What does your editor do? Will they rip apart your book? Will it hurt? If there are typos in the book, is the editor to blame? What are all these different kinds of edits? The editor’s role is often misunderstood – from thinking that’s the person who fixes the commas and typos, to characterising them as vicious monsters who make authors cry.
At the FantasyCon convention in York in September 2014, five editors got together to explain what they really do and how this traditionally fraught relationship can be the best collaboration ever. While these are fiction editors, the process and relationship is the same for non-fiction – so here’s the low down, from five horses’ mouths: Simon Spanton (moderator, Gollancz), Nicola Budd (Jo Fletcher Books), Abigail Nathan (Bothersome Words), Gillian Redfearn (Gollancz), David Moore (Abaddon Books)
The first thing to clarify is the difference between a structural edit and a copy edit. A copy edit is what most people think of when they hear “editor” – going through line by line, fixing little things, the final step before the book is proofread. A structural edit, though, is where the work starts: the big stuff. Gillian Redfearn outlines the usual order of events. First, she reads the manuscript, works out her thoughts of what might need to change, and then talks to the author, ideally in person, to see if they’re in agreement so far. She’ll then do a structural edit, looking at which parts need to be be developed, cut back, or rearranged so that the book will work for the reader. The author weeps for months, then does the work, and sends it back. (She’s being tongue-in-cheek here – the real nature of that editor-author relationship becomes clearer as the discussion progresses, but receiving this kind of detailed constructive criticism can be hard to digest, initially. In my process, this first step is an editorial critique.) She’ll then do a detailed line-edit of the manuscript – that’s reading through it, line by line, to check that the wonderful vision has been successfully transferred onto the actual page for the reader. Finally, it’ll get a copy-edit, to check that everything makes sense. (There are further stages after this, as Nicola Budd flags up, such as proofreading, but that’s rarely done by the editor.)
David Moore picks up on her repeated references to the reader: the editor, he says, is the first reader, and stands in for a variety of readers. This process can be difficult for the writer, says Abigail Nathan, “but actually we’re making sure the reader has the experience you intended.”
The purpose of editing, according to Redfearn, is helping make sure that the book is the best it can possibly be, so that you’re still as proud of it in ten years’ time as you were when you finished it. What’s more, it makes sure that anything the reviewers slate has at least already been considered. If further flaws are found in the book, the editor has failed. Moore compares it to sculpting – sculptors talk of knowing the statue is there and taking away all the other parts. It’s uncomfortable to think of your manuscript as a lump of untouched stone, but then we all want to think our finished books are perfect, and actually it’s the editor’s job to disabuse us of that notion and then make them so.
Given these references to how hard this stage might be for the author, what happens when the collaborative process breaks down? With self-published work, which Abigail Nathan partly works on, there is no go-between: the person paying you is the person you’re giving difficult feedback to. She will remind her writers, though, that they’re not paying her to be nice. Moore finds that most authors are happy to receive edits and also finds the “shit sandwich” approach handy. He describes this as sandwiching “what you want to say” with niceness. This phrasing, I think, risks dismissing “niceness” as insincere, or unnecessary, and I strongly believe that positive feedback is valuable for more than emotional succour: the writer doesn’t necessarily know what’s working well and does need to hear. That said, I can see an editor with his fix-it hat on wanting to get straight down to the changes needed. Simon Spanton comments that it’s important to let the author know when they’ve been brilliant and Moore says that as editors, “we do have to remember to wind our own ego in sometimes” – sometimes, you just need to trust the author. To manage the process well, Nathan relies on lots of communication and Budd finds it helps to do that face to face if possible. Redfearn relates the story of one total breakdown. The edited book was fundamentally broken and the author wasn’t prepared to make the changes. Well, if that happens, it is the author’s book – it’s always the author’s book – but she didn’t publish it. The project broke down, but the relationship didn’t: she kept the relationship with the author and is now publishing her next book.
