Editing Tips for Editors

Several editing observations have come up over the last week.  I’m not sure they’re going to do anybody else any good, but at the very least it’ll help me process.  This is coming out kind of rough and mean, I think at least partially because I’m trying to beat myself into submission,  and if nothing else I find my (former?) personal bad habits more than a little irritating.  Sorry.  Maybe I could be tactful about this later.  Like in ten years or so.  Although really I expect by then to be repeating these points, only louder and more rudely, having almost completely forgotten I’ve previously bitched about them here.  C’est la vie.

There’s a difference between the editing that one does in a critique group and the editing that one does for a client.  The editing that one does for a client may not have ego to it.  What you like, as a reader, doesn’t mean anything.  Praise?  Criticism?  You have to do it in a critique group; it’s expected.  Clients shouldn’t have to care if they don’t want to.  Your opinion is a side comment, something that goes in a cover email (or doesn’t get said at all) and not in the document redlines, except on very rare occasions, and then only when it’s praise.  Do you understand what the author’s trying to do?  No?  Then don’t ask repeatedly in the manuscript.  If you dislike a character, then you can disliked them in the privacy of your own mind.  Not in the comments.  You’re getting paid for those comments; they better be a value-add.

Review your comments and remove every single one of them that you can.

Genre matters.  Audience matters.  Context matters.  If your client is writing pulp, don’t edit them like they’re writing literary.  You are responsible to know the difference and to avoid genres you don’t know well enough to edit.  Otherwise, you will just piss the author off, and they will speak ill of you to others.  If you dislike the work, remove yourself as gracefully as possible.

If you never, ever bitch about poor writing again it will still not be soon enough.  Whether you are bitching about a client in particular or “clients in general,” as an editor, you’re kind of like a confessor.  Keep your mouth shut.  If writers were perfect, they wouldn’t need editors.  On top of which, when editors are in editor mode, we’re assholes.  Every piece of writing has issues, even after having been edited.  Even ones edited by a professional editor.  The general public can bitch about typos.  Readers can bitch about typos.  An editor bitching about typos is just someone bragging up their editing skills.  Keep it in your pants or send a private email, buddy.

And just because you know how to write better than the writer does–even if it’s only in one technique or another–that doesn’t mean you get to try to improve the writer.  –I have a problem with this.  “Oh, let me helpfully teach you how to structure a scene.”  Especially in cases when I’m not being paid to do content editing.  This just gets frustrating on both parts, as more and more time gets sunk into a project, and someone ends up getting screwed.  Let the writer learn at their own pace and back the hell off.  So what if their descriptions could be better?  You might consider telling them once, tactfully, in a cover email.

Look it up.  Ha ha, yes, you’ve been editing for twenty years now, of course you know what you’re doing.  Look it up.

If you see a writer break a rule consistently, remove your redlines and comments about it, unless the rule-breaking may cause the author issues with their readers.  For example, a consistently misspelled word–don’t fix it, unless it’s obvious that it’s not a dialect or slang or some other intentional change.  If you’re feeling paranoid, you can flag it once and go back and fix it if the author says, “Ooh, that’s wrong, good catch.”  Otherwise you’re wasting the author’s time as they dejectedly “fix” a bunch of stuff, then realize they didn’t have to in the first place.  Even worse:  pretend that you’re right even though you’re violating the author’s intentions.

No more hardcopy copyediting.  Ever.  Again.  It’s a lot of work and prevents tact.

Every time you change or comment on something, you’re sucking up a little bit of the author’s willpower, even if it’s a good change/comment.  If you can point out one thing that covers many items–if you can put something tactfully into a cover email–if you can shoot a quick email question before you flag fifty things–then do it that way.  If you’re editing under another editor’s direction (or, in a small press, sometimes it’s the publisher’s direction), then talk to them first.  Don’t drain the writer.  They need to have the willpower to write more than you need to prove that you can spot errors.  Trust me, you’re not impressing anybody with even a lick of experience by bleeding all over the page.

Don’t change the writer’s punctuation scheme.  Yes.  That means you…and you…and you.  And often me.  Change it for clarity?  Yes, but only as  appropriate, and if the author doesn’t use the Harvard comma on a consistent basis, then you will spread your legs and take that extra comma for the team.  Deliberate run-on sentences?  Bite your tongue and think of England.


Writers:  There are editors that make you excited.  Stressed, but excited.  There are editors who leave you feeling drained and hurting with a stubbed toe of the mind (or worse).  Sometimes you can’t avoid the latter.  Some will improve a manuscript; others will pick it to pieces and suck the magic out.  Learning to be edited is its own skill.  You win some and you lose some.  If someone else is paying for your work, then you might need to lose a few in order to win the ones that are really important.  Lord knows I have.  But if you’re paying the editor?  You win.  You just always win.  And if the editor gives you attitude about that, then get another editor.

Again, let me apologize to any clients–past, current, and future–whose mental and creative toes I stub, in one way or another.   I am often wrong, cranky while editing, and arrogant.  But you win.  Always.  In the end, you win, and don’t let me tell you any different.  It just makes me a worse editor.


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