Friday, March 10, 2017

My Process

I think I first became an editor back in high school. Friends would ask me to read over their reports, essays and story assignments and tell them what I thought. As I read some of these missives, I was often shocked at the number of spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes that I found. Keep in mind this was in the 70's and there were no computers or word processors with the spell check feature. We did our homework on paper. In pen. Mistakes were permanent, unless we wanted to re-write the assignments. Personally, I went through reams of paper aiming to hand in flawless work. Some of my friends... Well, not so much.

It drove me crazy sometimes. I would read this stuff knowing that there was no way it would get a passing grade. The content wasn't bad, but our teachers tended to grade us on our technical prowess. Mistakes mattered. And softie that I sometimes am, I would offer to re-write my friends' assignments so they could copy them out and hand them in with - at least - fewer mistakes. The hardest part of all this for me was maintaining my friends voice and not making it sound like I wrote it. I had to keep a few errors in tact so that we wouldn't get in trouble. Mostly so I wouldn't get in trouble, to be honest.

This painful acceptance of the quality of work some people produced taught me a valuable skill that, at the time, I was completely unaware of. I learned to honour the voice of the author and, like it or not, refrain from making major changes that reflected my style.

I also learned diplomacy. I knew how difficult is was to hear negative feedback on my own work; I had to learn how to express criticism in the most positive way. The trick, I discovered, was to get my friends to read their work out loud. With great relief they often stumbled on the same things that I noticed and wanted to see changed and that gave me an opening to make suggestions. Guiding my peers toward better writing was satisfying. I felt like I was helping in a good and positive way.

I didn't get much in the way of thanks for this. In fact, it became something some people took for granted and when I refused because I had my own homework to do, I experienced a range of reactions from resigned acquiescence to guilt to, upon occasion, intimidation. (Teenagers can be brutal!) Years later, though, when I realized the value in the skills I developed, the guilt and intimidation lost most of their grip.

Now, when a manuscript comes my way, I like to spend some time talking to the author. I like to get a feel for the personality behind the work I'm about to edit. It helps me get an idea of the style I'm about to meet in the writing and having an idea of what to expect makes it easier to adapt to that style as I do my work. When changes are needed, I am more likely to make suggestions that will reflect the author's voice and form.

Often, the personality of the author is not the same as the personality of the writer. By that I mean that it is not uncommon for gentle, soft-spoken people to write aggressively or for boisterous and flamboyant people to write passively. Not always, but often enough to prepare me for it. I can also gauge how much "feedback" I can give without inciting drama. Can I be blunt? Do I have to soften everything I say? There is a good deal of psychology involved in the editing game.

After the deal has been struck and the  manuscript becomes illuminated by my computer screen, I set to work. I begin with a slow read-though. I familiarize myself with the voice and style of the author and look for errors. This portion takes time. I work at 6 to 8 pages per hour at this stage. I'm absorbing a lot of information as well as finding and fixing mistakes and making suggestions. I am compiling my style sheet to ensure consistency throughout the manuscript. I am stopping frequently to consult my style guides to be sure that grammar rules are not being abused or misused. I re-read many portions out loud to hear the syntax and listen to the punctuation. (Yes! You use punctuation in speech. These funny little marks that are strewn throughout writing are the equivalent to emotional expression in speech.) I  make notes. I jot down questions for the author. The process is detailed and requires concentration. The first read-through of a 350-page manuscript will take approximately 50 hours. Compared to the eight to ten hours it takes me to read a 400-page completed novel, this step is not about entertainment or even enjoyment. In fact, I read to edit much differently than I read to be entertained.

During this process I arrange for a few meetings with the author to go over any questions I might have so I can incorporate any new information into the editing work. Once the first read-through is complete, the manuscript is returned to the author who then reviews my edits. It is up to the author to accept or reject any changes I make to the work. It belongs to the author and the author has the final say.

Usually, I get the manuscript back for a second read-through after the author has made revisions. This time, being familiar with the content, I read about ten pages per hour. I'm now looking to see that the changes are consistent and continue to make sense. If the author has made any major revisions, I have to slow down a bit, but generally the second read-through is much faster. At this stage I am also making sure that photos/tables and captions are matched and destined for the appropriate place within the text. I make sure that table of contents corresponds to the manuscript and that chapters are in the proper order. Front and back matter is reviewed and cleaned up if necessary. Again, there are a few meetings with the author.

If a third read-through is requested, I am happy to oblige for an extra fee. But this is usually quite quick and doesn't involve as much detailed scrutiny as the first two read-throughs do. Some authors will make several revisions and expect each one to be reviewed and edited, but my standard contract is for two read-throughs.

I'm often asked how authors can make the editing process easier for themselves and the editor. My best advice is to read your work out loud. It slows you down and reduces the mind's habit of making assumptions or anticipating what "should" come next and seeing that instead of what is actually written.  Fresh eyes will catch more mistakes than eyes that are familiar with what is intended. When you read silently, your brain is an extraordinary editor and can fix mistakes without allowing them to even register. Not all mistakes, of course, but more than you might imagine.

So that's my process. That's how I go about editing a manuscript. I work cooperatively with the author (and publisher if one is involved, but that's another blog for another day).

What? No pictures?
Join me next week. I'll be sure to include some. 

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