It’s Jacob Wonderbar week as I’m gearing up for the release of Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe! Stay tuned for prizes tomorrow and Thursday.
Whether you’re a writer or not, there’s a substantial likelihood that you will be called into service editing someone’s book. It may be a loved one, it may be a writing partner, it may be a sworn enemy. It probably won’t be a sworn enemy. (Though that would be the most fun, wouldn’t it?).
Whomever you are editing, follow these ten rules of law to be the best editor you can be.
1. Remember that it’s not your book – Your job as an editor is not to tell someone how you would have written their book. Your job is to help them write the book they want to write. This can’t be emphasized enough: It’s not your book. It’s not. Defer to the writer. Try to help them do what they’re trying to do. Work within the world they’ve constructed.
2. Find out what the author is looking for before you start editing – Are they wondering about a particular stretch? Are they hoping for a major edit? Are they not really looking for editing at all but for moral support? Make sure you have a sense of what the author wants and what their mindset is before you start editing and adjust your approach accordingly.
3. You’re not doing anyone favors by being too nice. – Here’s
what a writer wants to hear when someone is editing their work: “OMG
it’s perfect I love it!!!” Resist the temptation to tell them just that.
Your job is to help them make the work better, not to be a human rubber
stamp. There is a Major Exception to this commandment: When the writer
is looking for reassurance that they should keep going and is not really
looking for editing. In which case the appropriate reaction is “OMG
you’re brilliant I love it you should keep going!!” (If you followed commandment #2 you will have sniffed this out ahead of time.)
4. You’re not doing anyone favors by being a jerk either – When you are editing someone’s work you have their fragile, mercurial, reptilian writer brain in your hands. Do not crush it. Be gentle. Be polite. Suggest, don’t order. Ask questions, don’t assume.
5. Pointing out problem areas is far more helpful than offering solutions – While editing, it is inevitable that you will be struck by ideas about how someone else’s book could be better: What if he had feathers instead of hair?! What if this vampire twinkled rather than sparkled?! No. It’s okay to offer up some illustrative directions the writer could go to fix something that isn’t working, but ultimately the writer is the best equipped to come up with ideas for new directions. Your job is to spot what’s not working, not to rewrite.
6. Try to figure out why something isn’t working for you – There will be times where something about a scene just doesn’t seem right. But rather than thinking about how you would make a weak stretch better, try to figure out instead why it isn’t working for you. Is it implausible? Are the characters not being true to themselves? Does the scene lack space monkeys? Identifying the underlying issue can be invaluable for the author.
7. Just make it work – Throw out everything you learned in English classes. You’re not looking for what the book means, you’re not looking for symbolism, you’re not looking for theme. You’re looking for whether it works as a coherent story and whether the writer achieved what they were striving for. It’s about making it a good story, not about writing a paper on it.
8. Don’t overdo it – Tailor your edit notes to the amount of work that needs to be done. If you see major plot/structural issues, stick to detailing those, don’t get caught up in copyediting and line edits. If the plot feels mainly okay, focus on chapter-level issues. If most everything is in place, feel free to pick nits. There are two reasons for this approach: 1) You don’t want to overwhelm the author and 2) There’s no reason for spending a lot of time on line edits that are changing in a major revision anyway.
9. Remember that personal taste is personal – We humans can be too sure of our own viewpoints. We may hate things other people love and love things other people hate. Never be too sure of your opinions when editing; you may be the only person who feels that way. Be cautious when making suggestions and frame your thoughts as your own personal reaction rather than as a pronouncement from the editing gods.
10. Be Positive – Your job as an editor is not to crush someone’s spirit, even if you think their manuscript sucks. Your job is not to “tell them like it is” (telling them like it is is telling them how YOU see it). Your job is not to transform a mess into The Great Gatsby. Your job is to be helpful. Your job is to be supportive. Your job is to leave the manuscript and the writer in better shape than you found them. That is the essence of editing.
Escape Artist says
You know it's a fine line to walk. I was very involved with a crit partner, pages flowing back and forth. It was difficult not to 'take over.' I was itching to take the story somewhere else, veer off in another direction.
Can't do it! Resist the urge. You are so right. It's their story! Always respect that, and yeah, we all make mistakes along the way. Say too much, too little, but we do learn! I think I have anyway! : )
GREAT POST! Will be back to read more.
Just found your blog, and am now a a follower. But not in a binoculars and night-vision goggles sorta way. That you know of.
Neurotic Workaholic says
I think that fiction writing teachers who lead workshops should distribute your list to their students. When I took a fiction writing class for the first time back when I was only about 20 or so, I remember how negative and overly critical some of the other students were. I know that the stories I wrote back then weren't very good, but the fact that some of those students never gave anything but mean-spirited criticism was very discouraging. I even stopped writing for a while after that, but I couldn't stay away from writing for too long.
This is terrific.
