Working With An Editor: How It Works, What It’s Really Like, What It’s All About
“A great book is great before the editor gets her hands on it.” Shelley Tanaka
Today come my notes from another incredible faculty lecture from this summer’s residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The generous Shelley Tanaka, who gave me permission to share this with you guys, is an experienced Canadian editor of young adult books and a children’s writer. Thank you, VCFA program office of Writing For Children and Young Adults, for your permission as well!
This lecture about the editing process is very timely to me, both as a writer and as an editor, someone who has been working on clients’ manuscripts all summer. The wisdom here applies to writers who, like me, are waiting to get the latest notes from their editor (or agent), and to those who are looking forward to working with a publishing professional one day.
A professional editor will usually look at the manuscript in stages. First, he or she will tackle global story issues, such as plotting, characterization and pacing, while keeping in mind the question of “What is the writer trying to do?” Once the narrative arc is in place and the big puzzle pieces are where they should be, the editor will zero in on the language or “line editing.” Closer to the end of the process, Shelley said, “every word is considered in relation to every other word.”
Of course, every editor has her own style, but the following is what Shelley looks for when she gets her hands on a manuscript:
The term can apply to anything from bloated sentences and unnecessary scenes, to extraneous character thought and description. “Giving up overwriting doesn’t mean giving up beautiful language,” Shelley said. “It just means saying something with it.”
In weeding out overwriting, Shelley looks for repetition. She advises the writer to cut it “when [it's] boring or pretentious.” A cute or funny little language trick can quickly go from “charming to self-indulgent to annoying,” if overdone.
In considering our potentially overwritten passages, Shelley urged us to ask ourselves, “Do you love something because it comes out of your characters or your story? Or are you just showing off?”
Shelley said, some writing mannerisms are easier to spot and potentially cut than others. When a writer’s voice shines, it’s that much harder for an editor to mess with his language. “A supremely confident writing is a kind of a fortress,” Shelley said.
In some ways, cutting overwritten passages — or killing our darlings — can be the hardest thing in the world for a writer. But it is also something we could really get into (speaking from my own experience as a writer here!) However, Shelley cautions to be careful with cutting. In some cases, the answer is harder, deeper than that.
“Cutting can be a lazy way out for both the writer and the editor,” she said. “It can lead to patchiness.”
As an alternative to cutting, a writer can consider moving her favorite or important passages around. Possibly, in its current placement, the passage ”draws too much attention to itself, or distracts,” Shelley said. Would it work better someplace else?
Voice and point of view
When considering word choice and sentence structure, Shelley said she looks for cliches, or anything that “feels tired, or overused, or ordinary.” She asks herself: is this first-person narration appropriate? Or questions timing – for example, why is the narrator revealing this particular information now? She also considers the “energy of the passage,” tries to prevent “moments of drift.” Once in a while, Shelley will mark a manuscript passage with a smiley face. Smiley faces mean “do more stuff like this. This little thing was worth the price of admission.”
An editor’s job, according to Shelley, is “eliminating the bad, so the good can be displayed to its advantage.”
Now, using the information from Shelley’s lecture and the knowledge gained from my own experience, I’d like to address four myths about editing.
Myth 1: Just cobble together a draft and send it off. Don’t worry about making your work perfect. That’s what editors are for.
Well, okay, there is a little grain of something real in here. Because you can never make your work perfect, right? But by God, that doesn’t mean that we writers shouldn’t give our absolute all and then some, before letting our work go out into the world. The harder we work on our manuscript, the more time we spend with it, the better we know it, the more ours it becomes in the end. Then, when your work lands in your editor’s hands (being good enough now for an editor or an agent to fall in love with it in the first place!), it will not be so fragile as to shatter under your editor’s suggestions.
Myth 2: Now that your manuscript is in the editor’s hands, your work is done. The editor will fix it all up you.
Ha! Editing a novel is a collaboration between the author and the editor. The editor marks up your manuscript, whether electronically, though track changes, or the old-fashioned way, on paper, like Shelley does. She will pepper your work with questions, wavy lines, cutting suggestions. It is then your job as a writer to take these and digest them, to really really think about them, to ask yourself a gazillion questions. What tripped her up about this passage? Why doesn’t she get what I am trying to do here? What if I did it this way instead? Would it help? It is your job as a writer to take your editor’s comments and run with them: to try and fail and bash your head against the keyboard a little, and try and fail and succeed.
Myth 3: An editor is a writer’s boss. You better do what she tells you.
Um, no. Let me say it again. Editing a novel is a collaborative process. You, the writer, is only human, and your editor is not a god, either.
“Do editors expect you to make every change suggested? No!” Shelley said.
On some occasions, a writer will know better what is true to her vision and what isn’t. And if the writer truly knows, a good editor will respect and even appreciate that. Just as writers sometimes have their writing mannerisms, editors often have their own editorial ticks, their own pet peeves or aversions. Someone might hate short, choppy paragraphs. Someone else might despise fragment sentences or foreign dialect. “Blanket aversions to anything are silly, and if you see that, you need to push back,” Shelley said.
Collaboration, remember? If you as a writer appreciate that an editor is on your side, on your team, the process will be that much more productive, not to mention, satisfying. As Shelley put it, “We are on the side of the reader, and so should the writer be.”
Editing a book is a marvelous, joyous, difficult, rewarding process for both the editor and the writer. First, make your book the best it can be on your own. Then, dive in with your partner, and go deep. That’s where the treasures are.
P.S. While we are on the subject of editing, I just have to share this link to an interview with my publisher, Stephen Roxburgh, about his editing process with Roald Dahl!: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/58194-gobsmacked.html
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