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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