An editor serves two masters: the author and the reader. My role as editor is to make sure that the story goes direct from the writer’s mind to the reader’s.
The difficulty for an author is getting the perspective of the reader. The author knows the world she is writing about. She knows what she means. She knows the message she is trying to pass on to the reader through her story. Getting enough distance from her own manuscript to see where she has not made these things clear to the reader is tricky. The editor is there to be the eyes of the reader on the author’s behalf, to make sure that the reader is able to stay completely immersed in the story throughout their read. As editor, I want the reader to be absolutely unaware of the mechanics of the storytelling. (Of course, there are books where the mechanics are part of the purpose of the work, but those are not the type of books I edit.)
What does this mean? It means that I am looking for places in the text where something jars: too much, too little, too fast, too slow, too mannered, too unbelievable.
Where I’m getting bored.
Where I’m confused.
Where there’s too much information coming at me.
Where something doesn’t make sense.
Where I find something impossible to believe.
Where something makes no sense.
Where a character behaves in an uncharacteristic way.
Where the dialogue is unrealistic.
Where dialogue goes on too long without indication of who is speaking so that I have to go back and check.
When a character comes in and I have to check back to find out who he is.
When the story has too few or too many peaks and troughs or the scale of them doesn’t vary.
When something in the story serves no purpose.
When the threads fail to tie up in a satisfying way in the end.
When the ends that tie up in the end cannot be traced back right through the book.
When factual information is incorrect.
When the grammar and spelling are incorrect.
When the language doesn’t flow or there is overuse of particular words or turns of phrase or sentence structure.
When the tone of the piece is incoherent.
When something is too obvious or too clichéd or too bland.
The difficult part of editing, in my opinion, is remembering that this is NOT my book. It’s not going to be the story I would have written and I’m not looking to make it that either in terms of the plot or of the language. When I make changes to the words themselves, I do it with ‘track changes’ on in Word so that the author can see exactly what I’ve done and if she decides to solve the problem I’m addressing a different way, she can easily do so. When I’m commenting on a plot point, I try to explain why I think it’s a problem. Ideally I try to ask questions that will lead the author to find her own solution or give a couple of possible solutions, though I have to admit that I do fall back on ‘I’d do it this way’ more than I should because I hate to flag up a problem without indicating some way out of it. The author has enough to think about when the edits come back without being given bland ‘this doesn’t work’ statements.
And that brings me to the key thing.
The author has spent hours on this piece of work, maybe even days or years. It’s precious to them and they are looking to me to help them show it to the world in its best light. There are occasional moments when an author will find a ‘Bleugh!” all by itself in my comments, but only ever at points where the briefest look will show her that she’s been sloppy or obvious or clichéd. My hope is that my authors – after the initial ‘oh no! Look at all this stuff she wants me to do’ – will look at my comments and changes and see the path from their mind to the reader’s mind more clearly.
And now and then, because it’s important, I’ll do this: