Editors are, in essence, critics. People instinctively hate critics. After all, it’s our job to tell authors when they’re wrong, and nobody wants to be wrong. This is made especially difficult by the nature of the medium: quality writing is not something that can be measured by a yardstick, but something that will always be dependent on personal opinion. Who is to say that one person’s opinion is better than another’s?
I am. Some people’s opinions are better than others’. Fortunately, intelligent, well-reasoned opinions are something you develop consciously, not something you’re born with. Good critics work with authors rather than against them, carefully monitor their own reactions, and train themselves to be extremely observant.
I. What Editors Do Not Do
Editors do not go over first drafts looking for typos.
If an author ever gives you an unfinished manuscript, or even a completed first draft, return it with a note that you look forward to reading it—once the author is done editing. By the time a manuscript reaches an editor—even if the editor is the author’s best friend—it should be as polished as the author can make it. It should be the second, or even the sixth draft.
Otherwise, what’s the point? The editor is the final filter, the set of fresh eyes that looks at a document to do any tightening up the author missed. Editing something the author hasn’t checked and revised is like icing a cake before you’ve baked it: it just doesn’t work. And there’s nothing more frustrating then spending an hour correcting a passage the author intended to cut anyway.
Editors do not read grammar books so writers won’t have to.
Grammar is for everybody. It’s easy to research; there are dozens, if not hundreds, of grammar books on the market, not to mention a copious number of websites. Some of these resources are dry and workmanlike; others approach the subject with humor. Regardless of your experience, there is probably a grammar book tailored to your needs, and we’ve a whole section of them here.
Why are these books so important? Because grammar is not incidental to writing—it is writing. I’m not talking about stylistic choices, like the decision to use a dash instead of a colon, or creative use of a sentence fragment to suggest an informal mood. I’m talking about subject-verb agreement, proper use of tenses, and knowing the difference between homonyms like “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” It’s almost impossible to communicate what you mean without understanding these principles; without them, even the person with the best story idea will be incomprehensible.
If you look back over a story you’ve been editing, only to find you’ve noted structural problems in every sentence, set the story aside and gently suggest to the author that (s)he read up on grammar and then rewrite. Done properly, this isn’t cruelty; it’s basic courtesy. Not only do most grammar books give more clear and concise explanations than you likely could off-the-cuff (assuming you had the inclination), but it’s important that an author has a full understanding of the tools at his or her discretion. Otherwise, how does (s)he know the finished draft really contains what (s)he meant to write?
Editors do not rewrite other people’s stories.
Every writer has an individual voice that informs everything from plot to characterization to word choice. Part of this voice stems from the unconscious—from what books we’ve read and which culture we grew up in. Part of this voice is conscious choice—a love of complex sentence structure or a preference for snappy dialogue. Regardless of the source, an author’s voice is a large part of what makes that author unique.
Every author necessarily has a different voice because every person has a different background and personality. As you edit someone else’s manuscript, you will almost definitely run into a sentence that makes you think: I would have written it another way. I would have made this scene funny instead of serious. I would have used more formal language. When this happens, you will be tempted to cross out the writer’s sentence and replace it with your own, better sentence.
Resist this impulse. Don’t take the story away from the writer. As an editor, it’s not actually your job to create the best story possible; that’s the writer’s job. Your job is to insure that the writer’s intentions get across in a way that is clear and engaging. Note where sentences are unclear, or where you lose interest in the story, explain why if you can, and then step back. It’s up to the author to make the actual correction.
Editors are not unnecessarily scathing.
Sometimes, especially if it’s been a long day, you will be tempted to yell at the writer you’re editing. Maybe (s)he doesn’t deserve it—but maybe (s)he does. Maybe this genuinely is the worst piece of drivel you’ve ever encountered. It’s racist, it insults the intelligence of its audience, and it blatantly plagiarizes another work. The main character, who is clearly based on the author, is the dullest person who ever lived, yet still has time to express the most vulgar opinions imaginable. The story could have been better written by a pile of dog vomit.
