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Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Book editing

I’ve been editing other people’s writing for over 30 years. It has helped me self-edit my own work too. This is a very brief overview of the editing process, as I apply it. As with writers, there are no two editors who work in exactly the same manner. Yet, we all strive to help the author to improve his or her work.

There are a great many self-published books available these days and, sadly, it’s obvious that they haven’t been edited, which often means that a good story is diminished.

Authors definitely benefit by stepping back from their work and appraising it with fresh eyes; the final author edit (self-edit) is vital. The temptation is there, but I’d advise never to send off a book unless this final read-through has been done with a critical eye. I’ve seen and rejected manuscripts where it was obvious that the author hadn’t re-read his work but simply finished it and sent it off.

Still, as a book editor (as opposed to a commissioning editor), I looked at work that had been accepted.

Obviously, a book editor is there to spot the inconsistent, the illogical and the plain wrong items which the author couldn’t identify because she was too close to the work. (That important step back didn’t occur, perhaps?)

I believe that an editor can be of great help if he or she reads widely, not simply in a narrow genre; indeed reading a variety of non-fiction subjects too. It is a truism that is often ignored, but all writers should read - and analyse books. Naturally, the majority should write within the genre with which they’re familiar. True, accomplished authors are able to switch genres with ease. I need to know enough about any given subject to ask questions that a book’s potential readership might ask. Though in truth, perhaps the author should have asked these questions at the writing stage, that step back viewpoint again. Still, an editor can’t take it for granted that the author has “got it right”, so there’s a need to check that the author’s research is accurate.

The editor’s credo is “Do no harm” – harm is done by altering the author’s style or the meaning of the prose.

Unlike short story writers, there’s a tendency to be verbose where novels are concerned. Often, the same thing is said or described in more than one way. Editors should emphasise economy of words: the writer saying as much as she can with as few words as possible. (Did you notice that I said the same thing twice in the previous sentence?) That makes the editor’s – and ultimately the reader’s life easier.

Writers should always strive for clarity of understanding. And of course it is the editor’s job to ensure that this is the case. If the editor doesn’t comprehend the context, the visuals or the internal logic, then it’s highly likely the reader won’t either.
Good writers appreciate intelligent editing; bad writers don’t like being edited.
There are bad editors around, too, naturally. This is the real world, after all.
An editor must fight the impulse to over-edit or rewrite. There’s nothing more dispiriting for a writer to find that the prose has been ripped to shreds, apparently without due explanation. However, showing respect to a difficult author can be a problem too. Authors can be demanding or even exasperating, rejecting out of hand even the smallest proposed changes. There is no such thing as precious prose. Balance and compromise are necessary at times.
I tended to begin a working relationship by proposing changes – usually in red on the electronic copy: spelling, punctuation and grammar corrections. In addition:
Offering alternative words;

highlighting duplication of a word or phrase, sometimes due to the “echo effect”;

pointing out the generalisations (specifics are needed, not generalisations);

identifying clichés, mixed metaphors and so on.

Spotting anachronisms, anomalies and logic lapses (we’re all prone to these in some measure).

Making suggestions to improve the drama in a particular scene. 

Pointing out any excess of “tell” over “show.”

Promoting the writer’s visual sense (sketches of scenes can help here).
All of the above list can be tackled in large measure by the author stepping back and doing that final self-edit. Still, the book editor is the last resort, where it is hoped the stumbles are identified and corrected. (Nobody’s perfect, however, so inevitably some annoying gremlins still do get past all those critical eyes!)

As can be seen from this brief glimpse, editing is perseverance – refine, suggest and advise.

In the final analysis, the editor must appreciate that it is the author’s book.
Please note that I am not currently seeking editing work.
I would recommend my guide below (but I would, wouldn't I?)
Please see Chapter 14 – Self-edit in Write a Western in 30 Days for details about what to look for when doing that final self-edit.
The e-book version can be purchased from here
and from here
It is also available at other outlets, both e-book and paperback


Nancy Jardine said...

Ideas worth poaching here,Nik. :-) Thank you and I do so agree that it's the author's job to do thorough edits of their work before passing the ms on. I've read a few stories recently, supposedly edited professionally by the publisher, which have been dreadful in places.(I'm NOT referring to my own publishers who are very thorough)I'm sure that in at least one of the novels I'm referring to that the author didn't bother/chose not to make time for the crucial last self-edits that were necessary.

Nik said...

Thanks, Nancy, and I agree. It's the slipshod that becomes annoying. Fine, none of us is perfect, but at least we should strive for (unattainable) perfection.

Marie Lavender said...

Good points here, Nik. Very helpful. Writers should look at their own work with a critical eye. It helps to have many different eyes on a project (critique partners or beta readers) as well as the author taking an objective look at everything. The editor is the final pass before publication. Obviously, no one is infallible, but let's hope most, if not all, the mistakes are caught in the full process.

Nik said...

Thanks, Marie. That's the hard part, authors being objective about their work. Necessary, though.