Questionable: What Do Editors Do?

Diane commented on Tuesday:
I’m asking this in all seriousness, but what do editors do? I’ve heard authors talk about working with their publishers’ editors. Do they read and make alterations? Because it seems like you are doing so much analyzing and rewriting. What is it that editors are doing?

They do a helluva lotta things including deal with the editorial boards, the marketing department, the PR department, the author, the author’s agent . . . but I think you’re asking specifically about how editors edit a manuscript, right?

The simplest answer to your question is that it’s really rude to give any kind of editor a text you know isn’t right because it means you’re shoving off work that you can do and leaving it to her to fix things in the way she thinks best, which is possibly not the way you wanted.  If it’s broken, fix it before it gets to her.  I always know my editors (Jen and the copy editor) will find mistakes I can’t see, so I need fix the ones I can see, so they can see the text clearly enough to make it better. If I slow them down with a lot of stuff I can fix, I’m hurting their ability to edit. That’s just dumb. If you work with professionals, you should be professional.

A longer answer involves more caveats because editing is a very personal relationship because editors, like writers, comes in all degrees of usefulness and outlook.

For example, there are the editors who are just clueless. I had one who added adverbs to my book. I threw the fit heard all over North America, the adverbs came out, and I got a new editor.  Another editor tried to tell me that nobody in the Midwest would know what potstickers were. Another one barred coq au vin because Midwestern readers wouldn’t know what that was.  Sometimes you have to be firm.

And sometimes you have to be really firm.  There is one publishing house that shall be nameless that liked all its romances to fit a certain approach to the genre. Writers that naturally fit in that approach became superstars. Writers that didn’t naturally fit there had a hell of a time. A friend of mine who was a brilliant writer was just broken there by over-editing which included an editor going in and making changes to her story over her objections that made it fit their company romance story. She quit writing a decade ago, and people are still asking what happened to her. (A controlling editor happened to her.)  I know another terrific writer who quit until she got her confidence back and then went to another publishing house that cherished her for who she was.  She’s still writing brilliant books today.

When I mentioned this to my current editor, who is a dream (Jennifer Enderlin at SMP), she said she had authors who told her that if there was something she thought should be changed in the text to just change it. In other words, authors also come in all degrees of outlook toward editing. So editors like Jen adapt; she’d never change anything in my text, but I get plenty of notes which are freaking brilliant. I think I’ve disagreed with her maybe three times in the all the years we’ve been working together and she was right all three times. I tend not to disagree anymore.

So here’s what Jen does for me. She reads through the story and marks any places that trip her up, that aren’t clear, that are disturbing enough to throw her out of the story, any places that she starts to skim. She asks questions about what she doesn’t understand as she goes through (as in “Why does she think everybody hates her? They’re all nice to her”). She circles words she doesn’t know (she knows a lot of words, but I know more) because they’re likely to throw a reader out of the story. (Example: I used “seraglio” in Wild Ride, but I kept it anyway.). She talks about what things in the story mean, if that’s what I meant to convey. (Example: there was an undercurrent in Faking It that Tilda’s father had sexually abused her that I had to shift some language on because that wasn’t at all what I’d intended.) She really digs deep, and she puts it all in an editing letter. I read the letter and let it sit for twenty-four hours so I can get past the natural desire to defend what I wrote, and then I make the changes I agree with and we talk about the other stuff. Usually on that stuff, we just talk about a way to fix it that satisfies us both, but she always lets me have the last word.

The other kind of editor is the copy editor who goes through and finds all your grammar and punctuation mistakes and any factual screw-ups. You have to be VERY careful with copy editors because sometimes they’re right, but the change they want is wrong for your text. I still loathe the copy editor who put italics into Welcome to Temptation that made my heroine sound like an idiot. I did catch the copy editor in Bet Me who tried changing “being into becoming” to “becoming into being;” her way is logical but not chaos theory. Mostly, good copy editors save my ass every time.

In the end, if there’s a screw-up in your book, it’s your fault, not your editor’s. So you make it as perfect as possible, and then turn it over to them and follow their advice to make it even better.  

Good editors are worth their weight in gold, rubies, diamonds, and plutonium.

