Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Thoughts Regarding Editing (and Editors)

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While continuing to recover from the latest sinus infection (nastier than most), I thought I’d blog about something I know a great deal about: editing, and editors.

See, some writers tend to think that editors “have it in” for them.  That couldn’t be further from the truth, but you wouldn’t know it by what little tends to get said about editors — most of it being unflattering in the extreme.

Editors work hard to make sure manuscripts make as much sense as they possibly can before they get turned in.  This can mean anything from fixing minor errors to asking questions about important plot points — though some places split the editing job up into three parts (proofreading, copy editing, and “straight editing,” the latter being more about the “macro-edit” of any given piece, while the first two deal with the more mundane particulars), other places don’t.  I tend to call all three things “editing” even though if I’m asked merely to proofread, I don’t tend to bring my skills of “macro-editing” (looking at the piece of writing overall as a gestalt, then trying to improve it to the best piece of writing of which I can conceive), while if I’m being asked to copy-edit, it’s more likely that the “macro-edit” has been done by someone else.

But because all three of these things can be called for on one job (this happens quite often with one of the places I regularly edit for), it helps to get the particulars of any given job narrowed down.  Do not feel silly if you ask questions, because without being willing to look silly at times, you cannot learn.

All that being said, editors often have last-minute changes from a writer (or, in the case of an anthology, writers) to incorporate.  Sometimes, these changes come in after the layout process has started; that can be a particular challenge, one that makes you want to tear your hair out as an editor, but seems to be par for the course in our new, hyped-up digital age.  Writers expect editors to just “go with the flow” and mostly, we do — but when we perform heroic actions to get a book to market despite delays on the writing end, it can get old.

So the next time you think about your editor (or editors), try to remember that editing skills are every bit as important as those a writer employs — and that many editors (if not most) are (or were) writers first.  Editors have a really good understanding of what makes a writer tick, and we’re completely uninterested in stopping the creative process cold — what questions we ask are meant to spur something from you, the writer, that may not be in your manuscript as it stands but that you, the writer, may have thought was there.  In short, editors are there to help you, and most if not all will work with you to improve your manuscript because any editor being employed has the best interests of the manuscript (story, novel, you name it) at heart.  Period.

So if you were one of those I referenced above who thought that editors were “out to get you,” please do yourself a favor and think again.  Because refusing to work with editors is not only counterproductive, it’s unprofessional, and will mark you out as a neophyte sooner than just about anything else.  So do yourself a favor, and work with your editor rather than insisting your manuscript is so wonderful it needs no oversight whatsoever.  (Please?)


Edited to add:  My late husband Michael was one of the best editors I’ve ever been around.  I learned a great deal from him — what to do, what not to do — and it improved my writing immensely because I listened to him and didn’t automatically throw his suggestions out.  I knew Michael was more accomplished than I was when I first started showing him my work — this was before we started dating, much less got married, mind — and from the beginning I was impressed by the depth and breadth of his knowledge and expertise.

You see, editing does not need to be a “zero sum game.”  You don’t need “scorched earth tactics” to get the point across; you can instead use wit and humor, which is what Michael did with anyone he ever edited for — and it worked amazingly well.

Me, I am much more blunt than Michael ever was.  But I try to use some humor as well as pointing out the good points of a manuscript when I edit; this is my ideal.  But when time is short, sometimes the good points don’t get discussed — and that’s when writers get frustrated.

I can see any individual writer’s point, for the most part; he or she has worked very hard on a manuscript (whether it’s a story, novelette, novel, etc.) and here comes Ms. Editor to mark it all up in red.  Then there are the balloons to the side if you’re using MS Word, and if you don’t see any words of encouragement from Ms. Editor, it can seem extremely disheartening and make writers go, “Now, why did I take up this profession again?”

But you must persevere and listen to your editor.  If you have questions regarding an edit, ask your editor — I can’t say this often enough.  Most if not all of us are glad to explain what we’re asking for — we may do it in a blunt way if we’re pressed for time, but we will explain it, and we will not be rude.  (There’s a big difference between “rude” and “blunt.”)

