Thursday, April 20, 2017

Editor's Notes #31: My Role as the Enforcer


For those of you who have editors you love (or at least love the quality of their work): how much control do you give them over your manuscript?

I find myself with a multitude of "control levels" when I edit, depending on the author. I tend to be rather tentative when working with an author for the first time, for a number of reasons. I think part of it is that I don't want to scare anyone before they get to know me. I believe (and please correct me if I'm wrong) that most authors are a tiny bit possessive of the manuscripts they've worked so hard to polish. By the time they give it to an editor, they're about as ready as they can be, but they're probably apprehensive of what the editor will tell them. [Love it? Hate it? No affirming comments whatsoever? And what does that mean?] 

My job is to correct what's wrong, yes. But my job is tricky, because I need to do these corrections in such a way that I don't break anyone's spirit or cause discouragement. Make no mistake: there are some things that are black-and-white wrong or right, and those things need to change no matter what else happens. But there are other items that often need attention, and tact is the name of the game.

When I'm working with someone new, I tend to leave a lot of margin comments. Sometimes I do this to explain why I've changed something—such as when there's a common error that "everyone" assumes to be correct, or there's a situation where I appear to be inconsistent but am actually correct. For example, the average reader isn't aware that the word after a colon isn't usually capitalized unless what follows the colon is a question. There are, of course, exceptions, as there always seem to be, but that's the basic rule. So if I have a capped word after a colon in one spot but not in another, the author may think I have no idea what I'm doing. Many authors do know this particular rule—but just in case, I figure it's better to be safe than sorry, so I'll add a margin note to explain the edit.

My basic premise when editing (and I tell people this up front) is that I correct and approve all changes that are nonnegotiable. I'm not going to take the chance that someone will either a.) undo everything I've worked on by hitting the wrong button, or b.) think that proper punctuation is optional and only a suggestion.

I once edited someone's short short (nonfiction) story about her husband's descent into Alzheimer's-induced dementia, and each time she sent the paper back to me, all the changes I'd made were gone. Now, I need to clarify that she was not a paying client—just a friend—and is an elderly lady who admittedly was "just dumb sometimes" (her words) when it came to word processing programs. I must have edited that thing six times for every one time the changes stayed put. She kept saying things like, "I thought I'd mentioned that I wanted to add such and such," and "What happened to the section on so and so?" and I would point out that I'd already added such and such, and the section on so and so was right where we'd left it. In my copy, that is.

Lesson learned. I ended up making all the corrections one final time, approved every dang one of them, relabeled the document, and sent it to her with strict instructions to DELETE every other copy she had in her possession. I told her I still had her original if she needed it, but that the final copy with all the corrections was the only one she needed to keep and/or read through. It was frustrating and funny at the same time, because she was obviously not an experienced writer and couldn't figure out what she was doing wrong.

My tentative attitude goes away bit by bit as I work with an author more often. Those authors I've worked with multiple times trust my judgment on what needs to move along and what can stay, and it makes my job easier with each subsequent book.

Each author has his or her own preference, though, and I will abide by their wishes if the reasoning makes sense. Otherwise, I will of course tell them why they are wrong and need to obey listen to me. S.K. Anthony is a classic example of someone I trust completely when it comes to doing the right thing. She trusts that I know what I'm doing, but she wants to approve all changes herself (even the nonnegotiables) because she uses the read-through as a teaching tool. Her theory runs along these lines: if she has to approve every change, one by one, then she will know what she did wrong for next time, and there will be fewer errors. She also describes herself as a control freak when it comes to her manuscripts, and though I won't argue with that (there really is no winning an argument with her), she is a lovable control freak so I go with it and she approves all changes.