Good questions to ask if you’re editing/critiquing somebody’s manuscript:

  1. What must be kept.  What really works here, the parts that make you want to read them again, that give you insight into characters, that provide action and suspense . . . you know, the good stuff.  Tell the writer what those are so she won’t cut them.
  2. What needs work.  There’s stuff in there that’s slow, boring, too long, but it’s important to the story so the writer can’t cut it, she or he has to fix it.  Explain why it needs fixed but don’t tell her or him how to fix it.  That’s the writer’s choice.
  3. What should be cut.  Sometimes stuff gets in there that just doesn’t belong, especially things that have become the writer’s darlings.  Other times the writer feels the need to explain something that’s unnecessary to the story.  Sometimes she just goes on too damn long in a scene.  Tell her those things need to go because they’re clogging up her story.

And then don’t feel bad if she disagrees or ignores your advice.  Your her editor, not her mother, she doesn’t have to listen to you.  But she should thank you profusely because editing is a bitch of a job.

(If you need practice editing/critiquing, you can practice on this and then ask questions in the comments.)

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54 thoughts on “Questionable: What Do Editors Do?

  1. Thank you! This is fascinating. It makes sense that someone reading a book for the first time might notice jarring things that the author doesn’t.

    And that they could point them out, but not be writing anything.

    Roughly like I might not truly notice piles of clutter in my house, because I see them every day and my brain registers them as normal, but a home stager would see them as a barrier to seeing the house.

    6+

  2. I have a problem with the Bad Ass socks. I keep expecting a reference to Granny Weatherwax. I don’t know how many other people remember the “assumingly named town in the Ramtops” though so that might just be on me to deal with.

    0

      1. I assumed you did. 🙂

        My brain just reflexively starts looking for Terry Pratchett when I see Bad Ass. I think it’s the capitals.

        1+

  3. As I read the first two paragraphs I thought of a pretty well-known author of a good series that got worse and worse because it wasn’t edited for clarity and plot enough. I thought, “A good editor is worth their weight in saffron.” Then you mentioned jewels, and I liked that we were on similar valuations! 😀

    As for that aforementioned author, it seemed like as the series got more successful, they left in more of what she wanted, except “Oops, they published the parts that people skip.” Gah.

    I was part of a writer’s group once where an an older author was very grumpily dismissive of another author/editor because said editor want to change the actual sentence structure of his work. Good editors should suggest changes not make changes.

    2+

    1. You can definitely tell when an author gets so big, they (or someone) decides to let them get away without being edited. OY. Everyone needs editors.

      4+

  4. This is such great advice. A good editor is a dream and is right 95+% of the time. What’s interesting is that not all editors have the same approach but different approaches work just as well (at least they did for me).

    I had both good and bad experiences with the same not-to-be-named publisher (I think). One of the editors I had there was freaking awesome, some were OK, and the last one really, really didn’t work for me… But I’m not really blaming her. I didn’t fit the mold as she saw it. Another publisher loved the same story.

    1+

  5. It threw me a little bit that you introduce the three Hotels, but the first conversation only has two names included. I know you mention Astoria a few paragraphs later, but I did find myself wondering about that until then.

    1+

    1. You know, I wondered about that. I was worried I was throwing so many characters in there. That’s Nick’s first appearance, Vinnie, Rab, Jeo, and then the Hotels, before characters introduced in the previous scene walk in. I wanted the Hotels in there as witnesses (as in, didn’t they notice the fireball? Why, yes, they did, you find out much later) and as set dressing for the bar; they’re going to be important later. But that was a lot, and I couldn’t find a way to work “Astoria” into the conversation easily, so I let Rab handle that. Maybe I should shove it in anyway.

      1+

  6. Long-time reader, second time commentor. I love following along as Act 1 has evolved from a wonderful story that was great fun to read if you already knew all the discussion threads on Argh, through all the intermediate drafts, to this draft which has pretty much all the polish of picking up a brand new book at the library or bookstore, and starting to read it.

