Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Editorial Sorts

I probably need to add a bit of explanation here: the term “editor” is one of those overloaded words with more definitions than a dog has fleas. When a copyeditor and a developmental editor (also referred to in the post as a “real” editor – namely what most of the authors I know think of when they use the word ‘editor’ without any qualifiers) can both call themselves editors despite doing vastly different things with a manuscript, it’s a bit challenging to avoid getting confused.

And trust me, pantsers need this type of editor just as much as plotters do. We pantsers may need the continuity editors a bit more than plotters (although to be honest my subconscious has a tendency to do most of the needed work on its own. It just refuses to tell me what it’s doing leaving me with this lingering paranoia that I’ve missed something critical), but every writer, whether on safari though the Pants of Writing or in possession of a meticulously plotted outline, needs a good developmental editor.

So, onwards to the repost (which is I think the second last of the series, or maybe third last).

Extreme Pantser’s Guide – What Editing is and is not

I seem to be suffering from premature conclusions again: I thought I was done with the Extreme Pantser’s Guide, then a discussion over at Sarah’s blog made it clear that there was one more installment, namely this one.

Here’s the problem – there are a lot of different functions that get called “editing”. Only one of them is what authors usually mean when they talk about editing without any qualifiers. This causes people to get confused about what editing actually is, leading someone who’s doing typo and grammar checks or manuscript preparation to think he, she, or in extreme cases it, is an editor.

Some definitions first:

Copyedit – this is your basic typo-hunt, grammar check, did you change your main character’s name somewhere and forget to fix it? It can also include adjusting spelling and grammar to house standards (including things like changing UK-standard spellings to US-standard). Mind you, a really good copyeditor is worth their weight in gold and then some, but it’s not the same thing as editing editing.

Continuity edit – a little more advanced than the copyedit, this is still a basic check but focusing more on things like whether you’ve just run your characters through a 48 hour day, or your main has his coat in one hand, a weapon in the other, and he’s scratching his head with the third hand he shouldn’t have. Also such things as a lunar cycle where it’s full for 3 weeks, new one day later, and spends the next six months stuck half-way. Oddly enough a little historical knowledge, science, and google-fu helps a lot here.

Page proof/layout – this is being called editing more often with the growth of self-publishing and micro presses. It’s actually not: it’s the preparation of a manuscript for publication. This is where manuscripts are formatted to house standards, stripped of extraneous internal coding for conversion to ebook formats, and actually converted.

Editing – without any kind of qualifications, this is the kind of plot tightening and focusing that’s what writers mean when they talk about editing – particularly when they talk wistfully about the absence of real editing.

So… someone who primarily finds grammar or spelling problems and maybe prepares your manuscript for publication electronic or otherwise is not an editor. Neither is the person who catches every last continuity glitch in the piece. These people are usually given titles like copyeditor, proof reader, or printer, and they’re valuable – especially if you stink on ice at any of those particular skills. Unfortunately a lot of them are calling themselves editors (there is a prize example in the comments on the post I linked to up above).

Here are some of the signs you have a real editor:

  • There’s a serious effort to keep your voice intact. Every author has one: it’s a combination of the way they use words, how they fit parts of a story together, all the way up to the kinds of books they write.
  • They don’t try to write the book they want: they try to make the book you wrote as good as it can be.
  • They look at how you’re cuing your characters – is the love interest introduced in a way that sets up the right expectations for readers? Are you giving your hero the kind of traits that tend to be associated with villains without any kind of balancing traits?
  • They suggest ways to tighten the pace of the piece so there aren’t any sections where a reader is likely to yawn and put the book down, without turning it into a breathless rush (unless of course it’s the kind of book that demands a breathless rush as its pace).
  • They look at character actions that don’t fit the overall impression of who that character is, and suggest ways to either correct the impression or make the actions fit.
  • They find places where the phrasing is awkward and smooth it over without altering either the meaning or the subtext of the prose. I personally experienced this from Dave Freer – when he was working with me on His Father’s Son, one of his suggestions was that one specific word gave the wrong impression. Changing that word had an immediate effect on the impact of the entire story (this usually only happens with short stories, although it can hit in a novel with a particularly critical section – especially the opening or the ending).
  • They make sure the opening of the piece sets the right tone and expectations for readers. You don’t want a historical novel or heroic fantasy reading like a modern thriller, and you don’t want hard science fiction reading like a regency romance. Well, not unless you’re writing satirically. This, incidentally, is why the tone of urban fantasy tends to sardonic with a strong overlay of kick-ass. The sardonic offsets the inherent oddness of having classic fantasy critters in modern-day settings, while the kick-ass cues readers to expect a whole lot of action.
  • They make sure the first page has enough information that readers are not going to feel like they’ve been on the wrong end of a bait-and-switch operation. What this translates to is that your piece needs to signal its genre and preferably subgenre early.
  • They do the kind of clean up changes that leave your piece infinitely better but still distinctly yours. A really good editor can take something that feels a bit awkward, and turn it into something you can’t put down – but you’ve got to do a line-by-line comparison of the text to work out what they did to make it that way.

This particular skill set is incredibly rare, and authors that do have it usually can’t put enough distance between themselves and their works to edit their own work. This is what authors mean when they say never to edit yourself. Anyone can typo check, although some are better than others. Ditto grammar (never, ever use software grammar checks. They’re designed to turn the tortured phrasing of non-writers into something readable. Good authors not only know what the rules are, they know when to break them.). Even continuity is something you can do for yourself, and as Amanda’s excellent publishing series has demonstrated, anyone can do that, too.

But actual honest-to-dog editing of the sort that the publishing houses have abandoned? That’s a much rarer beastie.

