How to Survive Editing

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From Jane Friedman:

When I opened the just-edited manuscript of my first book, some 12 years ago, I gasped.

My editor had covered it in so many red marks, it looked as though she might have accidentally stabbed herself with an X-Acto knife.

Worse, I was totally unprepared. I’d spent my entire working life as an editor—first at a community weekly newspaper, then at a large metropolitan daily, then a brief stint as a book editor, finally as a freelance writer and editor. I thought I knew how to edit. Even myself.

Perhaps more persuasively, I’d also had a dozen beta readers—many of them professional writers—comb through the manuscript to critique, question, and eviscerate my words. My manuscript was definitely in the best possible shape it could have been.

How was it possible that this editor found so many fresh problems? Did she really know what she was doing?

Turns out, of course, that she did. As soon as I’d calmed down and gone through her comments, one by one, I could see they made sense. And, besides, I knew her to be not just a superb editor, but a wise and well-informed person.

But having a strong, gut-punch reaction to being edited is part of the cost of doing business when writing. You’ve poured your heart into your words. In fact, you’ve anguished over every damn one of them. It’s hard to hear that your manuscript, your child, has an ugly nose.

If you are going to be facing an editor’s red pen, here is my advice on how to survive the process:

If you can choose your own editor, choose carefully.

Approach the job as if you were hiring a contractor for your much-loved house. Find someone who specializes in your genre. Talk to at least three different editors who might suit. Make sure you actually like them, as well as trust their abilities. Get three references from each and don’t think holding the references in your hands is enough—check them all, thoroughly. Ask questions not just about the quality of these editors’ work but also ask about what they were like to work with. If the editor sounds promising, request a test edit (of about 750 to 1,000 words of text), even if you have to pay for it, so you can see what you think of the editor’s work. If you like it, then agree upon cost and a deadline and sign a contract.

Don’t rush your hiring process or make it slapdash. Take your time and do it right.

Be prepared for a lot of red ink.

Somehow, anticipating lots of red ink—rather than the blissfully color-free pages I had expected—will make the inevitable result easier to bear. And if you find red ink offensive (as many people do), ask your editor to use green, blue or purple for their comments instead. And if they resist, which I would consider a terrible sign, hire someone else.

Take it slow.

Give yourself at least a full day to do nothing more than glance at the volume of comments and steel yourself. There is no need for you to respond to edits at the speed of light. Take your time and get your feelings in the right place first. Do some deep breathing.

Remind yourself the editor is there to help you. Understandably, it’s going to feel as though the editor is doing nothing but criticizing you. But in fact, any editor is really in loco lectorem—Latin for “in the position of a reader.” Consider your editor to be your partner, there to help protect your published work from mistakes and misunderstandings. What can be worse than an editor who points out too many mistakes? Easy! A published work with mistakes.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

8 thoughts on “How to Survive Editing”

  1. Why is it that ‘professional’ editors insist everyone needs one? Follow the money (and read some of the books.) If you need one, go ahead.

    I tried looking for someone – didn’t work. I learned to self-edit – worked.

    There is a LOT of work to do, and programs can do some of it (Q: how many times did I use ‘that’ in this scene, Autocrit? AC: 17), but every correction should be used as a reminder to learn to do things right the first time, not as an indication you need more of the same. No editor will ever be as focused on your work as you are, or as attuned to your style. Learning is easier when you only have one client.

    Best comment I ever got in a review was from a professional editor who cooed, “And it’s edited!” about my self-edited novel (she didn’t know; I did not enlighten her).

    After a certain learning period, some of us don’t want others trampling through our word-gardens. A trusted beta reader, AFTER the fact, yes. No one is perfect. Arrogance? Or maturity?
    I hope the latter.

    I will get excoriated for this opinion, but it saves time, money, and stress I can’t afford.

    • Cheer up — I quite agree. Mechanical (software) editors are useful for picking up unintentional repeated words (once a term is in my brain, it wants to proliferated on paper) as well as stutters like “the the” across a line break. These are hard problems not to commit or to see afterwards for psychological reasons (can’t read slowly enough without constant attention, and you already know what you meant to say). It helps, while rereading prior to publication, to change the font size between rereads — that shift in line length turns up subtle issues.