    Seeing whole discussion threads on Argh turn into just the right phrasing of a couple of sentences of text, or finding the new addition of half a sentence of dialogue that now makes me laugh out loud, has been a wonderful window on the creative process. Thank you, Jenny, for letting us read many versions of Act 1 on Nita and Nick’s journey to publication.

    I found one What Needs Work: in the bar scene, when Mort asks Nick for his shirt, this draft says Nick stands up. But Nick has already been standing through the whole scene, leaning against the archway door.

    4+

    1. Thank you very much, good catch.
      It’s fun for me to look back, too. I usually don’t pay much attention to the previous drafts, so putting some of them up here has been eye-opening for me and actually helpful in remembering that early drafts are just trying to get something on the page.
      If you look up at the Works in Progress tab at the top of the blog, the first draft of the first scene is up there. It’s damn near unreadable it’s so bad, but it had to be there to get to here. And “here” will be changed, too, after I do a paper edit, after the betas, after Jen reads it, after I do the copy edits, after the galleys . . .

      4+

      1. I was just coming here to ask, “How do you do it? Do you even look at the first drafts? Do you just work from memory?” And here you’ve answered. How do you do it? I’ve only read the first two paragraphs, and it’s an amazing transformation. I thought what I read in previous drafts were great and good and remarkable, but this? Setting, atmosphere . . . so much good stuff in just two paragraphs.

        And to think . . . you don’t think it’s done yet.

        Anyway, I find it hard to put away my old drafts. At least 50 percent of the time, when I’m working from the memory, I think the memory is better than what I’m actually writing now, and I get all embarrassed and unhappy. Then I go back and look . . . and yeah, it often was phrased better in places. And phrased worse in others, so I’ve just moved around the badness, and if I try stitching together the good . . . well, it just doesn’t work. They don’t match around the edges.

        I think I have to put more trust into the 30th draft. Eventually, there will be enough goodness to stitch together.

        (Off to read the rest.)

        2+

        1. Every draft builds on the one before.
          The first draft is just to get something on paper. Then each draft does something different. Deepens a different character. Works on a different relationship. Arcs a different part of the plot. Cuts out anything that can be cut out. Sharpens language. And so on. And each draft is influenced by the rest of the book, the changes in Act Four change Act One. I don’t go back to original drafts because they’re just foundation.
          But as you know, there are many roads to Oz, so definitely follow your own instincts.

          4+

  7. I have had a number of different editors, some better than others. The best ones made me shine.

    Years ago, my Llewellyn editor (who is a goddess) gave me massive edits that literally made me weep and want to quit writing. Lo and behold, once I’d done everything (okay, 98%) of what she requested, the book was much better. So I wrote her this apology haiku, which she has printed out over her desk. As do I, as a reminder.

    Here is what I know
    When an author is in doubt
    Editor is right

    (Mind you, this is only true if your editor is a good editor. I have another haiku for the crappy ones. I won’t share it here.)

    5+

  8. In Part Two you have this:

    “Pay attention,” Mort said. “Those doughnuts were poisoned with iron filings. Two people have died.”

    Followed a few sentences later by:

    Nita scowled at him. “Stop that.” She went back to Mort. “Who died?”

    “Two elderly Ashtons and an even more elderly Molloy.”

    Which adds up to three, I think. 🙂

    I’m sure someone would have caught it sometime, but I’ve had enough of my own work go through five pairs and eyes and STILL found mistakes that I don’t take that for granted any more.

    3+

    1. See–this is why authors need editors! I had one minor character in a book who showed up at the beginning and end, briefly both times. The first time she was a blonde child, the second time she had dark hair. NOBODY caught it. Not me, not my agent, not my editor, copy editor, proofreader, or any of my multiple first readers. SIGH. So of course, one of my readers saw it and told me, after the book was published.

      2+

  9. “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you.
    And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”
    — Arthur Plotnik
    (I keep this posted over my desk.)

    4+

  10. This was such a treat – thank you!

    I enjoyed the whole thing, even though I’ve read most of it heaps. I think you can declare the breakfast scene fixed. It certainly works for me now.

    A thought: if you’re having trouble fitting the Hotels into the first bar scene, maybe you could leave them out till the next morning? I kept track of the names etc fine this time, but that’s probably only because I’ve read about them before.

