WHAT DOES AN EDITOR DO?

Today The Bindery is pleased to welcome writer and editor Meredith Hinds, who has written a guest post about the art and craft of editing. We hope you find it helpful!

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I’m a freelance editor. When people ask me what I do, I usually say something like, “I help people write books,” which is the abbreviated version. I can’t say exactly what every editor does. Each of us blends macro editing (big picture) and copy editing (sentence by sentence) in the way that best serves the author. I’ve started calling my work “developmental editing,” which I think signals to authors that they don’t need to expect a certain type of edit from me. I’m going to tailor my edit to the specific needs of their book.

Let me start with what editors shouldn’t do.

WHAT EDITORS SHOULDN’T DO

A good edit isn’t airtime for my style soapboxes.

I used to rail against each author’s use of the word “you” in reference to the reader. I called this choice “direct address,” and I’d tell the author to find another way. C. S. Lewis did it, but you’re not C. S. Lewis. Don’t use second person, I would comment, right next to an acrobatic recreation of a sentence. The audience is perfectly aware that they are reading a book. Dropping in the word “you” every other sentence gives people whiplash. You? Me! I am reading this book!

Halfway through a second pass of an author’s manuscript, I found a comment from the author that accused me of “sanitizing” his voice. He wanted to refer to the reader as “you” and found the practice essential to his message. He didn’t need a lecture. He needed a teammate who caught his vision.

I’ve changed tack since then. Helping an author craft a well-constructed sentence featuring the subject “you” is more productive than fighting a cultural movement by myself. We use “you” now. You use “you” now. And I can get over it.

EDITING ISN’T ABOUT THE EDITOR

This is the key, I think. A good editor says to the author, “You’ve run hard, now keep running.”

An editor helps authors finish books. While reading a book about ultramarathons (it’s probably the same one that you’ve read about ultramarathons*), I came across the term “mule.” During the last half of a gajillion-mile race, each ultramarathoner is allowed a “mule,” that is, another runner who is going to go from the halfway point to the finish line with them. When the ultramarathoner starts hallucinating, the mule can tell them what’s real and what isn’t.

In my very best edits, I’m the mule. I recognize that I’m coming in at the halfway point. It’s the author’s race—not mine. From there, it’s encouragement over flattery, creation over criticism, and teamwork over soapboxes.

What does this kind of editing look like in practice? It still means there will be changes to the manuscript. For many authors, it’s an uncomfortable amount of changes. But I encourage authors to think of the abundant red marks as new possibilities rather than points off a test. Here are some examples of changes I made during a recent edit. These are taken from a list of more general observations that I sent to the author.

  • I ended paragraphs at places that I felt were more emphatic, I cut sentences when I thought the pace was faltering, and I offered different word choices.

  • I suggested transitions and connective material between paragraphs. I occasionally felt that the audience could use more help understanding how the material connected, and I added sentences at the beginning of paragraphs to achieve that end.

  • I replaced many pronouns, especially the pronoun “it,” with more specific language.

  • I varied the verb structure and made changes in lists for the sake of verb agreement.

  • I considered cues that are common in speaking, such as: “In fact,” “In conclusion,” and “That’s right.” These cues are very important for face-to-face audiences but come across differently in writing. I did not eliminate every instance, but some of them struck me as out of place.  

This process isn’t painless. I seem to have a knack for adjusting authors’ very favorite sentences. I’ve started adding this sentence to my observations for authors: Accept the changes that make sense and strengthen the material and reject the ones that don’t.

A GOOD EDIT: WHY YOU NEED ONE

Like editing, publishing doesn’t stick to standard categories. An author faces a range of options when choosing how to publish. In any chosen route, authors may be expected to cover some of the costs for marketing and promotion, not to mention editing. Many authors decide to go with the cheapest option, to edit their manuscript themselves or with colleagues, or to not pursue any editing at all. They might think to themselves, I don’t need another critic. I understand that. And it’s true that if you’re going to cast anything out into the public sphere, you’re going to wind up with plenty of critics anyway.

So why pursue a good edit? Because writing a book is hard. It’s a different kind of hard than running an ultramarathon, but there’s a reason why runners have mules. The last half of impossible will be much more bearable if you let someone else step in and help. Creating a book means synthesizing years of work and thought and self into words, and it’s not something you can do by yourself. A thorough edit is the last half of the race; it brings out the absolute best in your writing. Yes, you have to find a mule instead of a critic, but I promise that they exist.

You need a good edit because you’ve worked too hard to stop at the halfway point.

 

 

*Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run