If you find a friend who can do this, bribe them with anything they ask for to edit your work. It’s worth it.

13 thoughts on “Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Editorial Sorts

  1. Yep, having the right editor is so totally worth every penny. Having a friend who is also an awesome editor is even better (even if we do curse each other’s names from time to time).

  2. This concept of deep editing, another set of friendly eyes that improve the story. I want that! I want it a lot.

    But I know I’m not going to get it from a Big Five publisher. They used to do that, but they stopped. Anybody take a guess when they stopped editing? I first noticed it as missing with a Charles Stross Laundry novel, the third I think. That book (and the whole series) suffered for lack of somebody to tell the author “take that out, it doesn’t help the story, its just rage.”

    I used to like Stross’s books, and I suspect the reason was EDITING. There was probably a lot of nonsense left on the floor back at the beginning of his career, and now they cheer him on for more nonsense.

    1. The fundamental qualities, whatever they are, seem to either be rarer than what writers require, or traditional industry simply trained fewer of them.

      With Indy, the self training path for a writer is fairly viable and documented, and the proof is in the pudding.

      Where’s the self study path for an editor? How does a self taught editor show that they know their stuff? Well, we don’t really need the second difficult answer before we even have a clue about answering the first.

      I can think of five self study lessons for the wannabe editor. 1) Drake has that outline of the Leary book. Get that, get the final version, and study both. Also a lesson for a certain sort of wannabe writer. 2) When reading, ask oneself what is happening with the story. 3) Editing has disciplines or sub-disciplines by genre. Read extensively in any genre you are trying to become competent in. Make sure you have the necessary emotional reactions for that genre, so you can be sure you know whether a story is successfully evoking them. Make sure that you can identify that genre’s reader cookies, and tell whether they are present. Learn to judge pacing. 4) Learn to interact with artists without being an ass. 5) Necessary business and communication skills, well documented in business training material for functioning industries.

      I have a slight background in fanfic commentary and criticism. I /might/ be able to be able to train the insight. My known critical deficiency is in flakiness over the internet and other remote communication. I’ve recently figured out to address this, but I’m probably two to three years from not-being-a-flake, if I stick to it. The meat and bread of editing is an unknown level of deficiency.

      Indy has traditionally trained editors, people who edited in other fields before going into indy fiction, and people who have learned in indy. These are the current market for self study material on being a better editor. They are also key for an alternative to self study, apprenticeship.

      1. Very helpful advice.
        Yet how did the publishers learn to recognize a good editor when they got one? There is no way to measure the books that tanked because of the editor (they do exist, I am sure) v. the ones that soared, so that you can “score” them somehow.

  3. I went away and thought about this for a while. I wasn’t sure if I needed to comment, but here I am.

    I understand that a long time ago, there were developmental editors. Creatures of great power etc, yadda-yadda, blah, blah, blah.

    If I were one of said creatures of great power, why oh why would I not just write my own great novel?

    That’s the bit I don’t understand. What do these developmental editors get out of it, apart from the money? And to be honest, who can afford them?

    Colour me bemused.

    1. Having a highly diluted version of that ability (I like to believe), perhaps I can help.

      The ability to see how someone else’s work can be improved is not the same as the ability to come up with the story in the first place. I’ve been told by several people (including the late co-founder and chief writer of the radio theater group I’ve been associated with for a few decades) that my suggestions on dialogue, pacing, etc., *noticeably* improved their work–pieces I couldn’t have written with Cathy Bates standing over me with a cleaver. There is a difference between a repairman and a builder. Someday I hope to learn the latter trade…

    2. and after doing a decent job of editing, I forgot to make sure I was actually replying to you.

  4. Money isn’t my interest. If it were the only criteria, I would forget creative writing and focus on my line of business with highest profit potential. (Which is actually the focus of as much of my energies as I can usefully bring to bear.)

    Promoting my mad ideology isn’t my priority either. I’m convinced my nonfiction skills have much better RoI for that.

    I like kickin’ rad stories. Insert a ripoff of the Major’s speech from Hellsing, mentioning such things as Military Sci-Fi, Shonen Jump, and improbable crossover fanfic.

    I was on a forum with a guy posting a fanfic. He posted as a serial, and I would give him my best payment, appreciative comments. It was very good, and as the action built, it kept on working very well for me. The end came, and something bugged me. “Character x’s ending doesn’t really match the endings of similar characters in this story. Is there a purpose?” He decided to make some changes, and the ending was much stronger. This guy already knew how to write, and had several stories out that I’d enjoyed. The possibility that I had helped make his story better felt great. Following other fanfic, I’d found that if I could budget the time and energy, I was a decent close reader.

    I’ve both written stories and gotten nice feedback, and those also feel wonderful. I have stories I want to tell, and tell awesomely.

    If I had the skills for both, I might be involved with more fantastic stories by editing. The investment of time and energy may well be such that editing is the rush maximizer.

    Right now, I have the skills for neither. The most I can do is buy what I like, and tell the writer that I like it. For various reasons, I’m not doing either of these well right now. (Talking is harder and less reliable for me than you would think. I owe some praise to Alma, George Phillies, and others. Misha, I think that Knight/Princess thing sounds interesting. Phantom, you are doing a good job of building interest.)

    And Terry very much has a point about the skillsets not necessarily overlapping. Writing is a planning task, editing is analysis. Really superb analytical talent does not mean that one can plan worth beans.

    Night all, hope I’ve stopped before everything went to babbling mush.

  5. My editing problem is that I can tell _something_ is wrong, but I can rarely tell what. I suppose practice and more time actually trying to figure it out would help, but it’s not really a skill I want to acquire.

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