Editorial Review

F:SEOAfterTheFirstDraftAfterTheFirstDraftCoverwithConfusedPerIn addition to writing my own fiction and essays, I also take on a variety of editorial work. Recently, a first-time novelist hired me to read her first draft.

It was good, and I told her so. I congratulated her on writing it all the way through to the end.

She said she was so sick of it, she wasn’t sure she’d go back and revise it, but still wanted me to read it with the hope that she’d learn something for her next attempt.

I told her being sick of a first draft is pretty normal, and the best thing she could do was get it off her desk for a while. That is, get it off her desk without making the mistake of sending it out to agents or editors. It’s rare that any first draft is ready for that. Most first drafts, in fact, are really messy instructions for writing a story. Often, inviting an outside reader to comment on a draft can help an author see her own work with greater clarity and renewed enthusiasm for revision.

The first-time novelist and I negotiated a contract that spelled out what kind of review she was looking for and what I needed to be paid. We both compromised with a deal we could both live with. She sent me a hard copy of her book in the mail.

I read the typescript, writing most of my notes on the time sheet I use to keep track of my hours on the job. I made a few notes in the margins of the typescript itself – the teacher in me just couldn’t help herself – but I knew that neither of us could afford that level of critique. We’d agreed to an hourly rate with a global cap, so I had to use my time efficiently. Besides, this writer was competent, so I confined my marginal notes to praising excellence and asking questions where I didn’t follow or buy in to the story.

I read the book carefully, and I thought about it a long time before I sat down and typed up four single-spaced pages of notes. I have a formula for these notes, which always start with a single-paragraph synopsis of the story. This tells the author what a careful reader thinks the book was about; any differences from what the author thinks the book is about is important information. This is always a genuinely upbeat paragraph that models the sort of synopsis that becomes part of a pitch when the revised work is ready to send out.

Next comes praise – lots of it and in detail. I enumerate all the things in the book that I liked, that I thought worked well, found funny/poignant/effective, and I do this in the language of the craft, commenting on effective characterization, setting, dialogue, exposition, plot, diction, etc.

Finally, I point out the places where I lost the thread of the story, didn’t understand what was happening or what the motivation was for a particular character’s action or speech. I point out inconsistencies of chronology, repetitions, gaps. By couching all my comments in terms of effectiveness, I’m really teaching narrative craft and not “giving a critique”.

In fact, I don’t think of this process as critiquing at all. Critiquing is loaded with “what’s wrong,” which I don’t feel is either helpful or fair. Who’s to say what’s right or wrong in narrative art? Instead, I think of this entire process as a learning experience – and encouragement to revise.

By showing the author where I stopped believing in a character and explaining why it didn’t work for me, I’m giving her the honest opinion of one single reader. Granted, I’m a skilled reader, but I’m also a middle-aged, middle-class, white woman living in the rural northeast. She may have another demographic in mind for her audience. All I can do is hold a mirror up to the work and let her decide what to do with what she sees.

After finishing my notes, I think some more. I ask myself, “What are the three most important things I can tell this author about this work?” When I have an answer, I write a cover letter that raises three Big Issues to consider. In this instance, I suggested the author think about selectivity (what to include and – equally important – what to leave out), subordination (giving more weight to what’s important and less to what’s less so), and audience (what can she assume the audience knows and what does she have to explain?).

Finally, I tally up my time and write an invoice.

I receive much more than just a fee for this work. I get to see a book under development – something akin to a prenatal sonogram; seeing someone else’s imagination at work is just as awe-inspiring and amazing. I also learn from others’ work, even when it is rough. And I make a connection to another writer – another solitary storyteller out there in the universe attempting to do this important work that glues our civilization together.

photo: M. Shafer

photo: M. Shafer

Deborah Lee Luskin is the award-winning author of Into the Wilderness.