      But you’re right — otherwise, you need to learn to edit yourself. I do reread my own work long after and I’m not shy about cleaning up a stubborn typo or grammatical error silently after publication, but there are fewer and fewer of those in my books as I get better at the self-edit process.

      And for factual edits (e.g., “wait, wasn’t that character already dead?” or “That town is in the wrong state”) — I just don’t make those mistakes [crossing fingers] — too conscious of possible errors to avoid resolving all niggling doubt while still in my own edit stage. It makes things slightly longer to fact check as you go, but it saves you from both gross errors-of-fact and narrative reroutes for consistency. For detailed fact checking… I haven’t met an editor yet who had sufficient depth of expertise on any technical topic I touch in fiction to be useful.

      All that leaves is the structure of the story itself… and I am happy to defend my own opinions on how the story should go. It’s no longer my first rodeo.

    • It’s the learning period part that’s the key. You yourself used something in this case, Autocrit. And upon your recommendation I tried it and I agree it’s useful.

      But a noob who doesn’t know structure, for instance, can stumble around, and it’s helpful to have someone in the know explain things. I did not look upon it as an affront when the editor-in-chief at the first magazine where I interned marked up what I wrote. Because he explained why. What startled me was that I made mistakes that I knew not to make, e.g., “backing into the lede.” I somehow didn’t recognize that I was doing it, but once he pointed it out the concept crystallized.

      What I found useful about beta reads was that they taught me to trust my instincts. If I suspected something was off, the readers confirmed it, unprompted. If I thought something was good, it was. And sometimes they surprised me by honing in on something I considered a throwaway, and it taught me to be mindful. But trusted readers are a treasure; Lois McMaster Bujold mentioned Patricia Wrede prompting her to get Miles into more trouble in A Civil Campaign.

      A good editor, I think, is a sensei to new writers, and a sounding board to experienced writers who don’t have a “Wrede” around. And some editors are useful regardless; Book 7 of the Harry Potter series had a shout out to the continuity editor. I imagine George R.R. Martin has funded the mortgages of a whole team of continuity editors for Game of Thrones. But a writer should make a habit of keeping their own series bible, so even that type of editor may not be as necessary.

    • Nope, no excoriation due.
      If anything, you’re ahead of the curve.

      Software editors are about to explode in capability and usage: OpenAI yesterday officially announced the veiled “secret” of GPT4.0 (which MS has been using in Bing since last month) and documented its changes. Most notably, in this case, over 25,000 word *inputs”.

      And a derivative is coming to WORD, probably this week.

      Proofing is about to get a lot easier/better.

      • Indeed, it was announced this week:

        The media will doubtlessly focus on this:

        Microsoft has announced that it’s bringing AI to all its Office applications, including Word via a new “Copilot” feature that can generate texts based on user prompts using natural language. You can ask Word to help with creating a report on a certain topic, and even point to offline source material such as other documents on your computer.”

        But the really useful part is:

        “The AI can also do formatting, meaning users with only basic Word knowledge will be able to create more advanced layouts thanks to AI.

        Copilot can even review documents, including spelling, punctuation, and even offer suggestions and changes based on your own likes and dislikes. The design of Copilot means it should make writing and editing Word documents much faster. ”

        In other words, proofing and formatting of the user’s text.
        Assuming (big assumption) it does it well it should be able to edit a block of text without altering the narrative voice.

        Worth testing when it hits general availability.

        • Full circle.

          I’m reminded of those thrilling days of yesteryear. “Janet, send out a letter saying the scheduling meeting is postponed to next week, bla, bla, bla.”

    • I wrote a program that strips out each sentence and presents it alone on the screen. Just one sentence per screen. Click and the next is displayed. Then have them displayed in reverse order, with the last sentence first, and the first sentence last.

      I suppose it’s a function of the individual, but I find it much easier to catch errors when the sentence is out of context and sitting all by itself.

      Is that all? No. It’s just one tool in the tool box.

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