Thursday, 2 April 2009

What Do Editors Do?

There are many different layers to editing a book well.

First there’s the overall structure of the book. Does it work in its current form? Would the book flow better if scenes were rearranged or deleted, or if new scenes were added?

Then there’s the content. Are all those scenes complete? Are there any plot-holes which need filling, or characters which need a little more flesh on their literary bones? Or descriptions which are just a little too lush, and could do with a bit of trimming? Is the tense and point of view consistent throughout, and appropriate for the story? Line-editing aims to get all of this right and is an intense and important process.

Once the structure and contents are taken care of, the focus moves to copyediting—checking the smaller details. Are the grammar, spelling and punctuation correct and consistent throughout the book? Are there any potentially libellous statements which will need to be checked by a lawyer, or removed entirely? And have all facts been checked for veracity? Often this work will be handed over to a copy editor; a fresh view of the book is always useful and usually leads to more errors being discovered and corrected.

Once all of the copy editor’s comments have been incorporated into the book, the designer will flow the text into the layout that has been agreed on and the editor will take another look through, to check that the headings are all in the right places and that no widows or orphans have been created (which are stray lines at the beginning or end of each page); and once all of that has been done a set of page proofs will go to the writer and, ideally, to a proof-reader for final corrections before the book finally goes to print.

Alongside all of that, editors drive their books through the process of publication, dealing with design, publicity and marketing, and production along the way. It’s a complex job. No wonder they sometimes fall behind with their slush-piles.


TOM VOWLER said...

I've proofread and edited fiction before - it's a dirty job but someone has to do it.

Given the extent of revision the ms goes through, it always surprises me to see glaring errors in the final product. A recent Orange-longlisted novel had TWO spelling mistakes in the first chapter. TWO. (I'd be crestfallen as the author to miss those, regardless of the subsequent readers.) I threw it down in disgust, though enjoyed it when I calmed enough to continue.

none said...

Eh, nobody can spell any more. The spellcheck takes care of that. NOT!!!

I love fiction editing. You can get so deep into it that everything else ceases to exist.


Rod H said...

A difficult job. When I start reading in search of errors I tend to slip into the role of normal reader after a while without noticing. It takes great concentration to stay vigilant.

A question concerning punctuation. I was taught that 'didn't', 'wouldn't' etc are appropriate for direct speech, the implication being that they 'aren't' correct in indirect speech. But often the rhythm of a given sentence is improved by the abbreviation, in which case I would prefer it.

Do editors have a policy on this?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tom. I noticed a sentence repeated in a book by a Sunday Times journalist.Editing is one of the toughest jobs after the novel is completed.

none said...

You're right, Rod--it requires a lot of concentration to stay in editor mode.

I think didn't and wouldn't would come under house style, meaning every publication will have its own policy. I think more casual language is generally more accepted nowadays, though.

Derek said...

Rod -- deciding whether or not to allow contractions is a a matter of house style rather than universal rules.

I've been learning copyediting recently, and it's a matter of reading a text in a different way. ("Is that a compound sentence or a compound predicate?" "Are those adjectives coordinate or non-coordinate?" etc.)

Dorset Girl said...

I agree - editors are dark magicians.

It's a vital part of the process. For me, editorial comments have ranged from broader suggestions to incorporate more of a character or strengthen a particular storyline to pointing out tiny details: in one scene wallpaper was rose-patterned while in another the same room was white-washed.

Right. Must stop reading this blog and go edit.

Rod H said...

To those who took up my question, thanks for your replies.

Another aspect of editing which I find taxing is unintentional repetition of words or phrases in relatively close proximity.

Some repetition is clearly intentional, as a rhetorical device, but most of it is not.

On page 2 of her novel Leaving Home, Anita Brookner uses the word ‘this’ eight times on page 2, most of the occurrences being on the top half of the page. For me it really jangles, a sign of a tin ear.

Jane Smith said...

I was expecting you all to comment on my typos in that post; then I thought I'd answer Rod's question, but that's already been done; so there's nothing left for me to do here.

That's good, I think.

And yes, I dislike seeing repetition like that, Rod, but it happens surprisingly often. Drives me mad. Pah.

Nicola Morgan said...

