Writing is one thing. Editing is another animal entirely.
My formal career years were spent in communications, including writing for radio, newspaper and magazines. After that I began writing fiction, and I'm currently working on my 10th novel. But no matter what kind of writing I'm doing, one thing has really stood out for me over the years:
A good editor is my best friend.
Sure, I’m the person creating worlds on my laptop. But let me tell you, after I’ve stared at all that text on the screen for hours or days or weeks, my perspective isn’t worth spit!
That’s why – both during and after the construction of a story – I can’t express enough LOVE AND APPRECIATION to the people who fill the following roles in my writing life:
- BETA READERS
- STORY/CONCEPT EDITORS
- DEVELOPMENTAL EDITORS
- COPY EDITORS
These roles tend to overlap a lot, making it tough to draw a definite line between them, or even title them properly. And some talented folks wear more than one hat (which is really good news for those of us on a skinny budget).
Whatever you call them, the wonderful people who do these jobs are dedicated to saving me from total embarrassment… er, I mean, making sure that YOU THE READER have a pleasant reading experience!
Actually, it’s the same thing.
THIS IS WHY –
An error in your novel can make you look unprofessional, sure, but that’s not the worst of it. A MISTAKE TAKES THE READER OUT OF THE STORY! Whether your novel is like a pleasant Sunday drive or a white-knuckle roller coaster, you want the reader happily involved right to the very end. Something as pedestrian as a spelling mistake – or heaven help you, a hole in the plot – are like scattering nails on the pavement, or cutting the power to the amusement park. It interrupts the experience.
Many promising stories get set aside by the reader, unfinished. Or read but not fully appreciated, because the ride wasn’t smooth.
- BETA READERS – My first line of defense is my test audience, the Betas, and they have the unenviable job of reading the story IN BITS AND PIECES. Here, please read this scene … or this chapter … or the fourth version of the beginning of the book. Beta Reader feedback is absolutely vital, and most of it has to do with how they feel. Do you LIKE the characters? Do you CARE about them? Is the world believable? Would someone really say this, or do that? Is the ending truly satisfying?
- STORY/CONCEPT EDITORS – The story editor is like an engineer inspecting the STRUCTURE of the story. Does the anatomy of the novel hold up throughout? Is the pacing consistent? Is there a soggy middle? Does the ending deliver what the beginning promised? Are the characters developed enough? Did the story follow the rules of the world the author built, was some detail unresolved, or did something go off the rails entirely?
- COPY EDITORS – Grammar, punctuation, and spelling have to be inspected by a human eye. The evil that is Spell Check not only doesn’t catch everything, sometimes it makes it WORSE – I mean, just look at your phone! (Yesterday I texted my daughter that I was sending her a pterodactyl...) Like most writers, I have my personal punctuation demons too. I’m totally reliant on my copy editor to catch the incorrect usages of dashes and commas.
- DEVELOPMENTAL EDITORS – A developmental editor looks at a good story and sees how the writer could make it even better. These are the folks who tell you kindly but firmly that you have WAY too much backstory. That Chapter Five is redundant. That there’s no driving purpose for that ONE scene you love so much. That a secondary character has totally taken over and another character should be axed. That the story doesn’t begin in the right place... You don't have to do everything the developmental editor says. But you should definitely listen, weigh, and consider.
TO ERR IS HUMAN –
Striving for perfection is good, but that doesn’t mean you’ll reach it, because you’re human and your team is human. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, it’s not only possible but likely that there’s still a mistake or two lurking in your story. Hopefully, it’s just a comma or a typo, but sometimes it’s worse than that. After your novel comes out, you just might bang your head on the desk because something big got overlooked.
And yes, my own desk has a forehead-shaped dent in it. I wrote a full-length novel where no less than SIX professionals read the completed manuscript, and not a single person caught a major plot hole before it went to press.
To say that I was utterly mortified by that experience would be an understatement. I thought about leaving the country, changing my name, taking up drinking... I even wanted to quit writing. However, a good friend pointed out that such things have happened to the Big Dogs too, those writers whom I look up to and admire. If they could live through it, then so could I. Not very happily, but I’d live.
More importantly, I’d LEARN.
Not all editors, proofers, and betas are created equal, and sometimes you just haven’t got the right combination of skills on your team. I certainly had a lot of people looking over that poor manuscript – but it was like a baseball team composed of five amazing left-fielders, three wonderful second basemen, and a talented pitcher. Something was definitely missing...
And BTW, the size of your team doesn't count. You can have a team of TWO if they have the right mix of skills.
Other things I’ve learned:
Just because someone has an ad in a writing magazine doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good editor – or more importantly, a good editor for YOU. Not even if they used to work for a publisher (or still do).
Likewise, there are some fabulously gifted editors out there who have never been formally trained, but have an eye for story like Tony Stark has an eye for innovation. That goes for Beta Readers as well.
You'll have to do some asking around, and then some testing and trying (many people offer to edit samples of your work before you commit to hiring them).
I know, I know... My own personality type hates the trial and error process even if it's just to figure out my favorite ice cream. Yet it's necessary in order to find not just the right people with the right talents, but someone who shares your vision for your work AND that you are able to work with. I promise you that it's worth it to make your story the very best it can be.
Your readers will thank you.