake one time of assuming they did.
A good copy editor will also have a good command of the language. Their vocabulary should ideally be better than yours – or at the very least, they should show an ability to Google or use a dictionary. If you see questions in your manuscript about what a word means or a phrase and you double-check with your dictionary and know you used the right word or the phrase is a common one, a red flag should go boing in your head. You may not want to use that editor again. If, on the other hand, they suggest alternative words or phrases that when you check with your dictionary and thesaurus are better choices, stick with that editor. Your vocabulary will improve, and you know you can rely on their knowledge. It’d be like standing on a rock.
The same is true for punctuation. You both need to agree on which standard to follow. I use the Chicago Manual of Style, and I use the Oxford or serial comma. Errors galore can crop up if your copy editor doesn’t follow the Oxford comma rule when you do, doesn’t tell you, and you don’t notice. Also I was taught editors develop a House Style for peculiar spellings, book-specific usages, or exceptions to the Chicago Style rule. That can be a style particular to a publishing house or a freelance editor. The editor should let you know if they do. Or ask.
I’m afraid I have no tips on how to find a good content or copy editor, only what to look for. I am going to try Bibliocrunch to find a copy editor for my next book Time and Space. I don’t believe I need content editing for that novel, although I definitely will for the novel after that. Sometimes the book will tell you what you need.