If you tell those things to the author in those words—no matter how true they are—the author will ignore you. The story will not get fixed. Even your spelling corrections will be discounted as coming from an unreliable source. You’ll get to feel good about being the voice of truth—and get to feel smug about being so much better than the author—but in the end, you will have wasted your time.
I’m not asking you to sugar-coat everything, or to water down the truth until it’s almost unrecognizable, but you have to present your concerns in a way that will get through to your audience—who, after all, loved the story at least enough to want to show it to someone else. Always maintain a helpful and professional tone, and provide clear examples of why you disagree with the author’s choice. Use non-confrontational language, and be quick to point out what is salvageable. Don’t lie, but avoid personal attacks at all cost. Remember that you and the author are on the same side—and remind the author of that, too. In the case of the above example, you might say:
“I wanted to like your story, but there were a few things that worked against it to such an extent that it was hard to stay interested. I wanted to see your protagonist take a more active role—show me more about what she does with her time, or how she formed the opinions which are so central to the narrative. For instance, why does she hate intellectuals, an unusual position that most of your readers will have trouble identifying with? Are there important events in her past we need to know about? Fleshing those out will make the character more compelling.
“You may also want to do more research on the customs of Hopi Indians. Some good resources are [insert resources here]. The Hopi have a fascinating culture that we rarely get to see well expressed, and incorporating some of those details would add immeasurably to the depth of the story. In particular, the character in your story uses the war whoop inappropriately, and you’re inventive enough that I think you could come up with a better and more historic mannerism.
“Finally, you may not realize it, but [subplot b] closely resembles a passage in [other writer]’s story. I’m sure this was unintentional. Fortunately, you don’t need it—it felt tacked on. If I wanted to read something by [other writer], I’d read something by [other writer]. Let me read your story. Try shifting more focus to [whatever was the most good thing in the story, even if it was minor and not that great]. Let me know if you need someone to bounce ideas off of before you revise.”
It may feel like pulling teeth. You may still get an angry response from the author who thinks his or her work is perfect. But in the end, it’s the approach that has the highest rate of success. The low road is louder and has more shock value, but the high road is the one that gets you where you’re going in the end.
II. Becoming an Active Reader
Most of us who are editors were writers first—and probably still are. Our instinct is to edit other people’s stories the way we’d revise our own—by crossing out huge sections, fleshing out others, reinventing characters, and changing the ending. We are then surprised when the author we edited is frustrated or angry, and abandons the story. And after we provided such good suggestions!
Imagine how you’d feel if somebody did that to your story. It’s presumptuous and insulting, because it’s not the job the editor was asked to do. Every once in a while, an author and an editor will share that level of collaboration, but it’s normally referred to as co-writing or co-authoring. If that kind of arrangement has not been agreed upon in advance, don’t assume it exists—even if an author hired you because he or she really loves your writing.
As an editor, you are in essence the reader’s representative. Most authors don’t really want to know how you’d write their stories differently. They already know how they want the stories to go; that’s why they wrote them that way. What an author wants to know is how the story affected you—where you were confused, where you were surprised, what you loved, and what you hated. Did you understand what was happening? Did you cheer for the right people? Could you keep all the characters straight?
This kind of feedback is provided by approaching the story as a reader instead of a writer. Instead of scrutinizing the text, examine your own reactions. If you look at the notes on a story I have edited, they form almost a dialogue with the narrative. They’re basically a journal of my thoughts as I read. “This reminds me of something I read in National Geographic.” “Ho hum.” “I had to read this paragraph three times before I understood what was going on.” “I’m really looking forward to the fight and I hope Amelia wins.” “Whoa! That was really surprising!” “I hate Tony, but I love hating Tony.” “I bet the butler did it.”
