Editing is and isn’t Editing

So I’m branching out a bit and doing some non-fiction writing for the Ministry of Testing’s Dojo, and in the process I’m getting to work with a truly wonderful editor. She’s not at all demonic, unlike her counterparts in the fiction industry, and she’s incredibly good at seeing past my often sarcastic turn of phrase to the meat behind it, and rephrasing in ways that won’t put people’s hackles up.

She’s also really good at the professional style, something that doesn’t come naturally to me. All the regulars here know the way I throw in parenthetical asides, sometimes nesting the bloody things multiple layers deep, well… For some reason that sort of thing is frowned upon in professional non-fiction circles. Whodathunkit?

When I started doing this, I figured I’d learn something from organizing my thoughts about software testing as a career and software testing as a discipline into a usable format. I didn’t expect to find myself learning some damn good things about editing along the way.

Reading Mel’s comments and suggestions is fantastic. She’s always getting to the meat of whatever topic I’m circling around and finding ways to improve my prose without ever losing my voice or my character. The end result is still recognizably my writing voice, but with a tone that falls somewhere between “we’re all in this together” and “I’m on your side”. Without that I tend to lean rather more to “Life sucks and everyone dies, but I’m still going to fight for what I care about because I’m just that pig-headed stubborn.” Which is arguably no different in substance, but doesn’t win nearly as many friends.

It’s working with someone like Mel that shows what the fiction industry has lost in their relentless drive to ideological uniformity and editing only to remove hints of wrongthinking taint. Real developmental editors do this kind of thing. Real structural editors do too. But judging by what appears on bookshelves, the fiction publishers have largely eliminated any structural or developmental editors in their ranks and are relying on copy editors and the author’s beta readers to generate decent results.

The less said about the likelihood of that succeeding, the better.

Look, each type of editor serves a purpose. Beta readers serve a different purpose (namely, does it fly and are there any gross errors of continuity or screamingly obvious problems). You might get lucky enough to have a beta who can do the structural editor thing, or the copy editor thing (I’m a crappy copy editor because I see what my mind tells me should be there, not what actually is there). Mostly, though, you’re going to get a smattering of typo reports, some of the really gross errors (“Fred has red hair at the start and he’s blond by the end. What happened? Did you bleach him or something?”) and continuity glitches (“Waitaminute, where did the extra enemy spaceship come from?”), and a general sense of whether you’ve got a story or a lead balloon (or a fish, given Sarah’s fondness for carping her detractors).

It’s just… having encountered a good one, I really wish there were more of them in the fiction area. Granted structural editing in fiction also needs the ability to recognize plot and characterization issues and suggest possible solutions, where non-fiction the challenge is more along the lines of presenting the point or the data in a way that’s logical and not going to put your audience to sleep – at least for the short pieces I’m writing.

As indie continues to grow, I can see the good editors picking up a clientele by word of mouth, with writers of similar kinds of works gravitating towards people who are good with that style or that subgenre. It’s going to take a while, though, and in the meantime there’s going to be some flailing.

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s going to be like Cthulhu in a giant fryer splattering gobs of super-heated adverbial froth in all directions… oh, wait. That’s my fiction style if I’m overtired. Nevermind. Nothing to see here. Move along.


  1. “… it’s going to be like Cthulhu in a giant fryer splattering gobs of super-heated adverbial froth in all directions …”

    I double dare you to write that book! I’ll buy it! I’ll buy two!


    1. One of my snarky spiders called Cthulhu a flying calamari and then blew him in half when he ate her. A giant fryer sounds awesome! ~:D

  2. Just remembered something. Friend of mine is writing “historical” books. Non-fiction, his interpretations of Celtic history. He has three books out now and he does have some fascinating ideas and conclusions (no not new age druid type stuff either). I have a copy of his first two books, haven’t read the second one yet. Anyway the editing errors in his first book wore horrid (one paragraph totally garbled). Can’t comment on his second one. Third one, AFTER it came back from editing that he had paid for him and another friend went over it again to correct the errors from the editor.
    This was apparently a professional that did a piss poor job. Makes you wonder sometimes what they are paid for.

    1. I am consistently in awe that businesses manage to keep their doors open when their employees are so uniformly AWFUL. An editor who cannot edit and -adds- mistakes seems exactly what I would expect.

      Also agents who do not agent, and publishers who do not publish, promoters who do not promote… salesmen who do not sell… I could go on.

      That is why I’m doing it myself. It may not work, but at least I won’t be paying to have somebody else screw it up.

  3. 1. No one wants to pay for good editing. 2. Many writers don’t think that they need it. 3. Many, once they have a good editor, don’t want to take the advice. 4. Lots of wannabe writers want the editor to write the book from the wannabe’s idea and don’t understand that what they want is a ghostwriter. 5. Just because a writer has a good editor, doesn’t mean the book will sell (to a big or small pub house) and there’s a lot of work in going indie, even with a book that’s polished…as you all know… The good editors are out there, that said, finding one and working with them is the difficult part.

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