This post has come with unusual bad timing for me, as today I received the advance copies of my next novel and I am afraid to open it. I know I will see repetitions and other horrible things and I prefer not to see them myself but wait till my husband starts tutting as he's reading it in bed. Look guys, we do our best, and sometimes stuff happens and hey give us a break. Thing is, you make changes and you make changes and you make changes and before you know it your eyes have glazed over, which is why we rely not only on editors but proof-readers, and proof-reading is a dying art. I'd like you to be so carried away by the story that you keep your damned red pens firmly out of the way.I can't proof-read my own work so I rely on someone else and aghhhhh, please can I go and hide now?

Anonymous said...

I'm the world's worst proof-reader. Can I be cheeky and ask who does it for you? I would so love to give my new novel over to my 'critical friends' sans typos etc, but am too mean to pay for the service. (And it seems too much to ask as a favour). I guess you have someone who will provide a labour of love?

none said...

Copy-editing is hours of work and expends many calories. If you don't want to pay someone else for their efforts, I suggest learning to do it yourself!

What I really dislike is when someone uses the same construction more than once in succession. "But" constructions seem to be particularly overused in this way. Don't do it!

Nicola Morgan said...

AliB - not cheeky at all! I don't know - it's just whoever my publisher gets to do it. But by the time it gets to that stage, my editor and I have gone over it and over it and found different things each time. My problem is that I'll change a word in a para, and then not notice that it was a word I used originally in a neighbouring para/sentence, and the thing is that on scfeen thigns don't shout at you - it's only when the book is in its damned (sorry, beautiful) cover and it's TOO LATE.

Nicola Morgan said...

Obviously, I mean "screen, things" ... Being sober also helps

Daniel Blythe said...

Some editors are wonderful. I have just got my BBC Books editor's comments back on my new Doctor Who and they are brilliant. He is a writer himself too and it shows. Everything he has suggested - mostly "tweaks" and "tightening", thankfully, but one or two plot-clarifications and one piece of "tone" work - will make this book better. It's as if he knows my own work better than I do. I am so grateful.

Anonymous said...

It is notoriously difficult to proof-read your own work: in the dim and distant past when I was working in academic publishing we never proofed copy we'd written, for exactly that reason.

Yes, I'm deeply grateful to my editors - the combination of fresh eyes and professional skill is invaluable. And still, between me, my UK editor, my US editor, both copy editors and two sets of proof readers, we manage to miss things. One of the more frivolous reasons for clinging to otherwise daft hardback-paperback system, is that at least you can get it right for the paperback...

none said...

Some mistakes will always get missed. It therefore annoys me when people use the odd error as 'proof' that a work wasn't edited. Heck, we're only human!

(I found three typos in "Jonathan Strange" and my sister found a misused word; in a book that length, that's perfection :D)

Anonymous said...

On the subject of word repition: I once beta read/edited a story for someone I knew, and in the first twenty words of the story, he used the word darkness three or four times.

Also, mildly related I guess, Miss Snark once mentioned (probably more than once, actually) that she didn't like when people mentioned they had used an editor. I never understood why, and she closed down her blog before I could get an answer. Would anyone here happen to know?

David Dittell said...


As a writer, an editor is key. You need fresh eyes, who know your goals/tone/etc., to take a look at your work. Whether it's as simple as typos or maintaining POV (both grammatically and informationally), this is somebody who can catch the mistakes your brain has convinced you aren't there.

Love your editor; you need her.

mel said...

how do i get an editor? (don't laugh)i just finished writing my first novel & don't know what to do next...waaaaaa??

Melissa M. Belmar

Jane Smith said...

Mel, I wouldn't laugh. Don't worry.

The editors I've talked about here work for publishers, so writers don't hire them--they do all this work on the books they publish, so writers only get the benefit of their services when they get a publishing contract (and remember: publishers pay writers, writers don't pay them; if you're ever asked to pay a publisher chances are it's a scam).

What you need to do now is to edit that novel yourself. If you don't know how to, or can't tell what needs to be done, then join a critique group (there are plenty online: have a look at the list of message boards that you'll find in the right-hand column under the heading "resources for writers").

Once you've got it as beautiful as you possibly can, leave it alone for a month or two then take another look, and edit it again.

Then you might want to look for an agent, to submit your work for you.

Meanwhile, write your next book, read lots of books, and learn all you can about publishing, editing and writing.

Good luck!

Rochelle Spencer said...

This post reminds me that even wonderful writers need an editor. Editors not only catch grammatical mistakes--they also help writers to clarify their meaning.