Elizabeth started out as a writer, learned to be an editor because she needed to eat, then woke up one morning to discover she'd become a publisher and had to start learning all over again. She has four novels published, which she made sure were edited by some of the worst nitpickers she could find, and once was a finalist in Writers of the Future. She and Zumaya Publications LLC live in Austin TX.
What Editors Do
There is a lot of misunderstanding about what editors do. Partly, this has happened because frustrated writers have posted horror stories about a particular experience without also stressing it was a one-time occurrence. There is also a lot of confusion because people don’t understand the various levels of editing.
First, it’s important to understand that editors come in two flavors. Substantive (sometimes called Line) editors review a manuscript looking for structure, continuity, character development, dialogue and all the other parts that make up a story. Their goal is to polish these elements for the same reason a jeweler polishes a diamond—to make it shine. Copyeditors, while they may point out errors in all of the above categories, are mostly there to check spelling, grammar, sentence structure, continuity, and to check facts. Proofreaders look for mistakes that might still hide in the manuscript after the two editors have finished with it.
The substantive editor may begin by giving the author a general critique of the manuscript, with suggestions on how it might be improved in general before a more in-depth revision begins. For example, here is part of what I told one of my authors whose YA science fiction thriller I later signed as a trilogy.
"I have a sense this could be worked into a series, depending on just how much work you're willing to do on it. In general, I feel it's rather more like a detailed outline than a finished manuscript. I just love the SF/medical thriller aspects, and see so much potential in the characters I want to let them blossom."
A true professional editor has no desire to rewrite an author’s work. The best ones have the ability to immerse themselves in the author’s style and voice. In neither case will they make arbitrary changes to someone else’s work. In the following examples, a slash indicates a suggested or recommended change, signified by the use of blue and red respectively. If the word is marked with red strikeout, it should be deleted.
In the first paragraph, I have strongly recommended a word change that I believe better defines how the character would feel. “Knowing” implies she is making a hurtful statement on purpose, which doesn’t fit a young woman speaking to her much-loved grandmother. In the second, getting can be deleted to avoid the repetition without altering the meaning of the sentence. Word repetition is also the reason for the second deletion.
￼In this sample, I've suggested the use of the pronoun in the third paragraph is unclear, since the character has stated she’s “recognized” writing on the locket. I’m asking whether it is, in fact, the language of the writing that’s not familiar. In the last paragraph, I felt an explanation of why the marked text needs to be deleted—the character hasn't actually opened the locket yet, so she can’t “almost drop” the paper, just the locket.
In the final example, I've recommended moving a phrase (red strikeout) from the second sentence to the first. It’s always preferable to use descriptive details as early as possible, especially in a dramatic moment.
To read the example with the recommended changes enabled go here: https://www.box.com/s/35d39c7a9df62a60b2fa
The above examples fall onto the line between substantive editing and copyediting. In reviewing this section of text, the substantive editor might also suggest that in the first few paragraphs the author add some additional description of the locket and the grandmother’s reaction, and more about the main character’s reaction when she finds the hoped-for note inside the locket. This is where the author’s style would come into play, since some writers don’t care for a lot of descriptive detail, preferring to let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks.
However, if the editor knows more is needed, the recommendation will include an explanation of why the changes are necessary. There’s no need to accept suggestions blindly, but neither is it sensible to refuse them without discussion. And, in the end, the final decision will lie with the publisher’s expectations.
In other words, before you sign the contract, ask your assigned editor whether extensive changes to the manuscript are likely, and for details. If it’s clear there’s a serious difference in the editor’s perception of what your book is and your own, don’t hesitate to inquire further. By the same token, don’t immediately reject something that might sound as if it’s not what you envisioned.
Ending at the beginning, I advised the author of that first manuscript I mentioned that I felt she really had three different story threads, and that in trying to put them all in a single manuscript she was missing a chance to explore a truly interesting post-apocalyptic world. More important, she had created some terrific characters, but they all lacked the opportunity to develop their full potential. I suggested she consider making the manuscript into two or three books, starting the first book earlier so the effects of the disaster could be observed by the reader firsthand rather than as backstory, and recommended some possible break points for each of the books.
In this case, the author had actually envisioned a series but hadn’t believed it would be as easy to place as a stand-alone. I believe the books she’s now working on will give The Hunger Games serious competition.