    0

    1. Yes, but there’s a cast of thousands in the breakfast scene, too.
      New characters: Sandy, Daphne, Phronie, Dom, Dorothy, the Mayor.
      Old characters: Nita, Nick, Mort, Rab, Jeo, the three Hotels.
      Argh.

      1+

  11. Only two things I had a little trouble with: What’s Nita doing drinking when there’s still work to be done? And when Nick gets stabbed in the chest, then slumps over . . . how does Nita see it?

    But wow. So many things are working much more smoothly. The Daphne/Jeo romance is more concrete. Dealing with the three ladies at the historical society fits in really well. The ending of act one is a lot tighter, and more powerful. I can’t wait to see the rest!

    1+

  12. Hi. Where can I find the latest version of Nita’s Chapter 1? Folks are mentioning it, but under Works in Progress I can’t find anything recent. I’d love to catch up.

    0

  13. (I haven’t read the other comments yet.) This is good. It moves much better, and there are great surprises/turning points along the way – like Nick getting stabbed at breakfast. It’s fun, and I was more involved than ever.

    The only place I found myself struggling was in Hell: there are so many extra characters to take in at once, with names that are similar or synonymous (except in this story), plus the extra level of complexity of the four pseudonyms. It was Lemmon, Moloch, Mammon and Max that were the most challenging, I think. And I’m now fairly familiar with the story. It’s not that you haven’t characterized them, I think it was just that there are so many to take in. (I was a bit tired when I read this scene, though.)

    Was surprised that Moloch (I think) had a collar: I was imagining naked coloured beings – read, probably, or blue for the devils. The sort of thing depicted in Renaissance paintings or Blake.

    It’s going to be really good – meaning this part is already great, and I absolutely trust that the rest will live up to it.

    0

    1. The name thing is important; maybe if I change Moloch to another demon. That would give me Mammon, Ashtaroth, Thanatos, and somebody whose name does not begin with M.
      I’ll put in something about what the demons look like; hadn’t thought of that. I’m TERRIBLE at descriptions.

      1+

  14. This is just wonderful. A couple of minor glitches and two thoughts.

    An extra that in this sentence: . Iron doesn’t kill adults, not that in that small an amount.”

    Part four the first sentence about Motel Styx is messed up.

    Thought one: the pacing on Nita figuring out what is real feels a bit off. We don’t see it at all until Motel Styx and then we see a lot of it, maybe too much. I really like the scene where she accepts it though.

    Thought 2: we don’t know why Max is Mammons fixer. Why would one demon serve another ? Usually fixers are in it for the money. Do demons have money? Max seems willing to take a smite for him. And Ashtaroth treats him like a subordinate or servant. Are there demon ranks? Is Max bound to Mammon? This may become clearer later in the book

    0

    1. Will fix the glitches, thank you.

      I have to do better at setting up Hell, you’re right. It wasn’t going to be clearer later, and I’d need to clear it up when you start to ask questions or it throws you out of the story, so thanks for that, too.

      0

  15. Nick sat down on the wobbly stool and began to scan through Rab’s research on the shoddy table

    sounds like he’s reading about the table.

    This draft is amazing!

    0

  16. Still reading, but this math didn’t make sense to me:
    “Eight years will have passed there, eighty years will have passed for you here, but in Hell you’ll look and feel like eight thousand years have passed because of the accelerated aging.” Part 2, convo between Nick & Jeo.

    Will the math/time zone conversion be more fully explained later?

    0

    1. Hmmm.
      Nick tells Belia that he’ll call in an hour Hell time, and then says, that’s ten hours here.
      Then there’s the conversation with Jeo that you’re talking about.
      Then when Nick and the mayor talk, the mayor does the ten-to-one math to figure out when Nick’s leaving.
      Then when Nick’s at the historical society, he realizes that the Demon Firsters set up the island to plot against him because they could leave Hell for an hour and have ten hours here.

      So I think that part’s established.

      BUT the accelerated aging isn’t. I need to get in there that demons age very slowly in Hell, but they age like humans when they’re on Earth.

