Friday, December 11, 2009


by Jim Woods

            Every writer needs an editor.  A qualification to that assertion: Every writer who expects or wants to be published, requires an editor in his corner.  And in using the “in your corner” metaphor, I don’t necessarily imply a supporter, although he/she certainly could be.  It’s more like the pugilist’s “cut man”– someone to stave the flow of blood, tape over the wounds, and shove you back into the ring when the bell sounds.
            The professional writers who may be reading this know what I will expound here, and are excused.  It’s you aspiring authors to whom this is addressed.
There are three stages of editing before publication, with the initial stage, self-editing, being perhaps the most important.  There was a golden time, I’m told, when the gift of story telling, in handwritten script, or composed on old-fashioned typewriter keys, was all that was necessary to sell a story or a book.  Someone from the publisher’s editorial staff who worked closely with the artist-writer coaxed the promising tale into publishable form.  Those good old days have joined the rest of ancient history.
Nowadays if the writer isn’t also the first-line editor, there may not be another reader except himself.  Well, of course the work will be read and no doubt appreciated by family and friends, but that’s not editing. I’ll return to that blasphemy later; we’re in the midst of self-editing.
            Editing your own is tough; I won’t kid you on that. It’s akin to looking critically at your own child and admitting to what the neighbors are whispering, “There’s something wrong with that kid!”  You have to take an objective look, and accept that his ears are too big.  Since all newborns are beautiful though, you have to make the critical appraisal a few days following the birth. 
With your manuscript, put it away for a week or two while you are off to other projects.  Then read it objectively.  Start by eliminating words. You can do it! Line through the words with a colored pen; hit the delete key.  Take it out!  Examine the copy word by word and take out all the words that really don’t have to be there.  Sure, this is going to slim down the manuscript; that’s part of what we’re after. Following that, look critically at each adjective.  Experiment with changes to them.  Make sure that each of them imparts exactly your intended characteristic to the noun it modifies.  Look at all the short, choppy sentences. Combine them.  Vary the sentence lengths and patterns.  Search out those favorite words that you have used twice in the same sentence and four times on every page.  Find a different word for ninety percent of them.  Rewrite! There is nothing sacred about a first, or second or third draft.  None of it is final until it goes to press, and mistakes found after the presses roll might as well be etched in stone; they are around forever.
            Going to press is pushing the schedule a bit for now though.  It’s time to turn the manuscript over to your editor.  Not your mother who’s an English teacher; not your daughter who’s a psychology major; not your fishing buddy who swears along with you about the giant bass that jumped off your hook.  Of course you are going to impose of friends and family to read your Great American Novel.  Of course they will shower you with accolades.  That’s what friends and family are for.  The frontispieces of first novels are filled with expressions of appreciation for all the readers who encouraged the authors.  The friends would be hurt if their names are not noted and the author would feel guilty for leaving someone out.
Technical and academic books are different.  The name listed as author usually is not the sole creator.  That author grants proper credit to those professional associates and research staff who gave aid in assembling the book.  Those acknowledgements may become résumé entries for those otherwise anonymous toilers behind the scene.  In your short story or novel it’s hardly necessary to name every friend who offered encouragement to your creative efforts, and your professional editor does not expect recognition there. 
            That editor may be a friend, or at least friendly, but more than likely you’ll see him/her as an adversary.  It’s not his job to stroke and soothe.  If fact he may be totally devoid of bedside manner.  You need someone who can get down to the business of editing, unencumbered by personal feeling for the author; however, it’s not his job to destruct simply because he has that power.  Let’s assume you have made your arrangement with him based on the recommendation of other professionals.  You probably will have had a personal consultation with him.  Once you have come to a professional and financial understanding, accept and act on his advice and criticism.  
            It is quite within the realm of possibility that your professional editor will return your manuscript with little criticism and only a few changes redlined in the margins.  Congratulations.  You do good work.   You obviously have paid attention in creative-writing classes and have studied the self-help writing/editing books.  However, just because your manuscript was not mutilated does not indicate that your editor didn’t read and analyze it.  Personally, when I find a manuscript page that doesn’t call for my red pen somewhere, I initial the page just to assure my client that indeed I have read it. I must say though, that few page get only my initials in the corner.
            Okay.  Review your editor’s corrections, make the ones you agree to or that the editor has convinced you should be made, and once again, re-write.  Now, does this mean automatically that the publisher of your choice will accept your story or novel without further change?  An emphatic No!  However, it does mean that the publisher may take the time to read the story through simply because it was professionally presented to him in the first place.  Let’s assume that it is accepted.  Now the staff editor gets his crack at it. 
            Your independent editor would not have known which publication or publisher would wind up with your creation. That eventual publisher may specify a different style guide than that used by your independent editor.  These style guides are decidedly similar, but different publishers and organizations hold differing opinions on word usage and punctuation.  As a writer myself, I once was exposed to a company editor whose first rule was that the word “albeit” was never to be used‒period! I probably would not have used it, albeit a proper word.  To satisfy the editor who authorizes the payment to you, you’ll just have to take out the “albeits.”
            That final editor and his staff also will do some fact checking if warranted, and the publisher’s legal expert will “edit” for libel, plagiarism, privacy invasion and copyright infringement opportunities.  Finally, the copy editor will check the spelling of every word, even though the author originally employed his computer spell-checker and the interim independent editor found those words spelled correctly but misused in the story’s structure.  The author may get the opportunity to incorporate the publisher’s corrections, but more than likely will be surprised at them once the story sees print. 
One time I “sold” (read “donated”) a short story to a Canadian anthology publisher.  I had been thorough with the pre-editing and the story had been passed-on by a second editor.  The setting was the southern region of the United States; the language proper for the time and locale.  In the publisher’s final editing, two or three of my carefully selected words and phrasings had been Anglicized, an alteration necessary for that publisher’s primarily north-of-the-border market.  If may not have destroyed my creation, but certainly sullied my story’s authentic Southern flavor.  The editor had the last word, as usual. 

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