The Editor’s Shears…
While writing your draft can be exhilarating, lurking at the end of that light-filled tunnel is the moment many writers dread. That is the moment you turn your work over to someone who will read your work critically for the first time. In my own experience, I’ve learned to pass it on in its glowing, yet rough state to an editor. Before anyone — even family — reads a new book, my editor has passed it under her eyes and put it to the test. Nothing I write for consumption beyond my wife’s eyes can do without a solid editing. It is integral to producing written work, at this stage of my process, but it wasn’t always this way. For quite some time, I saw editors as evil beings sustained by the blood of innocent author’s characters and plots; grown large on the carcasses of writers’ stupid mistakes and desperate forays into self-absorbed prose. They were to be feared. But no more. Bringing out the truth about these caring souls is what this regular feature on Saille Tales will attempt: soothing writer’s fears and cautions, along with introducing some really excellent resources to the community.
Here are some proofreader’s marks we should all be familiar with:
February 6, 2013: Meet Joanna Swainson
Joanna has read for a number of literary agents and it was while she was working as a reader and in-house editor at Christopher Little Literary Agency that she met her business partner, Caroline.
Hardman & Swainson was launched in June 2012, with 18 authors of fiction and non-fiction. Over their few months in business, the agency has secured deals for existing and new authors, one of whom received pre-emptive offers in the UK and France for her novel which was also the subject of a six-way auction in Germany and reported in The Bookseller as one of the ‘big deals’ of Frankfurt Book Fair.
How does the editorial role factor into that of literary agent?
In times gone by, a literary agent’s job was about talent spotting and selling their clients’ work to publishers. As the business has become more crowded and competitive, it has become more important for agents to present authors’ work to publishers in their best possible state, and that means making the necessary editorial tweaks before sending it out. But as an agent you have to know when to stop, too. An editor recently told me that she received a submission which had been ‘over edited’ by the agent, and if the agent had known where to stop, then it might have appealed to a broader range of publishers. So you have to strike a balance and come to a point where you say, this is what it is, and send it out and hope an editor will love it as you do and have a vision for it.
In your approach to a new project, is there any significant procedure steps you apply?
You have to take each manuscript on a case by case basis, because there is an endless variety of things that might not quite be working. But I’ll usually look at the big picture, first, and try and tighten up any structural problems, plot points, major character defects or weaknesses in the writing itself before moving onto the nitty gritty. Often, if you concentrate on the two or three of the most obvious shortcomings in a manuscript, other things will come good whilst you’re tackling those, too.
What, in your experience, are the most typical mistakes fiction writers make?
Let’s call them ‘mistakes’ in inverted commas, because anything can work if a writer can pull it off! Luckily most writers have sorted out the nuts and bolts of their writing before they submit, so tenses, point of view, grammar and punctuation – the tools of the writer’s trade – tend to be okay. The shortcomings are often harder to pin down, but time and again I’ll read submissions where not enough happens on the page: either there’s a lack of action or too few insights and observations to keep us interested. In cases like this, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the writing is. Relevancy is also a frequent problem – the writer goes off on a tangent, very often into back-story, before they’ve even got us hooked, so the narrative loses momentum. Characters’ motivations often aren’t clear so the characters don’t add up, psychologically. I think the reason for this is quite often because the writer wants to make the character fit the story, whereas it makes much more sense for the story to arise out of character. And the ‘mistake’ that makes me cringe is when the work of ‘fiction’ is too obviously the writer’s autobiography dressed up as fiction.
On a different, but relevant note, I think there’s a place in publishing for the paid independent editor / literary consultancy. I think a lot of writers would have a much better chance when submitting to agents if they had their work looked at beforehand, and got some good, informed advice which would help identify the problems I’ve mentioned above. People complain about this ‘monetizing’ of the slush pile, but think of any other profession. You wouldn’t expect to become a musician without hundreds of hours of music lessons, for example. The best way to learn to write is to keep on writing, but the objective, informed opinion of an independent editor can be invaluable. That said; make sure you do your research before jumping in. Get a proper idea of your intended editor’s experience; get personal recommendations if you can. It’s definitely a part of the industry that can be a bit hit and miss and it comes in for a lot of criticism.
How should writers prepare to work with an editor?
Probably one of the most important things is to try and separate yourself from your work and gain some objectivity. The editor wants to help you, so don’t make them your enemy. Prepare to listen, be open to change, but at the same time don’t forget that this is your story, so if something the editor suggests feels completely wrong don’t just blindly follow it. We should be prepared to listen, too.
I find that talking through issues (rather than just batting back and forth on email, which has its place too) can consolidate thoughts you each might have about an issue and often you can better reach a solution to a problem this way.
Any tips, for the fiction writer, looking forward towards editing?
I know that some writers don’t enjoy the editorial process, and everyone has their favorite part of writing, whether it’s bashing out the first draft, or relishing making the changes. But I look at what you’ve achieved to get to this point – most of the hard work, all that mining at the coalface, has been done. Whether you’re working with an agent or an editor, it’s a chance for you to really improve your manuscript to the point where it’s fit for publication and ready to be read, so I say embrace it!