      AAAAAGH. Back story. It sucks.

      0

      1. Ok, yes, I see all the convos about 1 hr in Hell = 10 hours on Earth.
        I assumed that Jeo would age at Earth-pace on Earth. So, if he’s in his twenties now, let’s say 25, and he lives on Earth for 80 years, then by the time he calls it quits because Daphne has died, he’ll be 105 (and Earth’s equivalent of 105, so old, no matter how great shape you kept yourself in). So are you telling me that when he goes back to Hell, his body will try to become the Hell equivalent of 105? Which is eight thousand? Does that mean you have to be really careful about how many times you go back and forth? Like, great, the Demon Firsters came up with this island to have uninterrupted plotting time. But if they stay on Earth too long, wouldn’t their body acceler-age when they go back to Hell? And shouldn’t someone notice this? Or do they just make sure not to stay that long?

        0

        1. Yes, although I’m not sure my math holds up (g).

          I had a bit about assimilation in one of the first drafts and it got cut. I’ll have to work that back in. But yes, that’s why the demons who died from the doughnuts were just over 100. In Hell they’d have lived thousands of years. And yes, spending too long on Earth is really bad which is why Jeo’s request to stay is so remarkable.

          I think it depends on a person’s spirit. There are people who climb mountains or go spelunking or whatever knowing that they could die, but they want the adventure more than the long life. Hell is a corporate town, and it’s a patriarchy; it’s no accident that a lot of demons who decide to stay are women. That’s actually part of the plot; there’s one character in there who was born on the island because her mother came in while she pregnant and decided to stay so her daughter would have a better life. Demons who emigrate are looking for a better life, not a longer one.

          But yes, I need some Hell back story stuff in there. ARGH ARGH ARGH.

          1+

  17. I’ve been following the evolution of this book for two years now. I would have said a year ago that it couldn’t get better, but this draft is definitely the best. I am now picking up why Jason has motivation to be incompetent. I love the people who say “Button?” and get a worried look. I appreciate the smoothness of Nick’s becoming more alive.

    But I’m nearly 76. If you get it published while I’m still alive, I promise to pay full price for the hardback!

    Three tiny nits and a confusion:

    • In section two, Buttons have been in law enforcement for three centuries, but they date back to the 17th Century. May I suggest saying “more than three centuries”?

    • Also in section two “since Witherspoon still has a lot of friends still on the force. You might consider dropping one of the two “still’s.”

    • “Dom, the editor, is very smart, goof guy to have on your side.” Tiny typo.

    Here was my confusion: In the final section, “Inside one of Motel Styx’s grubbier rooms, Mort said there, and Nita an arcane looking box …” The sentence seems damaged. I wonder if you intended: “Mort said, ‘There,’ and Nita *saw* an arcane looking box …”?

    I grant that all these are tiny, and would have been fixed eventually, anyway.

    I love watching the progress, but I eagerly await the final book.

    2+

    1. Two years. Oi.

      I am lousy at centuries. 1700s, 1800s, 1900s: that three centuries, right? Except the 1700s were the 16th century. So four centuries because we can’t count the 2000s as a century yet, we just started it. So four centuries? I have all this lovely back story on the Buttons, starting with the first one who was a big fan of Cotton Mather, but since others had already moved on the witches by the time he found his calling, he decided to go for demons. I also have all the names of all the Button women through the centuries, and I’m thinking seriously of changing “Chloe” to “Patience.” It would be one reason to prefer being called “Button.”

      Definitely only one still, fixing the “goof”, and that awful first motel sentence.

      The motel stuff and the stabbing and the Captain revision scene are all still raw because once I stabbed Nick, it threw everything after that into a new light. ARGH.

      Thank you!

      2+

      1. Wrong way round: the seventeenth century = the 1600s (the first century being AD 1-99, making the second century 100-199, etc.). And more than 300 years have passed since 1699, the last year of the seventeenth century.

        2+

  18. Two small things that I’m sticking at – Nita mixing herself an alcoholic toddy when she’s on the job, even if she’s not official. She’s put herself on the job, and it still jars that she’s hitting the booze again.
    – there’s the mention of Beelzebub and the dinosaurs (which I love) but Beelzebub came into power about 5000 years into human history. I can reason this away, and argue that he could have been around several million years before he took office as the Devil, but it did catch in my mind.

