Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What We Do

A new commenter, Sym, in a comment to my long-ago post on How to Become an Editor, posed the following excellent question:

I'm also aware that editing is so much more than just taking care of sentence flow and typos at that level, but includes the need for an ability to look at the storyline itself and decide where it's too drawn out, where it needs to be beefed up, which characters might need to be brought forward or pushed back more- all of which is most definitely my weak point. Plotting is my archnemesis, so to speak. And there are other skills, too, bits and pieces that maybe I'm not even aware existed. So I suppose my question is more- what's the best way to learn these skills? Is it something that can be taught, and I just don't know what class name they're lurking behind? Or is it something that I ultimately will or won't be able to do, simply because my brain doesn't work properly?

Here's the thing: it's rare for one editor to do all that. Sym is absolutely correct that a good grasp of the mechanics of language at the sentence level does not always translate to an ability to grasp the mechanics and techniques that make a compelling story. This is why most publishing houses separate these functions.

Let's look first at what all editors (should) do:

Editors, whether they work on novels, government reports, advertising copy, or textbooks, act as the readers' advocates. We need to understand how the people reading our particular type of work read and understand, and what they need in order to get what our authors are trying to communicate. Editors of fantasy novels understand what people who read fantasy novels look for in a novel. They understand the conventions of which those readers are aware. They understand how novels, in general, work. They know the conventions of fiction. So they can tell an author where a reader may find something unclear, or jarring.

Editors of science textbooks understand how students read and learn science. They know how to help authors communicate difficult concepts clearly. They understand the conventions and formats common to textbooks, and make sure that all the content fits into that format. They know how teachers approach their classrooms, and make sure that the textbook contains problems that will enable a teacher to assess a student's understanding.

Obligatory Disclaimer
I am presenting an overview of how the editorial process works, based on my experience and my understanding of the jobs of people with whom I've spoken or whose descriptions of their jobs I have read. This means that individual author-editor relationships may differ in their particulars from what I describe, and individual publishing endeavours may do things differently. Larger organizations tend to have more people performing different tasks; smaller houses may have one person doing everything (though this is rarely ideal). I welcome descriptions from other editors of what they do and how things work for them, and from authors of how the process looks from their side. I don't know everything about the industry, nor do I pretend to.

Okay. So the reader should be in the front of the editor's mind, whether the editor is correcting the spelling in a fiction manuscript or choosing art and photos for a magazine article on cars. But not every editor is going to be a whiz at story structure, and not every editor is going to be a grammatical warlock. That's okay. There is a role for each talent (whether there's a job for each editor is another, somewhat more depressing, question, but let's leave that for now.)

The Editors' Association of Canada divides editorial skill into roughly four categories:

substantive editing
stylistic editing
copy editing

For a good overview of what you need to know and be able to do in order to perform each function at a professional level, read EAC's Professional Editorial Standards.

There are other types of editing, to be sure. There are editors who manage editorial processes. There are production editors, who make sure that manuscripts get copyedited, and that all the bits get where they need to go in order to make the printer date. There are editors who deal almost exclusively with art and photographs. There are editors whose job is mostly to acquire books. But, for simplicity's sake, for the moment, let's look at these four categories of editor. I've ordered them according to when, in the ideal editorial process, the author and manuscript will encounter each one.

Substantive Editing
Sometimes called "editing," or "book doctoring," in fiction, and "developmental editing," in educational publishing, this is the "big picture," edit. The editor considers the contents and the substance of the manuscript to make sure that everything that the reader needs is present, that information is presented in an order that makes sense, and that nothing extraneous survives.

In fiction, the substantive editor works with the author to make sure that the story works as a story:
  • Does the plot hold together?
  • Do the characters' motivations and actions make sense?
  • Do the characters justify their existence?
  • Is the pacing appropriate to the story?
  • Does the story make sense as a story?
  • Is any thematic material or imagery consistent?
  • Is the setting consistently realised?
  • Has the author built a convincing, rule-governed, consistent world?
The editor may flag areas where the author has been repetitive, or conversely, hasn't given the reader enough information.

In non-fiction, the editor's role is still the same; however, story may be less important than making sure that the author's facts are well presented, that the author builds a convincing argument, and that the information is presented in an order that makes sense.