Silly? Yeah, a little. But it’s one of the most useful things you can do for an author. By the time an editor sees a story, the author has probably undergone countless outlines, drafts, and revisions. The author no longer has the necessary emotional distance to approach the story fresh. What you, the editor, provide is an unbiased experience of the narrative; you don’t know the person such-and-such character is based on, you never read the subplot that got cut after the first draft, and you haven’t read 30 books of research on the Knights Templar. You experience the story as it is, not as it was or as it could have been. Thus any information about your experience, however banal (”this made me laugh.” “what?!”), is invaluable.
This technique is also a boon to the editor. It takes away a lot of the pressure of trying to “fix” the story—where an “author editor” gets stressed out by all the changes that have to be made in a badly-written story, a “reader editor” metaphorically throws popcorn at the screen. Alternately, where “author editors” can only edit stories by people who are worse writers than they are, “reader editors” can still provide helpful input to the best writer in the world.
If you’re working hard at “proving yourself,” you may have a difficult time with this method. That’s understandable; you want to be taken seriously, and nebulous comments about “feelings” are far from authoritative. You don’t want to be touchy-feely and sit around in encounter groups—you want to change the world! You want to leave your mark on the story! My advice to you is: let go. In the end, an editor’s work should be invisible to everyone except the author. And the author will get more out of a comment like “I had trouble telling Nico and Juanita apart” than a page full of crossed-out words.
Does this mean you can’t also correct typos, punctuation errors, and unnecessarily flowery language? Of course not. Just don’t get so concerned by the trees that you miss the forest.
III. Common Problems that Authors Miss
Overall, the more experienced and more attentive to the story an author is, the less work there will be for an editor. That said, there are certain problems that even the most circumspect authors will usually miss on their own. Some of these are problems with wording; others are problems with the story’s basic structure.
ex. The hurdle was jumped.
A passive verb is a verb whose subject is the receiver (or object) of the action of the verb. (”The baby was rocked to sleep.”) There is nothing grammatically wrong with passive verbs, which is why they won’t set off editing alarms in most people’s heads. However, a story with too many passive verbs feels more like summary than narration. It’s hard for a reader to become emotionally involved, because events seem distant and static.
Even the most exciting event can seem comparatively bland if it’s expressed passively. When a writer uses active voice, we’re there when the action happens; we get to see it. Passive voice keeps us insulated, and so it slows the story down. For example, “the tree was struck by lightning” will never feel as immediate as “lightning struck the tree.”
It would not be possible to get rid of all passive verbs, nor would it be desirable. Used correctly, they can establish tense or make it obvious who the dominant character in a scene is—who is reacting to whom (or what). But usually, a sentence will be improved by a switch to an active verb. (Pay similar attention to overuse of gerunds.)
unclear pronouns/noun modifiers
ex. John looked at James. He wondered what was the matter with him.
An author always knows which character (s)he is referring to. A reader is not so lucky. This can make life difficult, because some authors almost fear referring to characters by their names. These authors may be worried about redundancy, or a lack of intimacy with the characters—but most of the time, the authors just don’t realize what they’re doing. Occasionally, a mystery author may use an unclear pronoun in order to describe the action of a crime without giving away the identity of the criminal, but otherwise, unclear pronouns are needlessly frustrating to readers.
As a side note, while most editors will have no trouble catching an unclear pronoun in the fourth or the seventh paragraph, we often forget to look for them in the first paragraph, which is where they may be the most common. This may stem from a commendable reluctance to interfere with an author’s style, but it can get out of hand. I have read stories in which the entire first page refers to the characters exclusively by pronoun. This is a bit like playing a game and leaving the reader out of it. Don’t be afraid to criticize a first paragraph the same way you would the last.
overly complicated language
Authors like pretty sentences. Usually, this is an asset; sometimes it is not. Sometimes it compels a writer to overuse words that sound lilting or rhythmic or slangy, regardless of whether they are appropriate. Other times, a writer will turn a simple idea into a long and circuitous sentence. This tendency is particularly pronounced in authors who do a lot of academic writing, or read a lot of Victorian literature.