Other authors run the gamut from "this is what I pay you for and if you do it wrong, your name is on the editing credits for people to blame" (fair enough) to "we've worked on enough books that I trust your judgment even on the subjective stuff; just do it and I'll be fine with it." The cool thing about the latter sentiment is that the author gets back a pretty clean-looking manuscript and has the ego-boost moment of "hey, there weren't many changes to be made . . . I rock." Of course I'm always quick to wipe the (fake) sweat off my brow and talk about how hard I worked to make it look that clean.

Overall, the important part is to have an ongoing communication between an author and me so we're all clear on what responsibilities fall on which side of the table.

What is your preference?

13 comments:

  1. I edit the way SK does - I want to make the correction so I can see what I'm doing wrong.
    With my publisher's editor, I usually approve almost every single edit. I want it to be good.
    Funny story about the old lady. You have a lot of patience.

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    1. I'm not surprised at your approach, Alex. I think I would be the same, no matter how much I trusted the editor. Either that, or I would spend my time using the "compare" feature to see everything that was done.

      I'm not sure I'm that patient, but the situation with the lady became so comical after a while that I couldn't stay frustrated.

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  2. Simple proofreading is hard enough with some writers. I've edited articles and short stories, but I don't know if I'd have enough patience to edit someone's book.

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    1. I have S.K. Anthony read all my blog posts prior to scheduling them, because even though they're typically under 1000 words, I still end up with errors that need to be fixed. Usually it's my attitude, rather than typos, but those sneak in there, too.

      I find myself mentally editing books I read for pleasure, so I guess I'm wired for it. I don't do it consciously, but if there's an error to be spotted, I suddenly kick into revision mode in my head for the remainder of the book. Gift and curse.

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  3. I know what you mean. I recently read a novel where the author wrote "waived" when he should have written "waved." (He self-published it, apparently without an editor.) He did it twice, and it really bothered me!

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    1. I run into "waived" frequently, and it always surprises me. My best guess is that it's one of those MS Word "suggestions" that people accept when they're not sure.

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  4. I have not yet worked with an editor, so I'm completely clueless about the whole thing. Do you edit on paper, digitally, or either depending on the situation? I guess technology usage would require the collaboration of the author, but it seems like tools like Google comments, etc. could be really useful for this stuff. What's the reality of that?

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    1. So far, everyone I've edited for has not been geographically close in any way, so I do all my edits digitally. There are a few good reasons for it: I can edit for people who are not in my city, which is a big factor since I don't live in a very happenin' town for author population density. Additionally, I like the swift back & forth of digital editing. I don't have to wait for someone to make an appointment with me, or for something to be sent in the mail.

      I typically have authors send me their manuscripts in Word, and I edit there. I love making margin comments and having the changes show clearly. It's funny, because I use Google docs at work all the time (my day job) and prefer that, but for editing books of any length, I prefer MS Word. Google docs saves changes automatically, which is great in a lot of ways (not much chance of a crash and loss), but the rate I charge is based on the number of revisions as a percentage of the total word count, so I need the accuracy of the exact number of revisions that Word gives me.

      Thanks for stopping by to read and comment, whoever you are! I always welcome new readers.

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    2. Heyyyy, I just realized it's you, Darrell! I get to say I knew you before you were famous . . . assuming you WILL be famous someday. Don't let me down; I need the street cred.

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    3. Hey! Yeah...I wasn't trying to be anonymous. Actually, I was trying to figure out how to make it display my name, but it didn't seem to be working. Anyway, thanks for the info!

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    4. At least now you have proof that I am, indeed, kind to strangers.

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  5. I write a lot of comments and explanations of the reasons for the changes I make, but I stand by what I learned when I took the class to receive accreditation as a writing tutor: authors are the authority on their work.

    Even if they're wrong, it belongs to them.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. When they're wrong, I'd rather have them take ownership. ;)

      But yes, I will encourage—sometimes strong-arm in a delightfully loving way—and ultimately leave the choice to the owner of the work.

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I love comments, and will always answer them, partly because I like having the last word and partly because I just like getting to know the people who read my blog.