Saturday, April 28, 2012

Editors - What They Are & What They're Not

Having just signed a contract with Musa Publishing for an ebook, I’m looking forward to another editorial session.  Not a lot of it, this time, since the story’s only around twelve thousand words, but knowing something of the company, I expect it to be thorough.  So I thought this would be a good time to talk about some of the common misconceptions of the editorial process.

Ideas about editors go all the way from believing they’re an optional extra to assuming they’re there to fix all the problems the author should be paying attention to.

So, first: no, the editor’s job isn’t to fix all your typos, poor grammar and random punctuation.  Of course, an author who chooses to hire a freelance editor can ask them to do anything they want, but that’s still not a good reason for doing it that way.  Language is a writer’s main tool, and expecting someone else to fix it is like a musician relying on the producer to edit the bum notes out of their recordings.  You might get away with it, but you’re still faking it.

As for a publisher’s editor, unless you’re a celebrity, your uncorrected text won’t even make it as far as being edited.  The editor’s job is to work with the author to put a polish to the nth degree on the work, not to do half the author’s job.

Nor is the editor’s job to rewrite your precious work and force you to accept the new version.  A good editor may sometimes suggest a particular rewording for a phrase or sentence, but the feedback will more normally be something like, “This doesn’t read smoothly.  Can you rephrase it, bearing X and Y in mind?”

The author doesn’t have to accept the editor’s recommendation, but is obliged to take it seriously.  There have been times I’ve disagreed with what an editor has said, and I’ve explained why it needs to be that way, which editors will usually accept.  Or else I’ve accepted why they don’t like my version, but haven’t agreed with the suggested alternative and have rephrased it in a different way.

On occasion, an editor will suggest a more radical change, even to the extent of adding an entire scene.  That happened to me on one occasion.  My first reaction was huh?  My second was to go for a walk and think about it, and I came up with a way to approach the change.  I wrote the extra scene, and the story was immeasurably better for it.

A professional editor is something most authors don’t encounter at any other stage of the creative process.  Every one of the pieces I’ve had edited have been revised, polished, beta-read (often by several people) and revised and polished again, but there’s always plenty for the editor to pick out for improvement.  The editor is professional and disinterested (yes, I know – go and look the word up in a good dictionary).  They’ll hopefully be enthusiastic about producing as polished a final product as possible, but they’re not your mother, your best friend, or even your dog.  They’re going to be frank, based on a wide knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, about what’s in front of them.

And this is one of the main drawbacks of the current self-publishing craze.  There’s nothing actually wrong with self-publishing, as long as it’s done properly, which includes using a professional editor.  The problem is, of course, that this (like hiring a professional artist/designer for the cover) can be expensive, and the vast temptation is to skip that stage.  The result is an avalanche of self-published books which, even if they’re worthy of being published in the first place (by no means all are), are put out half prepared, with all the clumsiness that an editor would help to smooth out.

None of this is any reflection on the author, any more than a musician would feel belittled to need a producer, or at least a recording engineer.  Not only are the author’s and editor’s talents fundamentally different, but few, if any, authors can achieve enough impartiality about their work to see what a good editor will see. 

Personally, I have a reasonably good opinion of my ability to polish my work, but I’d be extremely reluctant to allow anything longer than a short story to be published without having been through the editorial process.  I’m looking forward to working with Musa’s editor.

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