Friday, April 15, 2011

The Importance of Editing

Guest post by
Rachel Marsh


Today’s post is about the importance of editing. Editing can entail re-writing sentences so that they exactly convey the intended tone. Sometimes, paragraphs and chapters are shifted or cut in hopes of creating a bigger element of suspense. And, in the worst of times, entire novels are rewritten so that they in no way resemble the original.

So, like a copyeditor hunting for typos and grammatical errors, let’s play the “spot what’s wrong with this post” game. Figured it out yet? Yup, I’m not Russel McLean. Not beardy enough, and – as much as I wish I were – I’m not Scottish enough. Also, for the record, I’m not man enough to be Russel.

I ran into Mr. McLean few days ago when I was out promoting a course I’m teaching for ShortbreadStories. The course is a “How to edit your work” sort of dig, so he and I got to talking about the editing process: rewriting one’s own work is tricky, but editing someone else’s is even trickier. Quickly the discussion turned to commiserations, and we began trading “I edited someone’s piece for a publication and they were so unhappy with the changes they threatened to sell my kidneys on the black market” stories.

Personally, I think neither Russel nor I are bad editors; in fact, I think we’re fairly conscientious editors who respectively work to bring out the best in a story while still maintaining the author’s voice. Not an easy task. Unfortunately, not everyone sees the importance of the editorial process, or, more aptly, they do not see the benefits of having their work edited by someone else.

Which is where I come in. Russel has asked that I use his Friday post to give my opinion on the importance of editing. Before moving to the UK, I was a freelance cultural journalist (fancy way of saying art and theatre critic) and an editor for several entertainment magazines in the US; additionally, I was the editor of New Writing Dundee for three years. As you may imagine, I’ve had my share of pieces edited, and I’ve worked on an exhausting number of stories – both fiction and non-fiction – and what I’ve found is that editing occurs on several levels.

Returning to the “spot what’s wrong with this post” game, a lot of editing is down to three things. The first is simply correcting things that are “wrong”, such as typos, misspellings and malapropisms. Second, there are rules to follow: avoid adverbs, cut unnecessary words, and don’t use the same word within a few sentences of each other. And, the third element of an initial edit is checking for continuity. Often, especially in longer pieces, a writer may provide a character trait, but by the end of the story the writer forgets about that trait and accidentally includes a contradiction. For example, a character may start off as a bearded crime writer living in Dundee and by the end turn into a leggy, sexy, blond woman living in Fife (yes, I do flatter myself).

While this first round of edits is important, an editor’s most difficult task lies not in “rules based” aspects of editing such as grammar, punctuation or continuity, but in more subjective concepts of writing such as flow, pacing, and story management. Changes that lie in these forms can be argued for and against, and it is these types of editorial amendments that cause rifts between authors and editors.

One particular example comes to mind. Early in my New Writing Dundee days, I desperately wanted to include a story but felt that the beginning slightly dragged. The story was well written and the concept was interesting, and I believed that the first few paragraphs were unnecessary and without them the reader could jump straight into the thick of the piece. I edited the story by cutting the first two paragraphs, and sent it the author unaware of the hailstorm of insults that I would receive in return. No matter how I explained my thought processes, s/he (I shall not name pronouns in fear of outing this individual) felt dejected by my edit. In the end, I offered to publish the piece as it originally stood, but evidently the mere suggestion of edits was too much to bear and s/he pulled the story from the publication. A result which was unfortunate for everyone involved.

As I write this I can almost hear the naysayers in the bloggosphere: “But I worked on my piece for hours/days/months/years, and I got it exactly how I like it,” “I meant for it to be that way,” and “It’s my story and you don’t know what I’m trying to say.” To a certain extent, these are valid replies. If a writer has…

1. Gotten a friend with a good eye for mistakes to read over it
2. Workshopped it with like-minded authors for feedback
3. Put the piece away for a while before returning to edit

…then that author could argue for the piece to remain untouched. However, a writer must still keep an open mind. The editor of a publication knows the market, has probably edited more stories than the average author writes, and can see your work in a fresh way. And, most importantly, the editor is a reader, and ultimately you want a reader to walk away satisfied. Remember, the writing process brings joy to the author, while the editing process brings joy to the reader. Therefore, it’s simply best to keep an open mind when facing edits to your work.

I don’t know if this post has been what Russel wanted when he asked me to contribute to Do Some Damage, and, to be honest, I feel a little uneasy. What if I’m preaching to the converted? What if the readers all have good relationships with their editors, and I’m just whistling in the wind? (Sorry for the mixed metaphors.)

Because, I love a little self-imposed hypocrisy and irony, I’m hoping that this piece goes on editing onto the website unedited by anyone’s eyes other than my own. I have not had a friend look over this piece, I have not had it workshopped, and I have not put the post away for a while before returning to it. I now say that you, the loyal followers of Do Some Damage, are welcome to edit the post. Find my typos, inconsistencies and misspellings. Should my train of thought have gone into a different direction? Are some of the paragraphs too long or two short? Or, possibly, you don’t really care. No matter what happens to this post from here, I just want to say thanks for letting me step in and have a little rant about editing.

PS-For some excellent Do Some Damage tips on revision and editing revisit Joelle Charbonneau’s post “The Devil is in the Details”. She summarises the essence of self-editing perfectly.

2 comments:

Mike Dennis said...

Good post, Rachel. Too often editing is glossed over with just a couple of sentences. As far as editing your piece, I'll take a shot at it.

1. Editing can entail re-writing sentences so that they exactly convey the intended tone.

Strike "exactly".


2. Personally, I think neither Russel nor I are bad editors;

"...neither one of us is a bad editor." (strike semicolon)


3. Early in my New Writing Dundee days, I desperately wanted to include a story but felt that the beginning slightly dragged.

Strike "slightly".


4. The story was well written and the concept was interesting, and I believed that the first few paragraphs were unnecessary and without them the reader could jump straight into the thick of the piece.

Run-on sentence.


5. I edited the story by cutting the first two paragraphs, and sent it the author unaware of the hailstorm of insults that I would receive in return.

"...sent it to the author," (add comma)


6. In the end, I offered to publish the piece as it originally stood, but evidently the mere suggestion of edits was too much to bear and s/he pulled the story from the publication. A result which was unfortunate for everyone involved.


"...the publication, a result which..."


7. As I write this I can almost hear the naysayers in the bloggosphere...

"blogosphere"


8. And, most importantly, the editor is a reader, and ultimately you want a reader to walk away satisfied.

Strike the first "And".


9. Therefore, it’s simply best to keep an open mind when facing edits to your work.

Strike "simply".


10. Because, I love a little self-imposed hypocrisy and irony, I’m hoping that this piece goes on editing onto the website unedited by anyone’s eyes other than my own.

Strike "on editing".


11. I have not had a friend look over this piece...

"I have not had a friend look this piece over..."


12. Are some of the paragraphs too long or two short?

"...too short?

marshrachel said...

Mike, thanks for taking the time to go through my piece with the red pen; I like your changes. This is a perfect example of how another person can make your work stronger.