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Editing, Uhh! What Is It Good For?

Editing [1]
Mary probably needs to fly more [photo by Stuart Whitmore]
I’m closing in on finishing a book about how to see as a writer [note: wear glasses], and there’s a little section on editing in there, from which some of this is excerpted and massaged. (Porter, I feel the gorge rise: the horror! Another book about writing! But no, no, this one’s different: For the print version, the pages will be made of sloth tongue; for the ebook, every time you finish a section, a zephyr of electrons will tingle your nether parts.)

Because I’ve been an editor as long as I’ve been a writer, and that “long” is now measured by archeological tools, I feel my thoughts on editing have as much credibility [note: dubious] as those on writing, so, forthwith:

Let’s consider a nice serving of mashed potatoes, hot and buttery. Most cooks probably don’t think too much about preparing their potatoes, so it’s often a rote task, hurried through to get to the entree. But what if those potatoes were served with panache, with some kind of style point or spicy twist? Say you were served potatoes with a tiny derby hat on them. You’d remember those spuds, wouldn’t you?

You’d probably remember them even more, if under the tiny derby was a clump of hair. Wouldn’t that clump drag what was an interesting expression of creativity into an unappetizing corner? The reason I bring up potatoes, odd hats and unwanted hair is a point I want to make about editing. Competent editors are able to shape the standard serving of potatoes so that it’s without lumps, smooth and palatable. Good potatoes, but still just potatoes.

Better editors recognize when a piece of writing has a derby hat in it—they would never take that hat out, robbing the writer of a unique angle or voice. They’d find a way to allow the hat to fit snugly in its potato surroundings, fully expressive of its quirk and charm, without it seeming unnatural or foreign. And of course, a good editor would remove that hair—typos, kludgy expressions, dully passive voice, et al—posthaste.

Seeing What’s Missing from the Plate

Another skill possessed by a good editor is recognizing when something’s missing. If you don’t provide the reader with a fork, they can’t fully enjoy those potatoes. Some pieces of writing are strong, but they might have gaps in logic, or need to be buttressed by a few more starchy facts. Good editors notice if the writing meal is missing ingredients, and they know how to persuasively suggest adding them so that the writer chefs promptly step back up to the stove.

Of course, editors should always recognize when that potato serving is too big. I remember one of my first copywriting jobs out of college, writing catalog copy for an outdoor equipment retailer that sold a lot of camping goods. One of our products was the Backpacker’s Bible, which was a tiny book that gathered some of the most powerful/popular Bible verses (no “begats” allowed). My first round of copy for it had the line, “The best of The Book, with all the deadwood cut away.” [note: for some odd reason they didn’t use my copy.]

And editors recognize when something’s just off. If you’re serving your potatoes to Lady Gaga, you don’t want her wearing her octopus-tentacle bra tinted some neutral shade of grey, do you? It cries out to be Day-Glo puce!

If you’re serving your potatoes to Lady Gaga, you don’t want her wearing her octopus-tentacle bra tinted some neutral shade of grey, do you? It cries out to be Day-Glo puce!

If writing has a certain rhythm established, and the rhythm, without context, goes awry, a good editor will re-establish that rhythm. And the proper bra color.

Editing Flavors

Editing a book-length project is an intriguing undertaking for the sheer variety of the material an editor might see. I’ve edited both fiction and nonfiction works for years, having cut my eyeteeth on big software manuals (the writing of which can be more creative than might be imagined) long years ago, and having advanced into novels and nonfiction projects as time’s train moved on. I’m editing a long (and winningly crazy) science-fiction novel right now.

In this universe and its parallel ones, you’ll find some argument as to what an editor specifically does (“slash the soul out of an artist’s heart” might be one angle) and divergent discussion yet about the types of editing. But I set up my lemonade stand with three: developmental editing, copyediting (or line editing) and proofing. You could stack a lot of words to describe the distinctions—and other editors break them down into more categories yet—but for this discussion, let’s call developmental editing the big-picture shakeout.

