Natalie Cannon the editor here, guest writing for the lovely Charlotte. I write too (though I’m not as practiced as Ms. Blackwood) and I have a blog for that (www.nataliecannon.wordpress.com), but as Charlotte refers to me as an editor, I thought I’d give some tips for the editing process from the editor’s (or beta’s) point of view.
Before we continue, I have a disclaimer: I am a home grown editor. I never took a class, sought tutelage, or had any training beyond paying attention in English class at school. Back in 2002, one of my friends literally came up to me one day and said, “You read right? You’re good at language arts?” and I quirked an eyebrow at them and they dropped their manuscript on my head. That doesn’t mean I have little idea what I’m doing. It means experience has taught me these things. I have taken multiple creative writing workshop classes and worked on three different literary magazines, which both have large editing/judging-value/point-of-work in them. And I’m a writer myself. Anyway, tips!
If you want to read authors’ works, you have to actually like reading. Reading a wide variety of books helps you learn what kind of works and styles you like and dislike. It also gets you acquainted with tropes, poetic language, stereotypes, and genre. Genre is pretty important because it helps to know when your author is conforming to or breaking away from it. You don’t want to squash their creativity but you also want to be aware of audience expectations. People who pick up a a historical romance novel that has large-sized chunks of political intrigue and murder may be pleasantly surprised. People who pick up a historical romance novel which suddenly has space aliens chasing the protagonists to Mars are going to be going ‘what the fuck.’
Grammar. You need it. You want it. You must at least know the basics of it. Just….know it, okay? It’s going to be like thirty times more difficult to convince people you’re smart and they should hand you their manuscripts if you can’t tell the difference among “they’re,” “there,” and “their.” On another note, the English language has lots of words. Words mean lots of things and actions have names. Knowing the terms of poetic language and grammar bits makes you seem way way way more sophisticated than you actually may be. Knowing the difference between an independent and dependent clause and how to use them sounds so cool on paper. For example, I can barely eat pancakes without syrup getting all over my t-shirt, but damn did I sound cool when I analyzed my godfather’s screenplay. My mom and brother’s jaws hit the floor. The easiest way to learn these words is to pay attention in class, particularly high school. You’re stuck in it for hours anyway. People are impressed when you remember it after the dismissal bell has sounded.
- Be sociable and observant
This tip is on here for two reasons. First, authors like working with people they like. All my editing stints have come from friends and family members. Second, knowing how humans generally behave, or at least capable of behaving, is useful. So…interact with them, watch them on telly, and read more. It is possible for someone to go from murdering someone to kissing them in a matter of seconds. Responses to grief range from total mental shutdown to shrugging to making love to singing to creating something and then destroying something to doing a thousand other things. The reason for all this is so you can gauge the realism of the author’s characters’ reactions. I mean, the response can make sense, but does it make sense for that specific character? If it’s out of character, is it explained? Does it need to be explained? If you’re unsure ask a friend or the author to explain themselves. Their answers are fun anyway: I asked a friend what they would do if I died and she said she would buy a bunch of breakables at thrift store, lay them on a tarp, and smash them with a baseball bat.
Most of you have probably already done all of the above. It’s part of living. For editing, knowing yourself and your pre-conceived notions of reality, books, and storytelling helps with interacting with authors. Authors are artists and therefore see the world a bit different from Joe Plummer. They may challenge you and your ideas. You’ve got to be aware of this when it happens because they may actually be a brilliant writer, but their style just jabs you the wrong way. Their writing sounds like music to most of the population, but it’s just not your thing. If you continue working with them, you have to be aware of your bias when you edit and remind them of it. They have to know that if they sent this to another editor, they’d probably have less red marks on their manuscript and you have to calm down your red pen. Charlotte and I have difficulties with this and I totally stressed her out with my last round of editing her novel. It wasn’t particularly fair of me and I’m trying to do better with the next round.
- Try your own hand at writing
It takes one to know one and then when your author tells you about their really bad writer’s block or how their cat ate their paper or the intricacies of their favorite pen, you have complete sympathy. Writing and editing are pretty inter-changeable positions since you both work with words and some people are better at one than the other.
Alright enough groundwork, let’s get down to actually working with a piece.
When authors give away their manuscripts, it’s a bit like giving you their baby to watch. They need to be able to trust you with their brainchild. So…be nice. Second, at least for me, authors want different things from their editors. Some want your general reactions to chapters and plot events. Others want in-depth character analysis while still others only want superficial grammar corrections. One will want you to check story flow and their opposite will be mortified if you breathe a word. Some are only looking for encouragement while others like you to be totally brutal. The combinations and exclusivities of want are endless, but luckily, you can just up front ask them what they want. Not all authors are sure: I have a standard operating procedure that I tell the unsure ones. Some editors seek out authors who are looking for the kind of edits the editor favors. So an editor who only wants to do grammar proofreading looks for an author who only wants grammar proofreading.
- If at all possible, read the manuscript once through first, without making any edits
This is assuming the author isn’t interested in your original reactions to the piece chapter by chapter (though you can always write those as you go, I suppose). But anyway, I can’t tell you how many stupid English essays my teacher wrote in the margin “you should do this etc etc” which I then proceeded to do in the sentence after next. *frustration* As you can imagine, this is especially important for thrillers, mysteries, and suspense stories. Your view on a character and his/her development is going to completely change if you know at the end they’re revealed to be Martian.
- (Gently) Question the author’s reality
Writers have to establish their reality (or non-reality) for their characters to interact in, especially if it’s a fantasy or sci-fi piece. But tread gently. Feel free to question and point out inconsistencies, but don’t be a twat about it, or assume you know better. An author may stylistically be sparse on setting, or feel that characters or themes or something else than the exact shade of leaf that appears every Leap Year is more important.
- If you’re confused about something, ask the author about it
You might have missed that one sentence that said the character stood up and walked to New Zealand because your oatmeal burned your mouth and distracted you. Alternatively, the author might have gotten so caught up in their work they forgot to explain it (I do that in everyday speech, not just my writing). Even if the author decides not to change anything, at very least the author will know the confusion existed.
Again, the author is an artist and words are their craft. Everyone thought Van Gogh couldn’t paint for shit when he was alive and then he died and everyone was like “ZOMG, WHERE HAS THIS MAN BEEN.” I don’t know about you, but I would prefer my author to be happy and appreciated while they’re alive instead of six feet under and pushing up daises. Don’t get stuck in your ways that a story has to be told this certain way that Famous Author XYZ did it. You can mention that the author’s doing something non-genre normal though.
- This is most important: The Author Has The Final Word
It is their manuscript and they are like Loki and do what they want. At least in the way I do it, I’m not responsible for getting them published (if they want to become so) so if they want to publish that historical romance with sudden aliens then they can go right ahead. Even if it’s not the way I do it, authors always, always, always have the almighty power of Stet. Stet is Latin for “let it stand,” meaning the edit on the page is to be ignored by anybody seeing the manuscript (like a typesetter). Authors, as variable as the sky, use it to varying amounts. I heard of an author who had “Stet” tattooed on her arm she was adamant on not one word to be altered. JK Rowling, meanwhile, switched publishers because they weren’t giving her enough edits.
You made it to the last paragraph! Congrats! If you have any questions, comments, concerns, or tips of your own, leave a comment below! You can also contact me through my blog. Overall, be your own smart self and listen and respect your author. I also dare you to write a historical romance novel with space aliens. That would be cool.