Editing 101

Editing 101

Last week I gave you all the eight steps to my writing process. If you haven’t checked that out, you can go here to review that information before we get into today’s HUGE blog post. I say HUGE because it is, it’s like a college course. Welcome to Editing 101! I hope you’re ready to take notes. 

Leading us in this week’s seminar is my very own editor, Harrison Demchick, who I’ve worked with on my last two published novels in the Guardian of the Core series. Like all good stories start, I connected with him through a serendipitous act of networking that had occurred while in college.

Young, ambitious, and naive, I wanted to publish my novel, so I reached out to an editor I had a mutual connection with, but she specialized in non-fiction work and sent me over to Harrison who specializes in my type of genre. He is very much to thank for what my first novel The Trials of the Core turned out to be, and although he gave me a lot of work in revisions, he gave me true insight at the flaws and the strengths of my manuscript, my characters, and my writing style. Needless to say, I am forever indebted to him, as well as the story itself for much of it changed with his guidance.

Anyway, enough of that, you came here to read the interview. Welcome to Editing 101.

The Interview

  • Briefly describe your journey in the realm of editing. Why did you start? How did you progress? How long have you worked in the industry? Where have you worked? Where do you work currently? What types of manuscripts are you best at editing? Etc.

It’s difficult to remember a time I wasn’t editing in one form or another. Early on it took the form of workshops—I went to a magnet high school where I focused on writing, and in college I was an English major with a creative writing concentration, and workshops in both environments are focused on providing practical and specific feedback for your classmates. I was always on the literary magazine too. I loved it all, and as a logical-minded creative with an intuitive understanding of narrative, it suited me. I knew before I graduated that it’s something I wanted to do long-term. After my junior year, I interned with a small Baltimore-area publisher called Bancroft Press, and when I graduated a semester later that internship became a full-time job.

That was more than fourteen years ago. I was very fortunate to work at a small press like Bancroft, because when you work at a small press—I was the only full-time employee other than the publisher himself—you have a chance to learn every aspect of the publishing industry. So not only was I editing, but I was also marketing, shipping, and managing ebook sales. I worked on strategy to market books to filmmakers—and even facilitated the process by writing screenplays. Most importantly, I honed my skills as a developmental editor, working directly with authors to help them determine both what was working with their manuscript and what was not—and in the latter case, what specifically wasn’t working, why it wasn’t working, and how we could make it better.

Bancroft was an eclectic publisher with no criteria beyond what the publisher enjoyed. This made for an enormously valuable experience, because it means I’m every bit at home editing a personal memoir as a sci-fi epic. Personally, I enjoy genre fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, but I also have a particular love of editing literary fiction. I also work with a lot of thrillers, and plenty of young adult and middle grade fiction. The last couple years I’ve particularly enjoyed short fiction—but really, I’m comfortable with anything grounded in narrative.

I had been working at Bancroft for maybe around eight years when I determined I wanted to focus entirely on the editing—the part of the job I enjoyed most (with the possible exception of the screenwriting). So I went freelance—briefly on my own before joining forces with Ally Machate and her editorial boutique Ambitious Enterprises. A few years later we became the Writer’s Ally. These days I get my projects from a variety of sources, but it’s through the Writer’s Ally that I developed my work as a freelancer, and I still work with the Writer’s Ally today.

  • Do authors need editors? We are writers after all, surely we can do it ourselves?

A driven and talented writer can do all kinds of remarkable things—and they do every day. But no one can be their own second set of eyes. One of the greatest challenges of writing is getting outside your own head to see your work objectively. That’s where and why editors are necessary. An effective editor can be precise in nailing down exactly what is and is not working—and in guiding an author toward solutions. It’s not unlike seeing a doctor when you’re feeling sick or an attorney if you need legal advice. An editor is an expert who can see the path from where you are to where you want to be.

Fundamentally, I see editing as a means of teaching. No matter how talented someone may be, there’s always room to learn and develop. A talented writer is a talented writer, but it takes feedback, and a willingness to grow, to become truly an author.

  • What are the different skillsets between authors and editors?

It varies, because there are different kinds of editors and different kinds of authors. But the position from which you’re focusing on the writing is very different.

I think a good editor—a good developmental editor, anyway—needs to be something of a detective. You’re scouring the manuscript for the specific nature and root causes of the problem, and then working out a solution. Being able to communicate these things is crucial—if you see the problems but not the solutions, you’re not really helping anyone.

But understanding these things doesn’t make an editor a superior writer. A lot of editors are also writers, absolutely—certainly I am—but the idea is to guide, not to rewrite. Being a gifted writer is not necessary.

