Honing the Craft – What Does an Editor Do???
By: Stacey Brewer
We all know what we really want from our editors. We all want our editors to look at the mess of manuscript we sent them and tell us what a glowing, marvelous, PERFECT piece of literature we’ve written. It’s the next great novel! It’s a masterpiece! An instant classic!
Except it isn’t. Not yet.
We all want our editors to look at our manuscripts and clean up those annoying little typos and the unavoidable punctuation errors. We want them to make sure there aren’t any run-on sentences and that our blonde protagonist didn’t somehow become a redhead somewhere along the way.
That’s what we all want our editors to be: just the clean-up crew. The literary janitorial staff.
But that isn’t what an editor is, and more importantly, is that really what you need your editor to be?
Your Job as a Writer
Your job as a writer is to tell the story. But if you want to be a professional, your job doesn’t stop there. You have to learn your craft. Hone your skills. Practice them. Polish them up and use them. Words are your tools. Learn to use them as effectively as possible. However, words aren’t your only tools. If you are going to be a professional, you need to learn to use punctuation and sentence structure. Even more than that, there’s voice, tone, and point of view. As a writer, you have more tools at your disposal than a Snap-On Tool salesman, and it is your job—it is YOUR JOB—to learn to use them.
It’s your job as a writer to read. A lot. Oh, yes. I can hear eyeballs rolling all over the world. We’ve all heard it so many times it becomes white noise.
Reading is the single best way to learn to use the tools. Find people who are better than you (because, as in all things, there is always someone better than you) and figure out what they do that works and figure out why. Read books by people who are not as good as you and figure out what they do that doesn’t work and figure out why.
I bet you’ll find something interesting. I bet you’ll discover that some of those people who are better than you do some things that you think don’t work so well. Oh, and those people who aren’t as good as you? Yeah, I bet you’ll find that they do some things that do work. Figure out why! Then take what you just figured out and use it in your own writing.
But, Stacey, what does all this have to do with what I need my editor to be?
It has everything to do with what you need your editor to be.
My Job as an Editor
I am a writer, just like you, but I am also a professional editor. It is my job to take your manuscript and find every issue, every mistake, every inconsistency, every plot hole, every, single thing I can possibly find that might distract your reader or take them out of the world you’re building with your story. It’s my job to find all the little problems and annoyances so your readers don’t.
Believe me, readers will find them.
Part of my job as an editor does include a certain amount of janitorial work. No matter how many times you go through a manuscript or your beta readers go through it, or I go through it, there will be a few things that get missed. I guarantee you that the best-edited book in the world is missing a comma somewhere.
If you haven’t done your job as a writer—if you haven’t learned to use all your tools and how to employ them as effectively as possible—then I, as your editor, have to do it.
Well … that sounds pretty good, Stacey.
No. Stop Right There
The more time I have to spend picking your literary socks up off the floor and sweeping up all the stray commas, the more time it takes for you to get your manuscript back and the longer it’s going to take to get your masterpiece to print and the less time I spend doing what you need me to do.
It’s very difficult to pay attention to what’s going on with your plot and characters when I have to stop every third line or so to cover the evidence of your little love affair with the ellipsis. Now, we all have our sordid punctuational love affairs—I can’t get enough of the em-dash, myself—and that’s OK, but if I spend all my time doing what you should have done before you turned your story over to me, I can’t do what you really need me to do: bloody your manuscript.
Wait … What?
You need your editor to bloody your manuscript. I’m sorry. I know it hurts. It’s painful when someone tells you that there’s a section of purple prose that brings the action to a screeching halt or that the action as you’ve written it cuts power to that bank of computers that is critical to the resolution of your plot, and now, you need to either rewrite several scenes to fix that or think of another way to resolve the plot.
What You Really Need Your Editor to Be
What you really need your editor to be is not your clean-up crew. At least not primarily. You need your editor to be your fresh set of eyes. You need him or her to be the fair and impartial judge of what is working in your favor and what isn’t. Sometimes you need your editor to help you figure out why your characters are misbehaving or why your plot won’t resolve the way it should.
You need your editor to focus on those things, to work with you on them. If your manuscript is going to bleed red ink, let it be useful red ink. Let it be the kind that shapes and polishes your manuscript into the masterpiece you (and I) know it is.
Everybody can always do better, and it is an editor’s job to make authors better. You need your editor to push.
Stacey Brewer is the Managing Editor for PDMI Publishing, LLC, and writes fantasy, historical fantasy, and modern fantasy (though she also suffers from the occasional steampunk and sci-fi ambitions). A little time studying journalism was all it took to turn Stacey into a proper grammar fiend, and a love of reading well-written books drives her to continually study the craft of writing and use those studies to help authors refine their work and make it the best it can be.
You can find Stacey on her own page at staceyhaggardbrewer.com
and Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StaceyHaggardBrewer