Welcome to the second installment of my ~On Editing~ series. Last week’s post spurred some excellent conversation from many who were kind enough to visit and read about the importance of good editing.
This week, I thought it might be beneficial and informative to chat with a professional editor and ask some questions that might shed light on this critical aspect of publishing one’s work.
I met professional editor Kate Johnston while speaking to a writers group about my own self-publishing experiences. I found her to be delightful and knowledgeable. She was kind enough to agree to share her expertise on the subject of editing. I hope you’ll find the information helpful; I certainly did.
First off, Kate, I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. There seems to be some confusion about the various types of edits one can have done to their manuscripts. Terms such as proofing, copy editing, and substantive editing come to mind. Could you give us a brief rundown of the different types of edits and what each one entails?
Certainly, Al. There are many editing forms. The duties of one form of editing can overlap the duties of another. The three below are the most commonly known forms.
A substantive edit (AKA developmental editing) is like an overall critique of the manuscript’s content and structure. A substantive editor improves the flow of text, suggests recasts, and enforces a logical structure. In a work of fiction, the substantive editor may track the continuity of plot, setting, characters, theme, as well as flagging discrepancies. Decisions are judgment-based and therefore should be negotiable with the writer. Again, depending on who you talk to, this form of editing can happen before, after, or in conjunction with copyediting.
Copyediting (or baseline editing) is rules-based. (Think about all those grammar lessons you learned in school.) Copyediting flags faulty grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting. A copyeditor may track the consistency of facts. (Although fact-checking sometimes can be considered part of a substantive edit.) Unlike substantive editing, copyediting does not involve interventions such as smoothing transitions or restructuring plot.
Proofreading is the reading of a manuscript in its final draft form to detect and correct production errors. It is the last step in the editorial cycle.
Great information. Here’s something I’m curious about. What are a few of the most common writing blunders you encounter in the average manuscript?
Misspellings because spellcheck is not infallible. Confusion between its and it’s. The use of that vs. which. Misuse (or abuse) of commas. Incorrect formatting of dialogue.
Ah, commas. I used to be a comma abuser, too. Kate, with the advent of e-publishing, individuals can self-publish their works with relative ease, yet many forgo having their work professionally edited due to cost. Could you share your thoughts on this?
I think writers are doing themselves a disservice by not going the extra mile to make their work the best it can be. Readers will notice mistakes, and their disappointment (or disgust) will ensure they won’t recommend your book much less buy anything else you write. Who wants to buy shoddy material? Yes, editing is costly, but it should be considered an investment in your career.
Yes, that’s a valuable lesson we, as writers, must learn, sometimes the hard way. Is there a practice by which individuals who have limited funds can enjoy the benefits of quality editing? For instance, do you feel it would be helpful to have a few chapters professionally edited then use it as a guide to self-edit the remainder? In other words, is a partial edit a viable option in your opinion?
Copyediting would be possible to do yourself. As long as you know grammatical rules, then it’s a matter of training your eye to spot errors.
However, as substantive editing involves editing the manuscript as a whole, the author would have to be extremely tough on herself. She would also have to objectively track and correct problem areas. I’m not saying that’s impossible, but it is difficult. These are her ideas, her word choices, her writing style, and her decisions all at the mercy of the proverbial red pen. If she’s the one wielding that red pen, is it realistic to think she’ll be as thorough as an editor?
That’s certainly a great point. I’ve heard that reading one’s work out loud helps to ferret out problems that can be missed while proofreading. Do you feel this is a valuable practice, and do you have any other tips writers can employ to improve their work?
Reading out loud is a wonderful device and can be helpful for many writers. Personally, I find workshops or classes to be helpful in honing a specific area of writing. Read books in the genre you’re writing to get a feel for structure, setting, style. Read anything that’s well-written to help you learn sentence structure, punctuation, or spelling. But the best tip I can give writers is to write every single day, even for just fifteen minutes. It’s considered practice. Musicians and athletes must practice every day to stay in shape or to improve their skills. It is the same for writers.
What are your thoughts on beta readers and writers groups?
There are some good beta readers and writing groups, and there are some bad ones. All groups have different approaches, writing and reading styles, attitudes, personalities, and expectations. Don’t settle with a so-so group just because you need someone to read your stuff. A bad reader is not better than no reader at all. I have done beta reading both online and in person. I have exchanged work with strangers as well as friends. I have belonged to various writing groups. Some of the experiences were terrible. Some were awesome. The terrible experiences were so devastating I nearly gave up writing. If you ever get to that point, get out of the group—fast. No one should ever make you feel like your writing is invaluable or that you can’t succeed.
Above all, make sure you are among supportive, positive, encouraging, knowledgeable writers who can give honest, constructive feedback.
Strunk & White’s, The Elements of Style is a classic reference for writers. Do you have any other favorite manuals you might recommend?
That’s my number-one guide. I also use The Chicago Manual of Style and MLA Style Manual. Outside of techy-type manuals, I love Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing by Stephen King, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.
I’m of the opinion that you just can’t edit your own work. As an editor, do you feel you can edit your own work?
I can—to a point. I have an easier time with the copyediting, but even then I miss errors. As far as content, I don’t bother giving it to anyone to read until I’ve written a couple of drafts. That’s because I am the only one who understands the story that needs to be written. If I have someone get involved at too early a stage, it can be very disruptive. I belong to a great writing group whose members help me sort out structure or track character motivation. My writing group asks me questions I wouldn’t think to ask myself.
The drawback to editing your own work boils down to emotion, I think. We writers know what we want to say, but sometimes we don’t execute it well (talk about irony). Worse, we’ll read it and still think it’s dandy stuff. We need the other person for that constructive criticism because they are not emotionally connected to the material. Flaws such as typos, awkward sentences, plot holes, and Little Darlings are glaring to an objective reader.
What other words of wisdom can you give our writer/author friends from an editor’s perspective.
Take pride in your work. Your name is on it, and you want people to recognize the effort and care you have put into it. If an author doesn’t care about the quality of his work, then a reader isn’t going to consider that author as professional, talented, or knowledgeable. Expect to revise, and revise, and revise again—but at the same time don’t cave on areas that seriously matter to you. Editing is a vital part of the writing process. It can make the difference between an author who is worth reading and an author who isn’t.
Kathryn Johnston graduated from University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in English and Psychology, with a focus in creative writing. After college she worked in various places as a copyeditor and copywriter while writing fiction on the side.
Currently, she is a freelance editor and writing coach for fiction and memoir manuscripts.
Her short story, Treasures, was published in The Greensilk Journal. She has completed a novel, Spark of Madness, and is shopping it around to literary agents for representation.
For those of you who are interested in speaking with Kate about the possibility of having your work edited by her, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and is currently accepting new clients.
Thank you for visiting and reading this week’s post. As always, I encourage you to take part in the conversation by leaving a comment below. I always do my best to respond to all who do.
All the best,