As for authors, no two are the same. Every writer has their own writer-brain. Are there some authors who can take an analytical approach much like an editor does? Sure. But a lot of writers don’t—they struggle with focus and narrative, even while crafting remarkable prose. Some writers run into major problems with story logic—and some absolutely nail it. Some who nail it, though, may not be as good at dialogue. No author is perfect. Every author has a weakness. And that means no two skillsets are entirely the same. Part of an editor’s job as well is to determine an author’s strengths and weaknesses and use that to help guide them in the right direction.

  • When searching for an editor, what are some things that the author should consider before selecting an editor?

 

I’d say the most important is experience. There are a lot of people out there claiming to be editors—this is especially true if you’re utilizing resources like Craigslist or Upwork. But not every English major with a love of writing is necessarily going to be an effective editor. You might get lucky in finding someone with serious talent, but you might also waste time or money with someone who can’t really help you.

So past work is important. You can reach out to an editor’s previous clients too. And you’re much better served if your editor is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, or Reedsy—resources that generally reflect experience.

But you should also consider that different editors specialize in different things. I can edit anything with a narrative, but if you’re working on prescriptive nonfiction, or a history textbook, or a guide to gardening, I’m probably not your guy. It’s not all the same, especially when it comes to developmental editing. But—it’s not always a developmental editor you need either. Some editors are primarily copyeditors—they’re focusing on typos and grammar errors, but don’t necessarily have the background to explain why your plot stalls out halfway through. Likewise, a developmental editor may not be the most eagle-eyed when it comes to catching spelling errors. I can be a good copyeditor as well when the situation calls for it, but I’m nowhere near as qualified as a proofreader.

An editor needs to know and communicate effectively their skills—and a writer needs to be diligent in ensuring that they’re working with someone with the experience and background to help them.

  • Do editors need any special certification? Are there any special certifications you would recommend anyone getting who wants to become an editor?

Not really. A high percentage of editors are going to have an English degree, but beyond that there’s not a common certification of which I’m aware. In this field, experience and effectiveness matter more than degrees—but of course, you’re more likely to attain that experience in the first place if you have a degree to which to point.

  • What are the type of edits that are available to authors? When would an author choose one over the other?

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of editors. Developmental editors like me focus on the substance of a manuscript—plot, characterization, conflict and tension, logic, writing style, setting, dialogue, and so forth. Within that umbrella, the most extensive feedback you can receive is a Developmental Edit—this usually includes a line-by-line markup and detailed editorial letter. But most developmental editors offer various sorts of Editorial Assessment—these services are based upon a written report rather than a markup.

As for why an author would choose one over another, often it comes down to the size of the investment—an Editorial Assessment is usually cheaper. But choosing an Editorial Assessment can also be a matter of seeking more of an overview, whether because the author has already gone through a more in-depth edit or because they’re looking for more of an overall evaluation before deciding whether to continue to pursue the manuscript at all.

Copyeditors are different—they focus on the surface of a manuscript, catching errors in spelling, grammar, syntax, etcetera. If you’re self-publishing, a Copyedit is an absolute necessity. If you’re pursuing traditional publishing and have a pretty clear grasp on the fundamentals, you may be able to get by without one. But a copyeditor is likely also to have some experience in Proofreading—that is, editing from a proof, or a manuscript post-layout ready to be printed. And an author who tells a compelling story but struggles with the language may prefer a Line Edit, which is a particularly intensive Copyedit in which your editor has more leeway to change your words in developing each sentence into the best version of itself. This is often a good option for writers writing in their second language.

You also have layout editors, as well as edits focused on a query letter, or on cover copy. But if you have a completed draft for which you’re seeking substantive feedback, you want a Developmental Editor. If you’re looking instead to correct errors, you want a Copyeditor. This is the most important distinction to keep in mind.

  • How does that process work for editing? How much contact is there between the author and the editor? What is your process/routine for editing?

There’s no one approach editor to editor. Most often, I approach the editing process in terms of packages. The idea is that a single edit is never the real goal. The real goal is a completed manuscript. So we set up multiple rounds and services—for example, a Developmental Edit, then an Editorial Assessment, then a Copyedit if needed alongside a Query Letter Review—to help guide an author through the entire process.

For me, there’s not a lot of contact between author and editor during a single round. I don’t want to provide an author feedback until I’ve gone through the entire edit so that I can be absolutely sure that what I’m saying is clear and accurate. With a Developmental Edit, that process, for me, begins with a hand-edit of the entire manuscript—that is, I’m working from a physical printout. With my second read, I’m working on the computer, reevaluating and copying my notes from the first read into the document. Once I finish that, I write my editorial letter—for me, an enormously detailed document that usually tops forty single-spaced pages. (I don’t like to leave stones unturned. Anything an author needs to know, I want to be sure they do.)