Remember what my late husband Michael did, if you’re editing and can employ this strategy.  It’s not only good manners, but it makes the maximum amount of sense — approaching someone’s manuscript gently, if you have enough time that you can do so, is almost assuredly the best way to go.  (But even Michael, if he were pressed for time, would not explain as much or crack as many jokes during the explanation of his edit.  Because that’s the nature of the job; you need to first get everything taken care of, then you can frame it a little bit so the writer can understand.  But without first taking care of all of the problems, framing is impossible . . . does this make sense?)

Written by Barb Caffrey

December 5, 2011 at 8:16 pm

4 Responses

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  1. While I’ve never had anything looked at by a professional editor before, I’ve always considered criticism of my work in one way – It will make the story better. If someone really was out to sabotage me, it would be better for them to not critique me at all – because I’m not going to take any advice if I think it ruins the story. I wouldn’t take advice from Verne and Tolkien themselves if I thought it wasn’t going to work. (Maybe I’m just pretentious.) When someone gives me feedback, it means they have taken the time to read though my work, think about it, and offer ideas to help make it better. That alone, for me, is proof they are not ‘out to get me’. Whether I agree with their ideas or not (and sometimes I don’t,) it’s a huge compliment that they care enough to spend time on me. I suppose that changes a little when I’m paying, but a person’s decision to become an editor in the first place is proof to how much they care – especially considering the hate they must get.

    I’m confident my first experience with a professional editor will be a positive one, But I have to make my work the best I can make it by myself first.


    December 5, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    • Ben, you have the right attitude. I think that’s exactly what you need to do.

      Mind, there’s a good story here that might interest you. Larry Niven, I believe, had a story called “Inconstant Moon” that won a major award — the Hugo, I think it was — and yet, before his story was picked up and bought, much less won the award, he’d received criticism by industry heavy hitter Ben Bova (then a major editor at one of the leading SF magazines). Niven threw it to the side, sent his story back out, and it was picked up, won the award, etc.

      Years later, Niven looked at the critique. Bova found a factual _error_ — something that Niven could’ve corrected had he looked at the critique — and Niven admitted it. Niven also admitted that Bova’s critique, had he listened, would’ve actually improved his prize-winning story “Inconstant Moon” — so that just goes to show that even pro writers will occasionally refuse to listen to editors, but pros will admit when they’re wrong. 😉

      Barb Caffrey

      December 5, 2011 at 8:46 pm

  2. Well, I don’t mind having others look at my stuff to edit. The only problem I get with a lot is when I have a thought pattern going, and I point it in that direction. Some editor decides it should go this direction. Which makes the next thought 100% nonsensical when going from one thought to the next, and then points that thought in a totally different connection, and rather having 4 chapters that are segued into each other, I have 4 completely different chapters that are going totally different directions because the editor assumed that from the first paragraph it should go this direction or that… to me that’s just disrespectful.


    December 7, 2011 at 2:39 am

    • Lika, if you have a good editor, she’ll work with you. (Or he.) Because the object isn’t to stifle the writer; the object is to make the manuscript the best it can possibly be.

      Sometimes people don’t want to work with you, and that’s always a frustrating thing on both sides. But I would hope that if an editor saw your MSS a different way than you did, you’d at least listen to her ideas before you tossed them out. (It’s not disrespectful to listen to ideas even if they’re a lot different than yours. It _is_ disrespectful to throw things out without giving ’em a fair hearing.)

      That doesn’t mean you should always automatically accept every comment — see what Ben said about editing, as he was right on the money there — but you shouldn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that if an editor sees something different in the MSS than you do that she’s flat-out wrong.

      Ultimately, both of you want the best possible manuscript. That’s why editors exist, otherwise we’d have no role whatsoever . . . sometimes we see things that need to be there that aren’t, and sometimes we see things that are there and believe there’s too much of this and not enough of that.

      All that being said, it occasionally happens that an editor and any given writer are a “bad fit.” That’s where it gets frustrating on both sides.

      Barb Caffrey

      December 7, 2011 at 10:07 pm

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