Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fiction Editing: Don't Touch My Junk

In high school, and even in college, I was taught that fiction is not edited the same way nonfiction is; that the fiction writer has free rein when it comes to style and word choice and need not comply with standard rules of grammar and usage. Moreover, it was impressed upon me in my formative years that to suggest a change in language use to a fiction writer is offensive, an intrusion upon the literary process, and altogether just Not Done.

These days, as a freelance substantive editor1 working primarily with fiction, it is my job to read a short story or novel and provide a professional level of feedback to the writer. In this context, I define “professional feedback” as feedback that comprises subjective reader reactions framed and informed by education, experience, and a knowledge of accepted literary theory and current publishing preferences. But what does that actually translate to? When you hire a freelance substantive editor, what do you expect?

It’s not going out on a limb to say that all writers will expect to get feedback on the big storytelling elements of plot, characterization, theme, and structure--and you will indeed get this. You may also expect and are quite likely to receive a mechanical edit (though you may not be familiar with the term) that will address issues such as spelling, punctuation, and formatting errors. Perhaps you also expect a copy edit--a term defined as an edit that does not suggest changes in the substance of the text (hence the distinction between a copy and a substantive edit)--though you may not be completely clear about the differences between this more familiar term and the mechanical edit. But a copy edit is understood to involve corrections in grammar and usage, which brings us to the door of the inner sanctum that is the writer’s process, face to face with the thing that is just Not Done.

At this point, because you really want your book to be as good as it can be (and have proved that by seeking out a freelance editor), you’re probably in a mood to take whatever feedback you can get. After all, it’s up to you what you choose to do with it. It’s only the cultural climate against intrusion into your writer’s process that tugs the other way. You may wonder if your substantive editor will point out or correct your non-dialogue grammatical mistakes. That doesn't sound intrusive. Take another step forward. You may wonder (or hope, or fear) if she will question your word choices and debate the merits of the tense you’ve chosen in a particular sentence. Is that right? Is it Done? Perhaps you are unaware that, outside of fiction, these issues are meat and drink for copy editors, let alone substantive editors. Perhaps it has never even occurred to you that a writing coach would ever dream of questioning…your writing.

This wouldn’t be an issue if there were consensus among all the substantive editors and writing coaches and even the under-appreciated copy editors out there. Your writing coach would edit at full breadth and depth and have a hundred web sites to point to in her defense. But consensus there is none. Each substantive editors has her own policy on how deep she is willing to dig when working with fiction. Far too many become shy when questioning a word or a phrase, by their very delicacy supporting the old taboo. To this day, I see the appropriateness of this issue raised and hesitantly debated on editing listservs and forums across the Internet. This hesitation drives me wild.

To me, it is madness to think that any discussion of language use between a fiction writer and her substantive editor is taboo. It is, moreover, a form of denial to think that a good substantive editor doesn’t notice when a writer isn’t running on all stylistic cylinders, has made a poor choice, or is simply making a mistake. When I see a passage or a sentence that is awkward or below the writer’s own standard, or when I see a weak word choice or a line of dialogue doesn’t achieve its purpose because some non-standard construction has bumped me out of the story, it’s my job to speak up. This is not a question of correcting grammar or usage to conform with stuffy old Standard American2; it’s a question of helping a writer maximize the emotional impact of her story; of helping her make the best use of the ink.3

As with all good substantive editing, the trick for the editor is to focus on the text, so that the feedback will be in close context, and then to explain it. She won’t be perfect, and you’ll disagree with a portion of what she says, but this is how you measure her worth: on the depth an breadth of the feedback. This is how you will improve your writing. When you find a writing coach who is willing to provide feedback on all aspects of your book and how you’ve written it, and presents her feedback as useful information (which you’ve bought and paid for ) and not as the eighth deadly sin, then you’ve got a good writing coach.

1 I prefer the term “substantive editor” for what I do, with “writing coach” coming in a close second. Sometimes clients come looking for a “content editor,” which is also fine. I’ve also seen “developmental editor” used synonymously with “substantive editor;” but I think it’s wise to make the distinction that a developmental editor is someone who works with a project from the beginning. A discussion of the various categories of editors is an essay unto itself. In the end, there is no definitive categorization from one field to the next.

2 For the record, I love non-standard American English grammar, non-standard usage, dialects, accents, the whole kit and caboodle. With fiction I edit to what works in context, not to what you read in a grammar book. I do often point out instances where non-standard grammar/usage will be taken as a typo, and is therefore ill-advised.

3 These days, when there’s not much ink used by writers, I tend to use “ink” as synonymous with the number of words the writer has allotted herself to tell the story. The idea being that you want to make every word count.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

Yo, Editor: How Do You Spell Success?

I never set out to be an editor. For one thing, it's not the sort of profession that appears on the ?What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? lists. Even if it had been there I would have sidled by with averted eyes--because for another thing, I can't spell*. And whatever else I thought that those mythical editors might do (a topic for another time), I was certain that correcting spelling was a prerequisite. You couldn't be a successful editor if you couldn't spell.

Yet here I sit.

I backed into editing when I found myself in the midst of a community of non-native English speakers, many of whom were working on various papers and Masters theses and PhD dissertations. They could all spell just fine, but their grammar and usage (or so their professors told them) needed an obligatory overhaul. Which is when I discovered that the one vendable commodity I had was a modest facility with my own language. This, in combination with an equally native analytical bent, my insights on the writing process, and a horror of being late, got me started. The fact that I liked it; liked working with writers toward definable goals; liked making money, got me hooked. Living overseas for twenty years, during the period in which all other contenders to English as the language of the planet bowed out, gave me plenty of opportunity to get good at it.

So that was a form of success. I made a good living working for various companies for many years. I learned many things:
  • No one sets out to be an editor (whatever "editor" means).
  • Knowing what you can't do and how that dovetails with what you can do is key.
  • Don't assume you're right because you're the native speaker: check everything.
  • Include a bullet list and lots of white space to make your page look attractive and easier to read.
  • People who worry about the passive tense have a lot of time on their hands.
  • There is no bottom to editing, you can go on forever; the trick is knowing how deep to plumb for each job.
  • English grammar is a gloriously supple beast that is born of the spoken language, not the other way around.
  • Usage trumps grammar.
  • Dialect trumps usage.
  • Clarity of intent and expression trumps everything.
  • In the Great 21st c. Publishing War, I am an NCO in the Legion of Extraordinary Freelance Editors, assigned to defend Fort Any Fool Can Spell**.

At the turn of the century, shortly before I moved back to the US, I shifted my focus from language and technical editing (which is what I called what I did) to include more substantive editing and more private clients. I consider myself a writing coach***, someone writers can hire as tennis players hire tennis coaches: to help them improve their game, for consultation about whatever it is that's the problem of the day, from cover letter to character development.

These days, I spell success h-a-p-p-y-c-l-i-e-n-t-s. I've been lucky enough to work with myriad wonderful writers who have seen their work published by major and minor publishers, in print and on-line. I've developed an approach toward substantive editing that has stood the test of time and I've amassed a lot of practical experience about how to write things. I've seen writers make the same bad choices again and again, and had some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. In this blog, I hope to share such wisdom as I have with other writers and editors, for the love of the writing profession, and for the joy of it.

* Words in this entry I spelled wrong the first time: sidled, charlatan (had to look it up).

** A less offensive title, Fort Spelling Ain't All It's Cracked Up to Be, was rejected by a narrow vote as too long and less punchy. Small skirmish over the merits of Any Fool vs. Any Idiot.

*** Not a book doctor--not ever a book doctor. Not only is the term synonymous with charlatan in some professional circles, but the notion that a piece of writing has to be "fixed" in some way is repugnant to me. I don't "make books publishable" (the definition of a book doctor that has stuck with me); I work with the writer to get a piece of writing as close to what she intended as possible. Follow theconstantpen on Twitter