Most of the editors would avoid doing a rewrite in their editing. If there are major issues with the prose, Redfearn raises that in a structural edit, but says the author needs to do that work, not the editor. In line edits, which are slightly less invasive, Budd is learning the extent of what you can do – more than she’d realised. Nathan prefers to offer queries and suggestions rather than rewrite stuff herself, as otherwise it’s not their book anymore – and as Budd points out, the author often has better solutions. Perhaps, Spanton says, it’s the editor’s job to find the problem and the author’s job to find the solution. Moore gives a few examples of the kind of things that need rewriting – sometimes a particular beloved image or phrase has led an entire sentence into a rock, or the author’s clumsily avoiding repetition. When you find these knots, says Nathan, it’s often helpful to ask the author why. Once that’s clear, often a small tweak will resolve it.
The next stage is the copy edit – a somewhat clouded phrase, because as Nathan points out, the exact definition of that depends on where you’re from. She sees it as sitting halfway between a structural edit (large-scale reorganisation) and line-edit (the final bit before proofreading), and as we’ve already heard, Redfearn uses those two terms inversely. Call it what you will – I’d call it a style edit – this is what most people think of as editing. It does look at the structure, but not as much as a structural edit; it’s closer in, and also considers the flow and sense of the page, the paragraphs, moving paragraphs around where necessary, the grammar. At this stage house style also comes in. Redfearn briefly explains what this is. In punctuation, spelling, and grammar, some things are simply right or wrong. And then there’s the optional stuff. Realise or realize? . . . or …? “Double quote marks?” ‘Or single quote marks?’ Do you dash—like this? Or do you – like me – prefer this? Is that OK or okay? For all this, there’s house style. The publishing house decides which option it’s going to go for and then all the books use that system. (Although the editor will start putting this in place, final responsibility for this lies with the proofreader. The editor is concentrating on larger-scale things!)
Practically speaking, each editor has their preferred working method. Moore likes to do a digital edit, with the manuscript in Microsoft Word. He standardises the format, tracks changes, and inserts comments. The author can then accept or reject the changes and add their own comments – the document becomes the conversation. Redfearn does either paper or digital edits, according to the author’s preference. If it’s a sensitive edit, though, paper is easier – it feels less drastic to the author and they retain a sense of control. In that case, she prints it out double-sided with 1.5 line spacing and binds it up.
If the book is fantastic – which by now it should be – there’s always a danger of getting caught up in reading it, and forgetting to edit. Budd avoids this by doing a read-through first, then editing, then doing a quick check at the end. Redfearn agrees that the quick check is vital: sometimes you were wrong in a particular choice or change your mind. Moore comments that he revisits it after a break, and also finds he’s changed his mind on some things. Also, if he gets through half a page with no notes, that’s a warning sign that he’s slipping into simply reading. That first read-through has uses beyond just helping you concentrate in the edit, says Nathan – your hind-brain picks up on stuff even though you’re focusing on just reading.
Finally, to wrap it up, the editors each listed an editing dream or nightmare. Redfearn’s nightmare is an unhappy author. It makes working with them a living hell – it makes it so hard to generate enthusiasm for the work in meetings, when you’re trying to excite the room and watching people wilt. It knocks you personally and knocks you off your game. It means you and the author haven’t worked something out and that needs to be resolved. Budd’s editing dream, she says wryly, is an author who considers all her points and agrees with everything! More realistically, though, a dream situation is one of peaceful, good communication.
“Are you saying editors are human?!” asks Spanton.
“God, no! We’re divine!”
Moore’s dream situation is building up a really good relationship with the author and feeling appreciated. He smiles humbly yet beatifically, and adds “I’ve done a really good job of killing and skinning a human and wearing it like a suit.”
Most discussions about editing paint it as a kind of brutal attack that the author has to withstand – or misunderstand editing as some kind of glorified spell check. As these five editors make clear, there is so much more to it and it is so much more supportive: it’s a brilliant collaboration with someone who loves your book every bit as much as you do.