What got you into editing as a profession, and what helps with being a good editor?
So that’s actually a funny story. Waaaaaaay back in high school, I signed up to work on the school newspaper. The teacher noticed me informally answering other people’s questions about spelling and word choice, and decided I should be the editor. That would have been where it stopped, except that the school principal made a habit of censoring editorials in the paper. It enraged me, and I embarked on an anti-censorship campaign that ultimately got me suspended a few times… but I learned the value of carefully-chosen language, and learned the lengths to which those in power will go to suppress ideas. I was hooked.
In my opinion, a good editor is someone who understands that editors have a sacred charge to help people express important ideas with the greatest degree of clarity possible. All the rest is just details of how that’s accomplished.
When you edit an article or manuscript, what are key items that you focus on, and why?
Story… because stories are the ideas I mentioned above. The story has got to be there, or there’s no reason to publish it. I could care less about grammar, punctuation, copyediting stuff; I want to read a good story, one that challenges me, makes me think, transports me.
So conversely, sloppy storytelling, reliance on tropes, and plagiarism result in instant round filing. No one’s got time for that. If you can’t be bothered to polish your storytelling craft, I can’t be bothered to polish your book. However, if the story’s there, there’s nothing I won’t do to help you make it glorious.
As an editor, do you find that you are stronger in certain areas, such as genres, than others?
Not really, no. I am a technical editor for a living, so my experience is pretty diverse. The basic fundamentals of story and polishing that story are kind of universal. I spot hackneyed tropes faster in genres I’m familiar with, but even in ones I’m not, they become pretty obvious pretty fast.
What is the most difficult part of editing for you?
Not getting cranky when I feel like someone is throwing their work at me disrespectfully. I think of my work as being like sculpture. I love the Michanegelo quote, of “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” I like to think that everyone who submits something to me did so because they love it, and want other people to love it too. It makes me nuts when people don’t spellcheck, or just assume that they’ve written timeless prose, and figure that the editor will do all the polish work. If a writer doesn’t know how to be a professional but wants to be taught, that’s golden. When they refuse to be taught, it really puts me off.
What are ways that beginning writers can make an editor’s job easier?
Be professional. Take the work seriously. Throw yourself into learning how to be a better storyteller. Take every opportunity to educate yourself about writing as a skill, as a business, as a professional activity. And then take conscious steps to level up wherever you can.
How long did it take you to establish yourself as an editor? Are there things you’d have done differently to get into editing if you had more information when you started?
Depends on what you mean by “establish myself”. An astonishing amount of my work is with repeat customers, or people that I’ve known for 20-plus years, whose stuff I edited, and they liked the experience, so told their friends.
Considering that my entry into editorial work was accidental, no, I’m pretty happy with how it’s gone so far.
Would you recommend that writers learn editing?
Not really, no. I think writers should spend their time in story. Writing and editing are entirely different professions. I would infinitely rather have a writer say to me, “I know nothing about editing, but I know everything about story.”
I worked with an author a few years ago who is in fact a professional storyteller. Brilliant guy, and has an amazing sense of pacing, of rhythm, of arc and of plot. His books are phenomenally good. His draft submission to the house I was working with at that time was nightmarish from a copyedit perspective, but the story was so good, I still find myself wandering off to inhabit that world in my head. Brilliant worldcrafting. Thing is, I can fix the commas. Anyone can. But only one person could have written that story.
In your editing, do you find yourself on occasion going back and editing your edits?
Oh, absolutely. I read through everything three times. Once just for the read, to judge the overall story arc. Again, for continuity, and then a third time for copyediting considerations. So there are often things to change (the technical term is “stet”) about what I edit.
In the different genres of books, are there different styles of editing that work best for the genres? Are there any differences in editing horror over say a science fiction manuscript?
Not really. The elements of storytelling are really similar across genre. I do more fact-checking for sci-fi than I do for romance, generally. Nailing your pacing is generally more relevant in horror than in fantasy. There are tiny adjustments, but generally, language is language. If there’s a lot of idiom in the work, that can take some researching, to make sure it’s right and consistent and believable.
What makes a good editor? What educational background would help an editor, and are there classes or experiences that might be a detriment to good editing?
Editors, good ones, are constantly learning. Grammar isn’t a done deal, it’s a living thing that changes over time. Editors discuss these things constantly. Right now, we’re all busy hashing out our relationship to things like gender-neutrality and correct pronoun choice, slang, and idiom. Staying active in editorial communities is critical to maintaining your relevance, but also your humility. Too many editors allow themselves to isolate, and then they become gatekeepers rather than enablers. In my opinion it’s important to remember that without writers, there’s no need for us at all.
Recently, on an editorial group I’m part of, the topic of trigger warnings came up.
Predictably, a huge outpouring about the ridiculousness of such warnings was vomited forth by, frankly, a bunch of older white men.
I posted the following in response:
Just because some people may possibly, by your estimation, not require a trigger warning, doesn’t mean that you are fully aware of everyone who does. I don’t think that it’s within the purview of editorial services to judge who may or may not possess a trigger response to given stimuli. There are people who have come through some extreme circumstances (refugees, for example)… and there are people who’ve come through some typical human experience (miscarriage and child loss, for example) that deserve a bit of acknowledgement. Previously in our culture, the discussion and expression of the feelings engendered by some forms of experience (war, for example) was severely repressed, resulting in the sorts of secondary cultural issues reported by the children and spouses of those folks, suffering in silence (Patrick Stewart has spoken eloquently about spousal and child abuse related to unacknowledged PTSD). Airing, and exploring, uncomfortable emotional situations, and acknowledging that the feelings are going to be challenging, is in my mind a mark of cultural progress, and is to be encouraged.
Given that 1 out of 6 women is a victim of sexual assault during her lifetime and 1 in 33 men (reported), for example… and given the preponderance of rape as a sloppy plot device in the fiction material I see come in through the slush pile (and also in mainstream pop fiction — I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones)… the likelihood is high of someone being made uncomfortable enough that they are going to have to divert at least some mental energy from considering the material, to controlling their own emotional response to the material. I think that a trigger warning is simple good manners.
Predictably, the outrage shower continues. And I’m left shaking my head, wondering why it is so very, very hard for some people to recognize that their experience is not the only experience, that the world is big enough for many experiences, and that it’s entirely possible that even though you personally have experienced nothing that induces difficult emotional response in you doesn’t mean that the people sitting around you haven’t either?
I’ve been ranting a great deal on Facebook lately about toxic masculinity, and this dovetails on that. It’s toxic to insist that someone else not have emotions because you aren’t comfortable with them. It’s toxic to insist that your experience is more relevant than my experience, if what we’re talking about is something that I’ve experienced and you haven’t.
I will continue to support trigger warnings where appropriate. I will continue to stand up for the idea that people with traumatic pasts be able to inhabit public spaces of discourse without courting racing hearts, sweaty palms, hyperventilation, and panic. I will continue to argue for the idea that everyone’s fighting a hard battle you know nothing about, and that the point of the world is not to make everyone harder, but to hopefully help lift everyone else up, through education, discussion, and raising awareness.
UPDATE: In the time it took me to write this, The Mary Sue chimed in.