This can be as simple as overusing adjective modifiers like “very” or “rather” or “extremely.” While these are sometimes useful for making subtle distinctions, they are usually just place holders which add little to our understanding of the story. That’s the easiest way to spot unnecessarily flowery language—it doesn’t add to the story. At its worst, it sounds stuffy or excitable and obfuscates the narrative.
In general, if a sentence or phrase does nothing to move the story forward, cut it. Dialogue can stay muddy if it’s trying to capture speech rhythms; long and detailed descriptions or passages of imagery are permissible if they are important to the milieu or style of the piece. Just be careful that the style doesn’t choke the story. As a rule, clearer is better.
scenes the author loves which do not advance the story
People have different reasons for liking things, whether those things are scenes or furniture or favorite candy bars. Usually, we prefer pieces of writing which are skillfully executed, which excite us or say something profound about the human condition. However, what excites one person will not necessarily excite another, a fact to which authors can be blind. As a result, authors will often leave in a favorite scene because it’s a favorite scene—not because it’s good for the story as a whole.
There are any number of reasons an author might treat an unnecessary scene preferentially. It might be an inherently great scene which just doesn’t belong in the story. It might be the first scene the author conceived—the spark which created the whole story, but which is now redundant. It might be a scene which goes completely against the author’s style in the rest of the story, but which the author loves because it’s like nothing (s)he has done before. Alternately, it might be a scene which resonates powerfully with the author because of something unique in his or her personal experience—such that the emotional impact for the author is much greater than what is warranted by the text alone.
When you run across a favorite scene, you will notice it because it will be somehow random or distracting. Metaphorically, it may feel as though the story is overacting, and it won’t move the story forward (emotionally or plot-wise). Don’t be afraid to cut a favorite scene, but do it gently, and make sure you explain your decision to the author. And be warned: while most authors will take the cut graciously, a few will fight back. They may try to persuade you to love the scenes as much as they do, or they might get angry. Stand your ground; in the case of “favorite” scenes, your unbiased first instinct is probably the right one.
lazy or stereotypical character development
Badly developed characters can usually be divided into two categories: either the character is so simple that he or she is a forgettable stereotype, or the character is a nonsensical amalgam of unrelated quirks. In either case, the character reads like a caricature—unfinished and without depth.
An overly simple character is usually a plot device in disguise. She’s the girlfriend who exists so the hero will have someone to rescue. He’s the best friend who is there to tell the hero (and thus the readers) how great the hero is. He’s the adorable child or wise-cracking minority character or disapproving father. Overly simple characters are hard to empathize with and hard to remember—they might as well be scenery. Their only purpose is to focus attention on the protagonist, or force the plot in an unjustified direction.
An illogically quirky or flamboyant character is usually a character the author has a crush on. It may be a “Mary Sue”—an author inserting a fantasy version of him or herself into the narrative. It may be a willowy or sensitive young person with soulful eyes and ambiguous sexuality—whatever sort of person the author would love to sleep with, but wouldn’t have a chance with in real life. It may even be a “crazy” or “kooky” character who is “totally off the hook”—a chance for the author to play-act extreme behaviors which are not socially acceptable. These characters are a lot of fun for the writer, but it’s a private sort of fun which does not extend to the reader.
Underdeveloped characters are almost the worst thing that can happen to a story in terms of how much re-writing they require. Take out the plot device and you take out the plot. As an editor, there isn’t a lot you can do. Point out caricatures where they occur, and explain why they make for lousy reading. Other than that, it’s up to the author.
The only disadvantage of well-developed characters is that the audience will notice when they act out of character. “Hogarth would never do that,” we say—and the funny thing is, we’re right. When a character is completely fleshed out, we feel as though we know him or her. (S)He’s no longer a character to us—(s)he’s a person. There’s an illusion that the character is acting on his or her own, independent of the control of the author.
Don’t let this illusion be broken by out-of-character behavior. Once an author has breathed life into a character, it cannot go back to being a puppet. If a character makes an unmotivated decision, or a decision founded on the ethics of the author instead of the ethics of the character, scream it from the rooftops. But make sure you compliment the author for writing a character you so strongly believe in.
