By Robin Winter
Why do I need an editor? I can read– in fact I’m really good at that. I can get all those great advice books that tell me how to self-edit, and then I’m there, right?
No. The answer is no. You need those advice books to help you revise so you can then get into the hands of a really good editor, because you don’t want to take raw novels or manuscripts to an editor and waste her time and your money. If an editor has to go through your manuscript ten times to get all the slag out, his or her mind will be tired, and will start missing things that need work, like what happened to the flavor and the leavening.
I’m not talking about a line edit. You should take care of that before your work gets into an editor’s hands. Grammar, spelling, punctuation; if in doubt look it up. I know I already said this but don’t waste her attention and your bank account having her fix those details.
Yes, get rid of the passive voice, all those elegant slowing down transitory verb forms. Do a search and destroy for too many ‘that’ and ‘as’ and ‘-ing’ and other favorite words of yours. ‘Simply’, ‘only’, ‘and’… the word ‘just’ keeps jumping into my prose, I’ve noticed. Seek your favorite terms and favorite phrases and delete or rephrase all but the few that you must have. Get rid of the various clever alternate forms of ‘said’ and let ‘said’ sit wherever it’s needed, because that is our modern trope and you need to embrace it. No beginning any sentence outside of quotation marks with ‘And’. Plus no exclamation points!
Get the point of view cleaned up as much as you can. No more jumping about from head to head in one scene. Pare it down, make it clear and clean for the reader. Discipline. You’ll still miss some point of view problems, but take out all you can find. The fresher you can keep your editor’s mind, the less distracted by the unpredictable and weird, the better the work he or she can do.
Take the manuscript to your writers’ group. Priceless free advice…. You don’t have to take every comment to heart– you can exercise discretion. Keep a tally of the most painful comments and if two or three readers make the same remark that bugs the heck out of you, I’m sorry, you need to review and fix the issue.
After this, look at the editor question.
Good editing costs, a lot, unless you’re incredibly lucky with a writer’s group full of professionals, or have a crazy good agent. I haven’t had an edit like the one my agent gave Night Must Wait ever before, or since, and then the publisher undid part of it. (These things happen, and you need to be accepting. The publisher really does have final word, unless you’re willing to break your contract.)
A real edit may redraft the book. It’s an act of genius. The editor needs to love your genre and your concept, in order to reconfigure the work and recast the shape of it. Yes, it will hurt. We all start writing in the wrong places and sometimes we don’t even understand who’s the real main character. Don’t just go for the best editor you can find; he or she must feel sympathy for the genre and kind of writing you do. Otherwise you won’t see your manuscript back for months on end, and it will not return with the insights you need. It will have lost its loft, and its flavor.
On Watch the Shadows, my agent did a strong edit, not as wild and complete as the Night Must Wait edit, but she gave me search and destroy words and phrases. Had me mark every ‘and’ for example, and take out as many as possible.
Next, the manuscript went under the knife again, through three readers, then the publisher’s editor. All had changes and suggestions. I still found a batch of errors I needed to fix in my reading of the Advance Reader’s Copy and then one of my review readers found three more. I’m not offering a prize for finding errors in the published book because I know that something always escapes the sieve.
Did you watch the movie “Super 8“? It is a perfect example of everything people who teach at writing conferences will tell you a story should be. You should see it. if you missed out. It’s perfect, but it has no heart. Perfect structure, foreshadowing, pacing, suspense, spare scenes, snappy conflict-filled dialogue, taking us where we don’t want to go… BUT… I would happily go back and watch that movie over again even though I have this problem with it. There’s a lot it has to teach and it’s good fun, yet it brings no tears. My throat doesn’t tighten.
The moral of that is, even the best editor can make a polished product that lacks heart. The heart has to be yours. Touches of raw emotion– some of those must stay, and that’s up to you, the writer. That’s why we still need the writer, to shove the beating heart full of blood into the story and make us worry that heart will burst.
About the editing, as far as I’m concerned, the big trick is you need someone who sees the story from outside– can pluck it out of your forest of words, and see where it works and how, and see how to actually break all its parts and reset them. It’s not the line edit, it’s the release of a true story that a good editor accomplishes.
Done right, it’s a miracle.