After the markup and editorial letter are delivered, the author and I have a follow-up phone call. Then the author sets to their revisions. Sometimes this includes ongoing feedback as authors send along questions or seek further feedback. Sometimes it doesn’t—it’s up to the author.

But after whatever time we’ve set aside—usually three or four months—we reconvene for the second round. An Editorial Assessment takes less time because there’s no markup, but again there’s not much communication until the round is complete. But outside rounds in progress, I like to be available to my clients as frequently as they need me to be. And this continues even after the edit is complete. Once I’m involved, I’m invested.

  • How are manuscript edits usually priced? What are things that authors can do to decrease that cost of an edit?

The investment for an edit depends on two things: the depth of the work and the word count. The latter matters simply because a longer manuscript requires more time to edit. For that reason, one sure way to reduce the cost of the edit is to cut down on the words. (A little aside, I’ll be talking about this specifically in my next blog post, watch for it there). Now, if that’s not good for the manuscript creatively, then it’s not something I recommend—because the quality of the manuscript should always be the top priority. But if you’re prone to overwriting—and a lot of writers are—then working to identify that and delete writing you don’t need can certainly save you some money.

You can also go for a less intensive service. A Developmental Edit is definitely the best and most in-depth option available, but if cost is a factor and you feel you can make the most out of the still substantial feedback an Editorial Assessment can provide, then you can go with that service instead and lower your investment that way. But the effectiveness of this depends a lot on the state of the manuscript and the author’s experience. (You also want to be sure the Editorial Assessment isn’t too short—at the Writer’s Ally, we have two kinds, and I would not recommend the smaller one as a first step except under very particular circumstances.)

It’s also typical for individual services to be a little less expensive in the context of a package. Obviously a package is a greater investment overall than any individual service, but you likely save in the long run.

  • When does an author know his or her book is ready to be looked at by an editor?

That can be tricky. What I would say is that if you reach a point where you can’t figure out what changes need to be made, that’s a good time. If you keep making changes, but it’s all lateral moves—that is, the story isn’t getting any better or worse—that too is a good time to bring in an editor. If your beta readers are seeing problems, but can’t define them effectively—this is often true and a reason you’re not well-served using beta readers instead of editors—there as well you may be ready to bring in an editor.

  • 2-3 common mistakes you see authors make in their manuscripts? How to avoid them?

It’s hard to narrow this down to two or three, because there are a lot of common mistakes authors make, and yet simultaneously every author makes them their own way. But you can find a lot of detailed information on frequent mistakes by reading through my articles, and my colleagues’ as well, on the Writer’s Ally blog: https://thewritersally.com/articles/

  • Any final pieces of advice for those wanting to become editors? Or final pieces of advice for authors considering editors?

I think the greatest challenge for someone seeking to become an editor is very closely related to the challenges for authors in selecting one: There’s a lot of competition at the bottom, and it’s difficult for a talented but inexperienced editor to stand out from the rest.

When I say “the bottom,” what I mean is the many would-be editors trying to make a living at it. An editor can always find someone willing to work for the experience, with rates far beneath minimum wage. If you’re trying to build a business, it’s tough to compete with that. And if you try, you won’t really be making a living at all.

That’s why experience is so important. I recommend internships where possible. Once you can start pointing to published books on which you’ve worked, you’re in a better position to get more clients. I can’t express enough how beneficial this was to me when I decided to go into freelance editing. I could already point to a couple dozen books I’d worked on, and for that reason authors could trust that I knew what I was doing.

You’re going to spend more time marketing than you’d like. You’re going to run into challenges. Join the Editorial Freelancers Association if you can. Sign up with Reedsy if they’ll take you. That kind of validation enables authors to take you much more seriously.

End of Interview

That was definitely a long interview, but I created the questions for you, the readers, to truly understand the holistic idea behind editing. There is so much more that goes into it than people know, and I hope that this interview with Harrison has shed some light on what it’s like to be an editor and the different types of editing available to writers. If you want to get in touch with Harrison, please check out his website: https://www.harrisondemchick.com/

For those of you looking to use an editor in the near future, next week I’ll be posting some general tips to clean up your manuscript and reduce as many words as you can before you send it off to professionals at Writer’s Ally, the Editorial Freelancers Association, Reedsy, or wherever you plan on getting your next edit done.

Stay tuned! Until then, happy writing! 

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