That should be encouragement to any writer, Joanna. Thank you for your time in helping us all sort through these issues.
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Meet Wendy Bertsch. Wendy is a founder of the consultancy Ocean Highway Books, which offers reasonably –priced editing, formatting and cover design services to authors. She’s the author of Once More, From the Beginning and Dodging Shells, and is also a founder of the website Past Times Books, which showcases some of the best new historical fiction e-books available today.
Wendy, you’ve enjoyed several career moves over the years. Which of them pushed you towards editing, or was it your educational background?
You’re quite right, Richard. I spent many years in business, first in credit management and then in executive recruiting. While they gave me a solid discipline and a notable ability to notice details, it wasn’t until I began to write, myself, that I applied my natural affinity for literature, grammar and composition to editing the works of others. Nothing in my educational background beyond high school has been particularly applicable.
They tell me I was reading by the time I was three years old. Does that count? It gave me a head start on a lifetime of devouring good books. That, an ear for style, and a solid, reliable memory made editing a natural choice.
You’re also an excellent writer. Does your editing provide the same kind of satisfaction or is it a different thing altogether? Can you be specific?
Thank you, kind sir. The habit of noticing errors and weaknesses in anything I read is natural to me…it’s rather a relief to be able to help authors by noting these things rather than force myself to overlook them. There’s certainly satisfaction in helping other authors to express what they want to say as effectively as possible, but it’s quite different from writing my own books.
Creativity has no place in the kind of editing I do. I am not a developmental editor. The authors I work with are already satisfied that their books are basically structured as they wish them to be published. I will certainly point out any serious weakness I may notice, and note factual oversights and inconsistencies on my way through, but I am a copy editor. My concern is with the way the ideas are expressed—the words, and the punctuation—and the little errors and omissions that plague all writers.
To be honest, editing is much easier and more relaxing than writing.
In your approach to a new project, are there any significant procedural steps you apply?
Not really. I simply start reading as I would any other book, and make corrections and suggestions as I go. I use the Review function of MSWord to track my notations. When I return the manuscript to the author, I ask that they consider my suggestions carefully then freely reject the ones they choose not to implement. It is, after all, the author’s book—not mine.
Authors are often apologetic, or even defensive, when they disagree with an editor’s suggestions. There’s no need to be. It’s my job to help the author express his own ideas as he wished them to be understood. Naturally, the author is the best judge of what he intended to project. And for that, the most correct way is not necessarily always the best.
There are certain conventions of diction, punctuation and grammar that help the reader to understand what the author is trying to convey. Generally, it’s better to adhere to those rules, and I can help with that. But rules can be effectively broken, and styles of grammar change over time. Not every author wants to write like an English teacher. That’s their choice to make.
At Ocean Highway Books, by the time manuscripts are returned to the author, they have usually been edited twice—once by myself, and again, for good measure, by my colleague Robert Davidson, another excellent writer and superior editor. And only the corrections and suggestions that we both agree on get back to you. (There you are…a sentence beginning with a conjunction. Get over it. The rule against that usage was rejected as a superstition by the best authorities a hundred years ago.) So you get two for the price of one. Bonus!
What, in your experience, are the most typical mistakes fiction writers make?
Punctuation is a challenge for most authors. There’s certainly room for flexibility there, but punctuation was designed to convey the nuances of the spoken word, and to make it easier for the reader to understand the meaning of the sentence. It must be logical. Otherwise it will confuse and frustrate the reader, and interfere with the ideas you are attempting to convey.
As far as the Rules of Good Writing go (there is no shortage of well-meaning advice on the internet), I only flag infractions that are damaging the books. They aren’t of much use once you’re out of high school, anyway. You know the ones: don’t use ‘-ly’ words (They’re adverbs, folks!); avoid the passive voice; stick to the simple past tense… All of the parts of speech exist for a reason. You may not know all the rules—that’s what I’m here for—but if you’re a good writer, you could be using them effectively by instinct. I appreciate that, and edit accordingly.
Well, that sounds reassuring, almost empowering. How should writers prepare before approaching an editor?
The book should already be as good as you can make it on your own. That’s all the physical preparation you need.
When you read a project, post-edit, where does the writer leave off and the editor begin, or is the result something different?
What I think of the book, post-edit, is irrelevant. The important thing is what the author thinks of it. If the author can read the book, and think, “Yes! That’s exactly what I intended to say,” then I’ve done my job well. The book should be improved—significantly—but the editor should be nowhere to be found in that book. The best improvements will be expressed the way the author wishes he had written them. It’s the author’s voice readers should be hearing.
Any tips for the fiction writer, looking forward towards editing?
You have requested the help of an editor. Be prepared to consider improvements. Remember…if you were sure the book was already perfect, you wouldn’t have considered contacting an editor at all.
And remember that it’s your book. I can do my best to help, but the final decisions are yours.
How about your own writing? Do you need to use an editor?
Of course! All books need to be edited. There are always errors. Always. Mine are edited by my colleague, Robert Davidson, and his advice is invaluable. This interview will pass his scrutiny before you ever see it.
Thanks, Ms. Bertsch, for taking the time to share your process with our readers.
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