Monday, May 24, 2010

A good editor is invaluable

Last time, I emphasized the importance of proofreading your work and having a couple of friends double (or triple) check your writing for you. This time I’m talking about something different: editing.

First I think I should probably clarify what I mean when I distinguish between proofreading and editing. Proofreading (or copyediting more specifically, although these terms are used mostly interchangeably nowadays) focuses on correcting incorrect grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, or even formatting. Think of a copyeditor as someone who takes your existing work and, without changing its content or voice, perfects it before it is published. This person’s job is to know how to correct misplaced modifiers, commas, semicolons, and more. Their daily work may also consist of reformatting a manuscript or submission to be ready for print publication, and they may deal with figures, proofs, cover submissions, etc. For one of my jobs, I copyedit scientific journals.

Editing, on the other hand, focuses more on the content of the submission. An editor will be reading for plot holes, continuity, believable characterization, fact-checking, correct terminology, etc. Many large publishing houses have both copyeditors and editors so that the editors do not spend valuable time minutely marking up manuscripts with a red pen; however, many smaller publishing houses do not have the budget for two separate staff members, so some editors function as both copyeditors and editors. In any case, the important part of an editor’s job is reading for content. Good editors, like good copyeditors, will find ways to edit a writer’s work, or ask for revisions, without changing the author’s intended meaning or voice. For my other job, I am an assistant editor for a small, independent publisher.

I hope this is making sense! (If not, please let me know—and feel free to ask whatever questions you have for me. Sometimes the distinction between these terms can be confusing and baffling, so please don’t feel like you’re the only one who needs to ask questions.) Like I said, sometimes these responsibilities may overlap, but they are nonetheless distinct and separate jobs. (Not all copyeditors are good editors, and not all editors are good copyeditors.)

Last time I mentioned beta readers as a great tool for helping you to proofread your work before you send it in (to an agent, an editor, a publisher, etc.). But another great reason to find a few trusted beta readers is that they can (and often do) serve as preliminary editors for you (in addition to serving as proofreaders). Many betas can be invaluable at pointing out plot holes early on or letting you know that they don’t really think Character A, who is typically gentle and timid, would say something so harsh to his mother without being provoked. Just as with checking for grammatical errors, sometimes we as writers can be “too close” to our own work, and we may not catch such inconsistencies. Beta readers, whether they are colleagues, loved ones, or paid freelancers, can do wonders for your work if they have a keen and critical eye.

It is important to know that you can trust your betas to keep your own vision in mind—trust, in any publishing relationship, is vital—and it is also important that you remember your own convictions when you get suggestions back. If you intended for Character A to be acting out of character, then you can safely ignore your beta reader’s request that you “fix” that line (but of course, if this was an accident, thank your beta reader for noticing it!). You don’t need to make every change that an editor asks you to make, but you do need to consider each one carefully and understand why they requested it and why you aren’t making it. If your intended meaning isn’t coming across in the way you thought it would, even if you disagree with their suggested change, perhaps you do need to consider some revisions, even if you are reluctant to put in all that extra effort.

Remember: a good editor is invaluable. Once you’ve found someone who understands your voice and your goals and who can also tackle your work from a critical outsider’s perspective, cling to that beta or editor and never let go!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Proofreading: a gentle reminder

I did say that I was going to write about the merits of editing, didn’t I? Let’s start with proofreading.

Writing is a skill that most people around the world do not have, sadly. Good writing is a skill that is even harder to come by. But good writing that has also been edited and proofread, that has proper punctuation and grammar? Readers, I’ll be honest with you: it’s like finding a rare, precious gemstone in the middle of a dark and lonely forest.

When I’m reading something—whether a scientific article for the one job or a short story for the other—and I come across something that reads fluidly and easily, has no typos or misplaced commas, no fragments or clunky sentences, I can almost hear the heavenly music. I find myself excited beyond all reason, I sigh happily, and I gush about the writing to anyone who wants to listen. (I also tend to respond to these authors with lots of exclamation points! And smiley faces! :-D Because I’m so excited!)

This, unfortunately, happens rarely.

Also fairly unlikely are those who send me horribly unreadable writing: writing that is so filled with spelling errors, random commas, no sense of sentence structure, etc., that I can hardly understand it at all. Like I said, I don’t see these too often (thankfully), because nowadays most people seem to at least know to ask a friend or three to read over their work before sending it in somewhere. (Yes, I realize that this assumes that your friends know about basic grammar rules and the like. Luckily, most of these friends do. Don’t underestimate your friends!) If I can’t even understand your work, writers, it’ll be rejected within moments; if it’s going to take me longer to edit it than it took for you to write it, forget it.

Frankly, it’s tempting to be insulted when people send in this kind of thing—do they think my time is worth wasting? Are they saying they think I’m the type of editor who doesn’t read what is submitted to me? But no, that’s not it. They just don’t know any better.

(Ta-da! Here is Jennifer, to save the day, to slay woeful ignorance and educate writers around the world as to the importance of editing! Huzzah! All hail the editor!)

Most of what I see is the in-between stuff. The writers who know enough about grammar to know that “not only” is always accompanied by “but also” but don’t know that semicolons are only used (other than in lists) to connect two interrelated sentences (sentences that must be able to stand on their own without the semicolon [e.g., This is a sentence; this is also a sentence. But this is not; the proper use for a semicolon]).

The in-between stuff is often filled with wonderful thoughts and brilliant ideas, but sometimes—sadly—that brilliance can’t shine through, or the thoughts are lost because they weren’t expressed properly. A misplaced comma can make the difference between “a panda eats, shoots and leaves” and “a panda eats shoots and leaves” (in the first sentence, we’re talking about a gun-wielding panda, whereas in the second we’re referring to what pandas eat); similarly, a misplaced hyphen could make the difference between “a man eating chicken” and “a man-eating chicken” (a man who eats chicken versus a chicken that eats men)!

In other words, writers, please make sure you have at least a friend or two read over your work before you send it in. If you don’t trust your friends to read over your work, join a writing group to find like-minded friends (or pay a freelance editor to read it, if you have to and if it’s something important). You just never know when your paper or story could have been 90% there, but, because of a few misplaced modifiers, the entire basis of your story has been misunderstood. And hey, nobody is perfect—and nobody (but nobody!) can catch all of her own mistakes. (I even had someone read over this post for errors!) So don’t be embarrassed, and don’t be too proud.

If anyone has any words on the merits of proofreading or having a couple of beta readers, please share them! Do you tend to trust only your own judgment, or do you swear by that outsider’s eye to catch your mistakes?

Saturday, May 1, 2010


If you look on the right --> you'll see that I've added a list of links that I've thought were helpful and/or inspirational. Please note that this is a constantly growing list, so please feel free to recommend any sites to me that you think I should know about or should add! I actually have about 30 links open in tabs at any given time that I haven't yet had time to read, so I'm sure the list of links will be growing day by day.

I've tried to organize it a bit, but I'm not thrilled with the way it looks. (Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't have an easy way for me to organize this list so that it looks nicer, other than just making a whole new list for each topic/subheading, which is time consuming and seems silly.) So we'll see, the layout and sorting of the links may change a bit over time.

What do you think? Any life-changing or otherwise amazing links I should know about?