When I work as a developmental editor on a textbook or teacher's resource, I'm considering the student, the teacher, and the curriculum. I make sure the author has met the curriculum expectations for a given chapter or unit, and that the reading level is appropriate for the grade in question. I make sure that we've identified glossary terms, and that we have enough end-of-chapter questions. I work with the author to identify illustrative material—photos, diagrams, illustrations, charts, graphs and other non-text elements—that will support the text and engage the readers. I may write captions for the illustrations we choose. I flag inappropriate language, and I check with subject-matter reviewers to make sure the author hasn't presented anything inaccurate. I also cut and condense to make the material fit in the space we've allocated for it without compromising the information.

So, to recap (we do that a lot in educational publishing): at the substantive editing stage, we're dealing with changes to the contents of the manuscript and the order in which they're presented. It would, in many cases, be silly to spend a lot of time polishing the wording or obsessing over the punctuation at this stage, because we're still cutting entire passages (and sometimes chapters).

Editors working at this stage of the process need to understand structure: how to build a story, or an argument, or a narrative. They need to know how to organize information so that readers get the information they need at the appropriate time. They may not, in fact, be able to rhyme off the seven functions of the comma at the drop of a hat (but some of them can!), but they know what makes a story work.

Substantive editing tends to bleed into the next editorial step, so much so that it was only relatively recently that the Editors' Association of Canada separated the two stages out. In the next step, we look at the language.

Stylistic Editing
This is also called "line editing," or sometimes "editing." The goal, at this stage, is to make sure the language flows and is clear for the reader. If an author is an excellent prose stylist, the editor may do very little of this. If an author is more a subject-matter expert than a wordsmith, the editor may have a lot of smoothing to do. How much smoothing the editor may do depends on the extent of the editor's authority, the author-editor relationship, and to some degree the type of publication (for some textbook projects, I re-write entire passages; I have much more freedom in these projects than I would have editing an author's novel or a magazine article.)

At this stage, the editor working with sentences and paragraphs. We're making sure that any pronoun has a clear antecedent, that metaphors are not egregiously mixed, that an author has not unwittingly used three words where one would have sufficed. We're smoothing transitions, and keeping the voice consistent. If the project has multiple authors, we may be trying to make them all sound like one, slightly more boring, author. Or, we may not. It all depends on the project. We're making the prose as good as it can be, for the anticipated reader.

Editors at this stage really understand prose (or poetry, if they're working in poetry). They know not only how to use language to express an idea with clarity and grace, but also how language can evoke mood and tone, and they are acutely sensitive to nuance. Stylistic editors are often very good at pastiche: like Mozart in the movie Amadeus, they can play a tune in the style of any other composer.

And, of course, this stage bleeds into the next stage, where an exacting expert of syntax, spelling, and usage combs the manuscript, eradicating error and imposing consistency.

The Copyedit
The copyeditor's sharp eyes are the last eyes to see the manuscript before it goes to the formatter to be made to look like a book (or a magazine article or whatever). By the time the copyeditor sees the manuscript, all the big questions—what goes, what stays, how it all hangs together—should have been dealt with, leaving the copyeditor to make sure that no little errors survive to throw the reader out of the prose.

The copyeditor makes sure that the prose is correct—that no errors of grammar, usage, spelling have survived the editorial process, and that obvious factual errors are caught and corrected. The copyeditor also makes sure that everything in the manuscript is consistent: that anytime there are two possible correct choices, the same choice is made each time. A copyeditor may also point out copy-paste errors, where an editor may have accidentally chopped off part of a sentence, and may deal with fiddly issues of wording and formatting.

If the manuscript didn't have a enough time with the line editor, the copyeditor may re-word sentences or even paragraphs, but typically, the copyeditor's authority and responsibility do not extend to wholesale rewrites.

Copyeditors are exacting and precise. They have sharp eyes and great memories for details. They know the difference between "unique" and "unusual," and they care passionately. They can spot a typo, or a botched conversion from feet to metres, and find a home for any misplaced modifiers.

So, no, you don't need to be good at everything. Specialization is not only for insects, it's also for editors.


Ona said...

I find this really helpful. I want to become an editor, because I love literature and find myself editing some books I read without thinking, and have tried doing it for my aspiring writer friends, but wasn't sure what the job in the actual publishing industry would entail, so this has helped me out. Thanks!

Andrew Hsieh said...

Hey Jennie,

Thanks for this incredible blog. Just found it and I'm trying to find an editorial job myself. I know you've long since stopped updating, but I thought I'd let you know that you've been terribly helpful. Thanks again!


Anonymous said...

I have been doing some research in regards to becoming a copy editor and came across this post. I find your description of a copy editor delicious and it confirms for me that I want to be that last stop in editing before publication.