Ask the Authors: Tuesday
What, exactly, does a good editor do?
I recently watched “Copying Beethoven,” a delightful film about a young woman who wrote out Beethoven’s music after he had gone deaf. On the night of the premier of his ninth symphony (one of his most famous), he was worried about being able to keep the beat and keep the orchestra together. This young girl, Anna Holz, volunteered to keep the beat for him. So they set her in a little alcove, and she stood hidden among the orchestra. She knew the music so well she was able to “conduct” Beethoven, who conducted the orchestra and the chorale.
And that’s what a good editor does. He or she takes my “music” and helps me overcome my weaknesses so that the audience will hear my song the way it was meant to be heard. A good editor knows my music, but is content to remain hidden in the orchestra in order that the song might shine. --Angela Hunt
A good editor combines the best attributes of a really insightful and intelligent reader with the instincts, not of a person who knows what sells, but of a person who knows what is going to sell in a coming season. They are not “rewrite people” or punctuation cops. They are passionate and fully involved guides. And yes, they’re hard to find. -- Tom Morrisey
My editor--who is thankfully a good one--looks at both the large picture and the small details. She lets me know first of all whether the book as a whole even works. If so, does each scene work? If there’s something wrong with a scene, what’s wrong with it and how can I improve it? She looks for gaps and lets me know what I need to add to fill in those gaps. She cuts out unnecessary material that only bogs down the flow of the story. She catches mistakes of all kinds--everything from historical details to small typos and misspellings. She’s the polisher, taking my manuscript and making it look better than it did when it hit her desk. -- Ann Tatlock
They ask the right questions. They say "I wonder what might happen if that character did such and such?" or "How could you make that scene more believable?" They make suggestions such as "That walk on the beach scene needs to be lighter because in the main scene you're about to do real harm to your character and the reader will like both the setup and the surprise more if you do." They give an overview of the story including what they like about it and hope I won't change and what needs changing related to pacing or character development or plot. They ask a writer to be ruthless about musings or explaining what the reader needs to get for themselves. They share an author's vision. They negotiate between production/publisher issues and author/editing issues. They are champions within the house for the story. They see the possibilities in an author's future and help match that to the needs of the publisher. They're honest and fair and tell you things it's hard to hear in diplomatic ways so the author can hear it. Copy editors are in a class of their own and they keep an author clear and authentic and raise questions that readers are likely to raise if a sentence or thought isn't clear. I could use a good editor with this answer! Jane Kirkpatrick
A good editor makes you better, but allows you to do the work. A long time ago I had an editor that rewrote entire sections of my book. I didn't like that. One bit. A good editor takes the time to understand not just your work, but you, and your vision for your overall body of work. A good editor has no smarm. A good editor tells you the good as well as the bad. lisa samson
Makes it better, which requires both a good eye and a knowledge of the particular author's voice and vision. – James Scott Bell
“Good editor.” Are you familiar with the term “oxymoron”? I joke, I kid. There are several types of editors ranging from those who acquire books (and therefore provide you with milk money) to line editors who stay up late wrestling with advantages of the three-four dot ellipse conundrum. In between is the editor who advises about content, plot, character development, etc. A good editor knows the craft well, hopefully from having actually written a book, faced a deadline, struggled with story issues and the like. I have an editor that I request. I don’t always get her, but at least I can ask. She understands story and has written several novels. She knows not only the craft but also what it means to be the crafter. A good editor knows how stand with one foot in craft and one in the business world. It ain’t easy. --Alton Gansky
Ummm...work magic? Okay, okay, sorry. I couldn't resist. First, a good editor checks his ego at the door. A good editor is there to serve the author. She partners with you. He brings his passion to your book, reading it as a reader would, watching for any speedbumps that would stop the reader or nudge them out of the story. She makes sure she's as trained in the mechanics of what works and what doesn't as she can be, yet always keeps in mind the author's voice. He knows the rules, but isn't controlled by them, nor does he let his author be boxed by them. If the author has places she needs to improve, the editor will act as mentor and encourager. She'll make suggestions for improvement, all the while emphasizing that it's the author's book, so the final call rests with the author. Ultimately, the editing process is synergistic, with a lot of give and take, dialogue, and learning on both sides. The end product? A book that's the best it can be. And that is an author's greatest joy! Karen B.
A good editor can catch the vision you have for your work. She then holds that vision for you while you struggle through the process, and she guides you if you lose your way. She is always on your side. Hannah Alexander
A GREAT editor is made up of equal parts muse, objective critic, cheerleader, and teacher. A merely good one might be two or three of those. As for what they do, it boils down to giving constructive feedback on story ideas, (not “No,” but “Yes, and…”), being bold enough to point out flaws, offering reassurance when self-confidence falters, and providing little lessons along the way that help avoid repeat mistakes. A GREAT novelist leaves her ego on the shelf when working with this kind of editor, accepting their guidance for the priceless gift it is. – Athol Dickson
I think the really talented editors (and I’ve been privileged to work with several) have a way of pulling the very best out of the author without losing any of the author’s voice. An editor does that by suggesting rather than actually rewriting, and by giving the writer options. The best suggestions from my editors always begin with “What if...?” With that, they’ve helped me see my own story with new eyes, and steered me in a direction I may not have thought of going before. The best editors also have a way of teaching as they edit, so I begin to recognize and correct my mistakes as I make them. –Deborah Raney
A good editor makes me strive to write better and shows me how--without making me feel like the worst writer that has ever lived. -- Rene Gutteridge