Consider how you might assess a nonfiction work for its structure: does it have a solid foundation, are the walls of its ideas well-framed, does the front door open to the living room rather than the bathroom, does the roof of its concepts leak, are the floors of its logic cracked?

In fiction, sometimes one of the developmental editor’s jobs might be simply to make the author consider if a character’s gesture or expression is really the one the author intended, to introduce the idea that on the fundamental sentence and word level can rest the lasting power of the work. But more often the developmental editor’s job might be to question whether a character even belongs in the work. Asking an author to consider such a heavy structural issue (such a question should only be part of a developmental edit, to be sure) is asking a lot—but sometimes those questions need to be asked. And you as an author have every latitude to just say no. (or, Hell No!)

You get much more granular with a line edit, inspecting paragraphs and sentences for diction, flow, grammar and clarity: is the expression of the espoused ideas crisp, clean, cliché-free? Do verbs have verve? Does a subject play hide and seek with its predicate so that even a sugary gingerbread trail of subordinate clauses can’t lead the way home to understanding?

Proofreaders might be considered the lowly chimney sweeps of the editing ranks, but if your work is blackened by misspellings, typos, transposed words/letters, extra words, you’ll want their cleansing touch. So many times I’ll see a stray “a” next to an “an,” or an “is is” that makes for an is not. Or inconsistency of usage and style—writing “versus” when it’s been “vs” all along. Such soot means the book’s fire just won’t burn clean. And sometimes a work will need an extra sweeping, because when initial errors are corrected, new errors are introduced. (Which should be some kind of law, like the Verbiage Uncertainty Principle.)

And my mom wanted me to be a brain surgeon. She just didn’t realize that editors are pretty much surgeons too. And sometimes politicians. And psychologists. And—oh, don’t get me started. (So, gentle readers, can you now answer the burning question: “What’s an Editor Do Besides Unnecessarily Charge You?”)

Grammar: It’s Funnier Than It Tastes

Warning: tortuous anecdote ahead: My parents offered me a sip of a martini when I was seven or eight years old. I recall recoiling in disgust from its sharp, medicinal tang: “How can you drink that? It’s terrible!” I swore I’d never drink martinis. Yet a crisp, cold martini on a Friday at five now seems the ideal reward for a week’s labor. Or maybe a week’s worth of martinis seem an ideal reward for a Friday’s labor.

It is always amusing to remember the heated declarations you made in earlier days—“When I get outta this house I’m never going to cut my hair, ever!—and to consider the cooling of those declarations when they’ve set out for a stretch on time’s countertop. Somewhere in here is my point, and I’ll relate it to the martini disdain: who wants to read a grammar book for pleasure? Think of squirming away from grammar lessons in grade school; it would have been a difficult decision to determine whether you’d rather have a root canal or listen to someone prattle on about participles and their dangling.

But continuing to learn: that’s a crisp, cold martini to me. I’ll take two. The worthy tome I’m reading right now (yes, you’re right, I’m a riot at parties) is Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style [2], where that fellow with the rumpled hair  “… applies insights from the sciences of language and mind to the challenge of crafting clear, coherent, and stylish prose.”  But there are so many style/grammar guides that are helpful, and even amusing, often for their outlandish example sentences. I’ve read a bunch of them and recommend many:

Eats, Shoots and Leaves [3]

Woe Is I [4]

The Transitive Vampire [5]  (or others in Karen Gordon’s series)

Spunk and Bite [6]

Sin and Syntax [7]

Stealing liberally from my forbears (though writing my own weird example sentences), I even wrote one [8] a few years back. It might keep the hair out of your potatoes, while preserving the stylish hats. Dig its buttery goodness.

Well, U of WU, do you think of editors as potato heads, or collaborators in compositional glory? Any favorite style/grammar books to recommend? And how fiendishly did you comb through this screed looking for grammatical shin splints?

About Tom Bentley [9]

Tom Bentley [10] is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com [11].