When you were an agent, the main reason I was dying to work with you is your mad editing skills. You are a really gifted editor, and I think that comes not only from your writing talent, but from your insightful and empathic understanding of an editor's role.
Thank you for sharing that insight! And I hope someday, if it's something you'd enjoy, that you'll be in a place where you're sharing those skills again, because a really great editor is priceless! 🙂
M. K. Clarke says
Amazing stuff, Nathan! Shared with my critique group and solid points we could all learn from. Though, regarding point #5, whenever I'm stuck for a story/plot idea or direction to take a scene, brainstorming's the best thing I've ever engaged in. As usual, awesome points all. Thank you for sharing.
Bonnee Crawford says
Well this is sure useful for me, especially since it's the sort of business I'd like to end up doing for the rest of my life. I agree with these rules here, being positive, refraining from giving bias opinions, etc… thanks for sharing 🙂
Good advice. Thanks for sharing it. How long have you been an editor and what is your favorite part of the job?
Joseph Ramirez says
Fantastic. This is how I will build my critiquing in all my spheres of influence. Bravo.
Sher A. Hart says
Since I'm starting a new SCBWI critique group for my county which has never had a children's writers' group before, I may send the members this link. One woman already posted on her blog how scared she was. I don't want her to be scared. I still remember how scared I was at my first meeting. I found a group that included the Wicked Witch of critics. Lucky for me, Prince Charming attended that day.
Oh, no, captchas! I can't read them so I got rid of mine, and not a single spam has made it through to my blog since. I see the emails so I know they're trying.
Aaah, if only I knew then what I know now. Thanks, Nathan. 🙂
I enjoy editing but I like it even better when a good editor works on my writing. I have a story in an anthology about NYC and the editor reduced the length of my story considerably but what she did was exceptional. It was as if she extracted a vein and set it out perfectly. I regard it as a privilege when my work is in the hands of a great editor.
Great list, Nathan! Your points #5-7 are particularly brilliant and very true in my experience. Congrats on your launch week!
Andrew Leon says
This is the best post I've seen by you.
Robena Grant says
And the last two sentences say it all. I love this. Thank you.
Rachel Neumeier says
Thanks, Nathan! That'll be so useful for the workshop I agreed to help with later this year. I was really keeping an eye out for a post with this kind of advice!
Daniel McNeet says
I believe the hardest part of having your work edited is: finding a good editor for your genre. Not easy to do.
Good post, thank you.
Nathan, thanks once again for a great post.
As an author, and sometime editor, let me suggest to all authors who would like their work critted by another sentient being: apropos of number two, make it clear what you're looking for in the edit; don't leave it up to the mental vibes rising from the pages (or screen) to carry that information to the editor.
Space monkeys rule! (Now to fit them back into my YA adventure…)
Allie B says
Well said! I've been struggling with this in my own Writing Group because I don't really know how to separate myself from what I'm reading. It gets easier each time and I am learning so much about writing in general. I think, just like writing, good critiquing comes from practice.
I also disagree with Rule 5 (Pointing out problem areas is much more useful than offering solutions). As an example, one friend I edit for specifically commented that she liked my editing because I didn’t just pick up the errors, but I suggested ways for her to make it better.
So, I suppose that there are times where Rule 9 (Remember that personal taste is personal) might conflict with the others, but if I’ve followed Rule 2 (Find out what the author is looking for), then we will both be on the same page anyway.
Best editing results I've seen for blog posts, business reports, and student essays (on subjects ranging from China's "one child" policy to the Black Eyed Peas) have been from http://www.kibin.com. A very deep and talented pool of professionals and terrific value. Those looking to have work edited should make themselves familiar with Kibin.
Red Tash says
Thank you for saying this!!!!!
Mirka Breen says
Your first point is my 'editing bible,' and something I have floating in the ticker-tape in front of me as I critique.
An editor who rearranges words and thinks it's fine to ignore that thing called 'voice' is worse than none.
And all the rest of your points are solid too. This comment thread is filled with folks who wish they had you back when you did that agenting gig. Good luck, Author!
Daisy Carter says
Thanks for this excellent post – I need to keep ALL of these in mind as I critique/edit. New follower!
Anna Fani says
I concur fully!
This is a great list of important truths. I am a professional editor, and I agree with every point. The ultimate goal of what I do is to connect the writer and reader together. Numbers five and six are the nuggets in making that happen… what doesn't work and why (why won't the reader connect here).
Based on what I find out in number two, I will either offer suggestions (it's ultimately up to the writer to solve the issue) or just pose the "why" for what isn't working.
Great article! Thanks!
Excellent post, Nathan! I appreciate your selflessness in sharing everything you have learnt. You have one more regular visitor and fan in me.
Sue Nelko Carr says
Excellent post. I will definitely share these tips with my fellow writers and editors.
All good points, but remember, you can't shine a sneaker.