Through the process of author revisions, some things will slip through the cracks. An author will cut a scene, but forget to revise a scene which refers to it. An author will change a character’s age or name or gender at one point in the story, but forget to change it when it’s mentioned again.
Inconsistent descriptions are easy to repair: if a sofa is purple in one scene, make sure it stays purple when it reappears. (It is possible that two characters will disagree about how to describe an object, in which case it is acceptable for them to contradict each other.)
Pay particular attention when numbers are mentioned—dates, ages, distances, and monetary amounts. Even if the number isn’t explicitly stated—a character is “old” or a hallway is “long”—make a mental (or even physical) note of the description. Authors tend to be “idea people” who have trouble keeping track of physical or temporal realities. Most of them (but by no means all) are bad at math. Always double-check figures.
logic errors and anachronisms
Bad logic is common in sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction because of the world building that is necessary in these genres. Where an author of literary fiction can rely on the world as it currently exists, speculative fiction authors have to keep track of entire fictional universes. Although authors of historical fiction have some reference materials, they don’t have the same breadth of resources as are available to someone writing about the present day.
Anachronisms and logic errors will naturally creep into even the best speculative fiction author’s story. The story’s technology may be inconsistent—all the handguns have artificial intelligence, but a personal computer takes up an entire room. A character’s philosophy may be inappropriate for the time period—a medieval serf tries to create a representative democracy founded on the ideas of 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers.
There is a limit to how much an editor can do, especially an editor unfamiliar with the genre in question. As always, the safest approach is to note where the story is confusing, contradictory, or illogical, and why. If you can think of any relevant resources, list them.
Almost every story has an underlying theme or moral of which the author is totally unaware. Christian authors use extensive Christian symbolism and assume the existence of one true god; American authors assume that people want to be free and that all government should be founded on a social contract. Some other common authorial themes are equality, environmentalism, technology as god, technology as the ultimate evil, oppression of women, and solipsism.
Because these themes are deeply philosophically ingrained, they are invisible to all but the most self-aware author. Since the average author can’t see the themes, (s)he will not be able to find the places where the themes break down. For instance, the author may write an ending which confirms his or her view of the universe, but which runs against the moral structure of the rest of the story. Alternately, all the symbolism may build to a certain necessary conclusion which never occurs.
Even if the themes and symbols are consistent throughout, that does not mean the author is aware of them; (s)he may just have an extremely well-integrated ethical structure, or extremely thorough societal conditioning. An author may be horrified to realize that a story (s)he wrote in defense of one position insidiously supports the opposite view. On the other hand, an author might be delighted to find hidden depths in what (s)he thought was a simple story.
When you reach the end of a story, make a list of the themes that appeared in it. Avoid making value judgments on whether the themes are inherently good or bad, since they may reflect deeply-held beliefs on the part of the author, but note where they break down—where they make promises that are not ultimately fulfilled.
IV. A Note to Overachieving Editors
Most editors become editors because they like good fiction. They don’t do it for the money or the glory (both of which are often nonexistent); they do it to produce good stories. These kind, noble people often hold onto an idealistic belief that if they try hard enough, every story which comes across their desk will leave brilliant and polished and published.
Computer programmers have a term called “GIGO”—Garbage In, Garbage Out. When they test a program, they don’t just check to make sure that good data will give them good answers—that 2 + 2 will equal 4; they make sure that bad data will not give good answers—that green + pumpernickel does not also equal 4.
Editors would be wise to adopt this philosophical principle.
You will not be able to fix every story. Some stories will start out bad, and after you’ve edited them, they’ll still be bad. That’s okay. They’re not your stories. Just make notes of your reactions, return the stories to their authors, and then step back. Some stories will never get published. The hope is that even the worst author will learn something, and might write a good story five attempts down the line.
And always remember: the story is ultimately the author’s, not yours. Unless you’re an agent or a publisher, it is not up to you to determine the story’s content.