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Love Your Editor

by Nann Dunne 

All right, so maybe loving your editor is asking too much. Sometimes it's a struggle just to like your editor. But the next time an editor's strikethrough makes you want to throttle her, here are a few things to keep in mind.

The basic goal driving an editor is to help make the author's work—and thus the author—look as good as possible. Each year, thousands of authors submit books for publication. Only a handful rise above the competition. Presenting a well-crafted, well-edited manuscript enhances an author's chance of being in that handful.

Self-editing is highly recommended, but many authors still need help beyond their own devices. Knowledgeable beta readers can be of tremendous assistance, but the operative word here is "knowledgeable." Yes, they may be experts on spelling, grammar, and syntax or even have a good feel for characterization, plot, pace, etc. But editing includes scrutinizing a manuscript with an assiduous eye for every phase of writing; and in most cases, only a trained, experienced editor can uncover all the flaws.

An experienced editor's constant lament could be: If you don't know what you're looking for, you don't know what you've missed. Some writers would dismiss this by assuming if they don't know something is wrong, the reader won't either. But readers are a bright group, and if your book is not well-crafted, they will notice. They might not be able to pinpoint why the book didn't work for them, but your next one will be a much tougher sell. Most publishers know this, and the better-quality ones look for better-quality writing.

Here are just a few of the questions I try to keep in mind as I edit a story:

1. Does this scene, paragraph, sentence, word help develop this story? Does it add anything integral to character delineation, plot, setting? Does it make me care more about anything? If I delete it, would the story be affected in a negative way? Or perhaps a positive one?

2. Could the scene or paragraph be structured more logically—more sequentially? Could it be tighter without losing the author’s voice or affecting the mood? Can passive voice be changed to active—and should it be in this particular sentence? (Depends somewhat on the mood to be set, in my opinion. But active case gives a sentence more power.) Does the writing "move," or does it bog the reader down?

3. Is this a run-on sentence that needs a semicolon? Are too many clauses and/or phrases contained in this sentence? Would breaking it into two or three sentences make it crisper? (I always think yes, unless the author is trying to lull the reader into a particular mood; for example: contemplative, downbeat, or eerie.)

4. Is there variety in sentence structure? Could clauses or phrases be interchanged to read more smoothly? Is the sentence structured collaterally: noun, verb—noun, verb? (Or verb, noun—verb, noun.) Is it obvious to whom the pronouns refer?

5. Is this the perfect word to use, without getting too intellectual for the desired audience? Could the word be more specific or more colorful? Does it fit smoothly into the sentence? Do the words immediately preceding and following form a combination hard for the reader to "say"? (Reading your words aloud helps catch this.)

6. Has this word or phrase been overused in this section or even in the whole story?

Many more details need attended to, of course. Other questions exist about action versus narrative (the old "show versus tell"), pace, dramatic elements, the creation of dialogue that furthers the characterization/setting/plot, the structure of the story as a whole, integrity of the story's facts, quotes, etc.

Remember, whether you love your editor or not, she will work hand-in-hand with you to polish your work to catch a potential publisher's eye. Professional editing services may seem expensive, but they can make the difference between a published story and a rejected one.

Nann Dunne
From Nann Dunne's Fiction-Editing Handbook (a work in progress).

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