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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  1. I'm an editor, too. In an effort to capture the editorial process for people who have never experienced it, I sent out an open call on Twitter to writers and asked them to share their experiences with professional editors (not their uncle or fifth grade teacher). I only got a dozen or so responses, but here is the piece: http://tinyurl.com/3huzstk

  2. Nice article, Nellie--but as you say, just the tip of the iceberg. I have several times discussed the idea of writing a two-sided article about the editorial process with my clients. Never followed through on it, mostly because I don't think it's socially acceptable (yet) to admit you have a writing coach. Sometimes I get emails telling me the best things I've every said, and invariably, it's something philosophical, not specific to a story or problem.

  3. I have such mixed feelings on this topic. I have had editors (and I'm talking mostly about those connected to publications to whom I have submitted a short story) who were terrible, and by terrible, I mean obsessed with petty, formulaic corrections. (Quotation phrases such as "he said" must ALWAYS come ahead of the quote, for example.) I've also had editors who were wonderful, and gave me valuable feedback that triggered an "ah-hah!" experience. As a writer, I don't think any kind of criticism is taboo. If what I'm doing isn't working, I want to know it. On the other hand, some editors are molded by the training they have had, and one can almost tag the workshop or school by the sort of feedback they provide. They can't edit outside the box.

    Substantive editing has to be the trickiest business in the world. One has to walk the line between stylistic standards and literary innovation. Speaking as an editor (mostly of non-professional work) I'll confess I sometimes waffle over bringing something to the writer's attention because I can't decide if it doesn't work, or just doesn't work for me. Maybe that's where the taboo comes from, as a way for an editor to step back and let the writer conduct their bizarre experiment. One never knows if it's going to prove to be hailed by critics as an innovative sensation, and thus one gets caught as the damn fool editor who didn't see it.

  4. Great post. A good editor is one who will tell you what isn't working in your story. Too bad many writers take that as criticism and get angry at the editor. If your editor doesn't "get it", your readers won't either.

  5. I agree that a good editor tells you what is not working well, whatever that may be. I've had a wonderful editor, and had no trouble with her suggestions - with one exception. When I used an interesting, correct, but lesser known word, she insisted that I use a more common word so as to not interrupt the flow for the reader who might have to look up my interesting word. Grrr! For some reason, that was (still is!) hard for me to accept. But I did it. That's what an editor is for.

  6. Hey Justine -- You bring up a great topic: bad editing by editors affiliated with publishers. I think it mostly stems from the _lack_ of training (schooling and experience) they've had and sometimes from a jaded editor-in-chief who whose pet peeve has become house style. The former happens with e-pubs and POD (sorry -- I am a big, big fan of both, but it's a fact), and the latter anywhere. I hear horror stories all the time, such as the one you mention. Indeed, I have notes for a future blog post on this topic. We should take a survey. :-)

    Yeah, I think you described the hesitation/waffle exactly. If the writing already has a ton of mechanical, grammatical, and usage issues, I don't get into the nuanced stuff, or cover it with a general comment in my critique about style, idiom, tense and word choice, and point out a few examples (problems recur, as you know, and can be summarized). But in all other instances when I'm waffling as to whether or not my reaction is a fair one, I'll flag the text, say that I'm having a reaction, explain it, and then rate it by saying that it may only be me, but that they might want to check it out.

  7. Thanks for commenting, Jaleta. Agree that too many writers are scarred or afraid. I do think perspective about one's own stuff is one of those things that builds up over time, but yeah, I've met a lot of writers who are horrified by the most gentle of editorial passes. In my experience, they are the ones with the least or the most experience. If somebody thinks writing is like daydreaming, I have no problem with that, and accept that such writers may be dear friends but will never be clients. :-)

  8. Without a good editor, an author's work is most likely going to suffer in my opinion. Thank you for the insight into the mind of a true professional such as yourself.

  9. This is a lesser explored area of the writing process--where editing may (or may not) be welcome. To my mind the answer lies in finding that editor/author click. When the right relationship is present, even if there wouldn't be consensus, the editor's suggestions will resonate with that particular author. It can be a tough thing to find--like finding a soul mate someone once told me--but when it happens...magic.

  10. I've been fortunate to work with two outstanding editors on my mystery novels, and a large part of my enthusiasm for their work was the fact that they commented on *anything* they found harmful to my stories. Then, I could accept their advice (more than 90% of the time), or ask them for clarification. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
    Occasionally, the shoe was on the other foot. Throughout all the drafts of one of my books, to the final galleys, at one point in the story, a character quoted Fats Waller: "One never knows, do one?" But in the published book, "do" had become "does." You can't win 'em all.