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).
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.