(Reprinted with permission from Ann Harmer, freelance editor.)
You’ve spent months, perhaps years, writing your masterpiece, polishing and perfecting it, and now you’re ready to release it to the world. You even ran it through your spell-checker and double-checked your commas, the same as editors do, right? Well, not exactly.
Editors do check spelling and punctuation, but they do much, much more. An editor works with your reader in mind, whether your intended audience is a novice beekeeper, an armchair traveller, or a collector of mystery novels. You want your writing to be completely accessible to this reader; you want your thoughts and ideas conveyed without ambiguity. However, you’ve been so closely wrapped up in your work for so long that it can be hard to see it now with an objective eye.
If anything stops your reader mid-sentence—a convoluted sentence, a missed step in a recipe, or the dead character who was alive in the last chapter—your own writing loses credibility. And you, quite possibly, lose a reader. Hence the importance of an editor.
The first step in the editing process is structural: checking how the information is organized and whether it follows logically, through sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. A field guide about mushrooms, for example, would do well to place cautions about poisoning at the beginning of the book instead of the end. Fiction must have a believable story line, with no gaps or dead ends in the plot.
Editors of fiction also look for realistic character development. Do the characters have individual mannerisms and ways of looking at life, or are they distinguished only by hair color and height? What about dialogue? People in real life seldom speak in complete sentences; fictional people who do come across as wooden.
Then comes copy editing, when the editor reads every line, word by word. Here the spelling and grammar get checked, as well as sentence structure, continuity (the red hat that was blue two hours earlier), and repetition. Extraneous words get weeded out—the extra “that,” the “this is what is,” the unnecessary “very.” The editor prepares a style sheet, noting such things as preferred spellings, how numbers are shown, and abbreviations, so they appear consistently throughout the book.
A good copy editor also does basic fact-checking. That great quote from the famous Eastern philosopher won’t seem so great if someone else actually said it. (If your work is heavy on statistics, tables, and graphs, it’s a good idea to employ someone with expertise to check only facts.)
You will be concerned, understandably, that the edited work will end up not sounding like your work at all. For that reason, it’s wise to ask an editor to work on one or two sample chapters, to see if you’re happy with the editing style before entrusting the entire book to this person’s red pen. A good editor will retain your voice, meaning that your ideas are still expressed in your words. The best editing remains invisible: at first glance, you’ll think very few changes occurred.
Publishers assign editors to work with even their best writers. Is your writing good enough to be edited?