18 thoughts on “Editorial Review

  1. Reblogged this on Live, Love, Laugh, Dance, Pray and commented:
    This is a great post about the process of being an effective and efficient editor, which is something I strive for each time I edit. I intern at the Student Veterans’ Center of FSU as an editing intern, and one such job I do is edit students’ papers. I love doing this because I love to edit, and I love to see that “ah-hah!” moment when the idea clicks, and the creative juices flow. Recently, I came in contact with an inspiring author who is working on a book. He has sent me fragments here and there, asking for my opinion, and he has talked to me about publishing. I’ve mentioned self-publishing because it seems legitimate to me, though I’ve never published before. We have discussed the possibility of hire for me to edit and review his work, which has me really excited, but it hasn’t really gone anywhere. I guess, I’m curious as to what to do to approach this situation? I would love the opportunity to help out, and get some more practice. As a student who will soon be a young professional, experience is everything to me. I would love this opportunity. Any thoughts?
    I want to see this opportunity take off so that I can move forward with my skill. This is something I have worked on all my life, and would love to carry it over into my workspace, perhaps creating a new workspace for myself from it. How do I start? Do I need prior experience with, say, a newspaper,or something along those lines? I know many of you guys are professionals. What did you do to get started?

    • Hi Shannon,
      Thanks for your comment and for reblogging this post.
      I’ve been at this for over thirty years, and I can’t tell you exactly when I “got started” – but I think it was similar to your beginning. I tutored at a writing center, then I taught Freshman Composition and advanced rhetoric. At the same time, I was always writing and always having my work read and reviewed. From my teaching experience and study of literature, I learned what was effective writing; from my writing experience, I learned what was effective editing. I can’t remember my first editing jobs. I do know I started in a peer group, where we all read and reviewed each others’ work, which was a great experience. Eventually, someone must have asked me to read their work and I agreed to do it for pay. Many writers are reluctant to pay upfront for professional editing, which is too bad, because they pay for it in poorly developed books which, these days of automatic self-publishing, are all too easy to put out prematurely. And some writers don’t really want editing; they just want praise. I’ve learned over time to find out in advance what a writer is seeking from me, and I have a process of vetting my clients before taking them on, which increases both my success rate and my clients’ satisfaction.
      Hope this helps. – Deborah.

      • Thank you, Deborah! This is more than helpful! That’s kind of like my situation right now. I’m going into my senior year in college as an Editing, Writing, and Media major at FSU, and have had all these opportunities to edit through my internship, as well as, peer edit. The way the writing center works here on campus is that you have to take a semester long class in order to be considered for student hire, which is great, except that I’m graduating soon, so I can’t do that. Ha ha! That’s why I’m trying to venture out on my own. I don’t charge the student veterans because they are related to my work and because I support the military so much, but I have tried posting on Facebook about editing student papers for about $5 a page or something around that area. I’m not sure if this is too pricey or if I’m being ridiculous because there is a writing center on campus. What I have experienced with the writing services on campus is that they will edit and correct, but don’t help plan, which is something I offer as well. Any thoughts?

  2. It is fun to be apart of the process – especially if you can see the end result is going to be good.
    Feedback is critical – you sound like a master. Sometimes it’s hard for an author to read feedback and see it’s meant to be helpful and to make the work stronger. Presenting that information is a real skill
    I love the “after finishing my notes” paragraph – realistic and helpful for an author.

  3. Very informative insight… Thank you for sharing..
    My fee for further review will be forthcoming.. LoL
    (sorry.. couldn’t resist… just the little boy in me..) 🙂

  4. Sounds like I would have benefitted a lot by working with you on my first book. I did use an editor, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. When I finish the sequel to TRUTHS BLOOD, I think maybe we should talk.

  5. wow! thank you for this great post. Up until the part about an Invoice, this offers me a ton of relatable tips for reviewing my sixth-grader’s work. I’m serious! I home school her, and struggle a bit in editing and guiding her through the creative process and grabbing her readers’ attention. I don’t take this responsibility lightly, but it can be tricky instructing a Highly Distracted, (ADD) easily bored student. Thank you for sharing!

    • I’m glad you found this helpful – and can apply it to teaching a sixth grader. My kids (college grads, in the working world) still send me their work to review, which I do with great joy (and no charge).
      Thanks for reading the blog. -Deborah.

  6. Nice to see there are editors who care about the true feelings of 1st time writers. It’s no my 1st but my 3rd and never before I felt so puzzled, frightened and uncertain of my skill. A pity you (and your language) are so faraway from me (Spain)

  7. Pingback: Editorial Review | Mujerárbol Nueva

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