As with most of the rest of my life, I have several ways I approach writing. I blog. I write grant proposals. I write fiction, both short and long. I write emails. All the same writer, all different skill sets. In some of these areas, I am comfortable with being my own editor. But with others, particularly those which are going to get some public airing, I need an editor, and a proof reader. And I understand more and more that these are not the same function, nor are they likely the same person.
In my non-fiction life, I need proof readers so that my reader doesn’t get sidetracked by an error that could discredit my work. Are the margins right, font size and type appropriate? How is the grammar? Am I making my point clearly? In these circumstances, I have editors who help me hone my message. Though I am invested in the work, the investment isn’t emotional, and my list of editors is fairly extensive.
When I started writing fiction, I frequently confused the role of editor and proof reader. Often they are combined into one person, though that isn’t always wise. They are very different skill sets, and it is important to know what you are asking of each. And to appreciate that the same person can not necessarily fill both roles.
A proof reader will check for grammar, argue about comma usuage, flag spelling, help you see duplicate word use, and give you the adverb conversation (ie, don’t use them). All important tools when you are cleaning up your work.
An editor responds to your work, and lets you know what works. And what doesn’t. This feedback can either be empowering, or gutting. As you become a more seasoned writer, you understand that you need this feedback. But you also understand that you should be very careful about who you trust to give it to you.
I recently worked on piece of fiction that had a very tight deadline. While I work well with deadlines, my process typically means that I write my way into a story. It is not uncommon for me to discard my first three chapters several times. Without that time, the process got messy. I had a friend editing the three drafts, all of which differed greatly. Our work together helped me shape a piece I was happy to pass on. And I learned a few things, mostly due to her expertise.
- A good editor needs context. I was trying to get the first three chapters of a novel done, but my editor needed to know about the arc of the story so she could see if the set up worked.
- A good editor is able to walk the fine line between letting you do the writing, and telling you when the story isn’t working. My editor never said “this is bad”. She did say “this works better” or “this is so much clearer”.
- A good editor points out the problems. Timing issues in the plot are a big one, particularly when you are cutting and pasting between vastly different drafts. Inconsistencies regarding props (“in this version, she didn’t stop for dinner, so she wouldn’t have a food bag”) that make you feel like an idiot for not noticing. But these sorts of errors can take a reader out of a story, and so attention must be paid.
- A good editor asks the bigger questions, either in a comment or a separate page of notes, that make you stop and really think. The hardest part about writing is getting your ideas, which are so clear and clean in your head, on the page. If it isn’t working for a reader, then you haven’t done your job. An editor asks questions, but doesn’t supply answers, at least not right away.
- A good editor supports you. She may give you tough love, but she gives you support.
Everyone needs another set of eyes on her work before it goes into the world. So assemble your team. Where to find them? Several of my blog mates here at LTW/WTL offer professional writing services, and that may be a good place to start. Or find a writers group you trust, and who give you good feedback. (MUCH easier sad then done.) Trust your gut, and keep your ego out of the decision making process.
I wonder what other pieces of advice you have about the editing process, or finding a good editor?
J.A. Hennrikus is the Executive Director of StageSource. She has had short stories published in Level Best Books anthologies: “Her Wish” in Dead Calm, “Tag, You’re Dead” in Thin Ice, “The Pendulum Swings, Until It Doesn’t” in Blood Moon. She is a huge social media fan, and tweets under@JulieHennrikus. She wrestles with allusions of athleticism, is an avid theatre goer and a proud member of Red Sox nation. Her website is jahennrikus.com. Julie is a member of Sisters in Crime and the Guppies. She is the current President of the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime.