Please welcome Jim Dempsey to Writer Unboxed today! Jim is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and works as a book editor at a site called Novel Gazing. In his own words:
“I began my professional career as a journalist, working mostly in radio, and then, in the late 1990s, I adapted radio stories for the web. This meant editing my colleagues’ work to be read rather than heard. That took a lot of on-the-job training, courses, and a close attention to detail since radio journalists don’t need to have great grammar or spelling skills. Stories – pretty much all stories, fiction or non-fiction – have always been my passion. I studied them to get a Master’s degree in creative writing, and have always helped friends with their stories as they wrote novels. That gradually expanded to friends of friends and kept going until I was editing novels full time. I started Novel Gazing with two fellow editors in 2012, but that journalist in me still likes to get out now and then to write articles about editing, writing and, of course, stories.”
How a Professional Editor Can Improve Your Writing
Editors do more than correct errors and rearrange sentences, they also develop a deep understanding of your book so that your readers will understand it too. Take a look at the two samples below. Which one is easier to read?
Most people would say that 2 is an easier read (note that I asked ‘easier,’ not ‘better’ – I’ll come to that in a moment).
And all it took to make the text clearer was some straightforward copy-editing. That means more than simply adding some commas and periods – the editor also has to understand what the author is trying to say.
Unfortunately, that isn’t always clear from just reading the text. Where there are doubts about the author’s intention, the editor has to ask for clarification.
This time I wasn’t able to ask the author. Samuel Beckett, most famous for writing Waiting for Godot, died in 1989.
This extract is from Molloy, and Beckett knew what he was doing when he wrote it. In the context of the novel, his style works perfectly. It emphasizes the sense of confusion. The wandering sentence is as lost as the character expressing it.
So, my revision of Molloy would be to miss the point of what Beckett was trying to say.
The understanding editor
And that’s why it’s important for an editor to understand not only what you, the author, is trying to say with each and every sentence but also understands what you want to say with your entire manuscript and how you want to say it.
To get that understanding, the editor has to read your work closely and appreciate why you have chosen those particular words and expressed them in that particular way. The editor has to know what you are trying to tell the reader.
To do that, the editor also has to see your book as the readers would see it – ideally as your target audience would see it. The editor has to spot any ambiguities, anywhere the readers could misinterpret the text or where their understanding might not match your intention.
That could mean revising something as simple as a mention of floppy disks in a YA novel set in contemporary times. Or it could be a European author writing, ‘It was 38 degrees outside,’ in a book intended for a U.S. audience – the author is imagining sunstroke conditions while the readers see the characters shivering.
Those are details, easily solved, but bigger-picture issues can be more difficult to overcome.
A clear message
This point became clear to me in a novel I edited recently (which inspired me to write this article). It was about a woman who enjoyed her life; she made the best of every day, but felt she had done everything she had ever wanted to do. She had, at 50, finished her bucket list and felt that her life was finished.
This character, to put it very simply, enjoyed the act of living but not her life.
That can be a difficult concept to grasp. In fact, it’s the kind of concept that needs a whole book to explain adequately (rather than my oversimplification above).
And, as you might imagine, there are moments in the novel when other characters don’t understand the protagonist’s point. In a way, the story is a reflection of how readers can misunderstand an author’s intention.
For that to work, the main character (and therefore also the author) has to be clear when she explains what she wants. Some characters might still misunderstand the words (as some readers will), but the author has to make sure that character expresses her intentions well.
In this case, as I read through the manuscript, I highlighted any lines that could confuse the reader, anywhere the reader could misinterpret what the character (and the author) was trying to say. I pointed out the different ways readers could interpret these lines and then suggested how the author could revise them to make the point clear.
And that’s how it works for any book, not just this one. The novel’s message doesn’t have to be precisely defined or expressed ‘out loud,’ and it might not even be immediately clear to many readers, but they at least shouldn’t be led to believe it’s something other than what the author intended.
The editor acts as an intermediary between the you and your readers. The distance between your intention and the readers’ interpretation shouldn’t be too great. Where there is a gap, the editor will try to close that space by explaining to the author where any ambiguity arises and offer some revision suggestions.
A professional editor, therefore, can add the commas and periods, and even tidy Samuel Beckett’ sentences to make the text easier to read, but the real craft of an editor lies in being able to understand your novel. That’s why it’s so important to find an editor that you are personally comfortable with, someone you can be honest and open with.
But how do you find that person?
- Look in the directories of the major professional editing societies, such as the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (U.K.) or the Editorial Freelancers Association (U.S.). Editors have to achieve certain standards to become members, and the society can often provide objective mediation in any disputes you might have with the editor.
- Once you have a shortlist, have a look at the editors’ websites and their portfolios so you can see some of their previous work. Search for them on the web and social media, especially LinkedIn. Many employers make these kinds of checks these days, and you are looking to employ someone after all.
- Ask the editor to work on a sample of your work. This is the best way to see if you have that ‘click,’ if the editor understands and appreciates your work, and does a good job. And it works both ways – a sample lets the editor see if they want to work with you. Note that not all editors will provide a sample edit, and some who do may ask for payment.
The editor you eventually choose should be someone who can see your novel from both sides: yours and the readers’. That person should understand what you want to say and will work to make sure your readers understand the story in the way you want them to understand it.
Maybe you want the readers to feel certain emotions at certain times, to give them something to think about, make a moral point, put across your side of an argument. Whatever it is, a professional editor, one who understands what you want to achieve, can help you succeed.
Has a professional editor helped you to overcome issues in your manuscript? What, if anything, did the experience teach you?