    1+

    1. The booze. This is one of those things I’m going to have to keep and just motivate because if she’s not drinking, there’s no scupper and without the scupper the first act falls apart. But, you’re right, it has to be dealt with. Button addresses the drinking in the car; I think she’d press Nita on it in the bar, although she is in a dicey situation there since she’s new in town and doesn’t really start work until the next day. It’s the same with the bag Nita hauls around with her which isn’t standard. I need to do something with that bag or get rid of it. I think I’m getting rid of it, but the scupper drinking has to stay, it just needed to be addressed in a line or two.

      Then Beelzebub. He did the dinosaurs before there was a Devil, but yep, I stuck on that, too. There was no way I could make it work that his term overlapped with the dinosaurs, so I decided he’d swung by Earth earlier. Except that doesn’t work, either, because demons have long lives, but not that long. This is a “kill your darlings” moment. That line’s been in there from the beginning I think, and it just has to go. It is, as my old creative writing prof used to put it, a cheap laugh. I’m not even sure it’s something the early Nick would say. So now I go back to find something that happened six or seven thousand years ago and pin that on him because I do need to set up that Beelzebub’s a loose cannon who was given too much power and needed to be put in check. Off to research. Thank you!

      2+

      1. from wikipedia

        Environmental changes

        Based on studies by glaciologist Lonnie Thompson, professor at Ohio State University and researcher with the Byrd Polar Research Center, a number of indicators shows there was a global change in climate 5,200 years ago, probably due to a drop in solar energy output as hypothesized by Ohio State University.[1]

        * Plants buried in the Quelccaya Ice Cap in the Peruvian Andes demonstrate the climate had shifted suddenly and severely to capture the plants and preserve them until now.[2]
        * A man trapped in an Alpine glacier (“Ötzi the Iceman”) is frozen until his discovery in 1991.[3]
        * Tree rings from Ireland and England show this was their driest period.[3]
        * Ice core records showing the ratio of two oxygen isotopes retrieved from the ice fields atop Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, a proxy for atmospheric temperature at the time snow fell.[3]
        * Major changes in plant pollen uncovered from lakebed cores in South America.[3]
        * Record lowest levels of methane retrieved from ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica.[3]
        * End of the Neolithic Subpluvial, start of desertification of Sahara (35th century BC). North Africa shifts from a habitable region to a barren desert.[3]

        2+

  19. After all these years I still don’t know what potstickers are but they sound delicious 🙂

    1+

    1. Check the Chinese freezer section at your grocery or the frozen food section at Target.
      They’re dumplings. You fry them on one side, then pour water in the pan and slap the lid on and steam them through. And there’s a tangy sauce that goes along. Excellent.

      3+

  20. Scupper guzzling works for me. Because because. Nita doesn’t care whether she’s on or off the force, she’s going to do the job anyway. She’s feeling awful, toddy’s the fix.
    Seems to stop other folks, though, so …

    0

      1. I think for me it feels like it undermines the whole thing with the coffee and Nita stepping into professional mode. And she seems too smart and tough to further impair her judgement and reflexes once she knows she needs to be on her game.

        I could see her drinking the scupper if she thought it was non-alcoholic.

        0

        1. Coffee doesn’t sober you up, it just makes you more alert. You’re still drunk, you’re just not drowsy. Button’s pretty young, I figured she wouldn’t know that. I think Nita would, though, which is a new problem.

          As far as professional, she’s wearing poodle pajamas. If she were interested in professionalism, she’d have Button take her home to change. She just wants to know what happened because she owes it to Jimmy and Jason’s going to close the case.

          But I do have to make that clearer, you’re right.

          1+

  21. Wow, I nearly missed the link, and that was so much fun! Personally, I didn’t find the toddy incongruous- more of a “hair that bit the dog” thing. She’s already not thinking clearly. She only starts guzzling because scupper is so guzzlable and delicious. I don’t see her pouring that many shots of bourbon in there.

    1+

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