Interview with an Editor
Howdy, Hotel gang. Yes, I'm still saying howdy.
No Hotel updates this month, but I've got something even better. I managed to convince my editor, Alex Woodroe, to answer all your questions about the editing process. What's it really like to be edited? What do editors really think?
Check out her answers below
First off, can you tell us a little bit about the different types of editing? New writers are hit with so many terms - copy edits, line edits, dev edits, beta reads? Can you help us sort this out a little?
Alright. Keep in mind, these are the theoretical steps and don't always represent reality. Depending on your needs you may skip some, or combine some, or have some multiple times. But it'll give you a rough idea of where you need to focus.
Step one: have people read it.
Whether you call them alpha readers or beta readers or hapless victims is up to you; but you have people read it so they can tell you what works for them as readers and what doesn't. I know I'm gonna ruffle some feathers, but you should never pay for this part. Beta reading is meant to give you a reader's reaction and doesn't require expert knowledge. Your eventual readers won't be experts in anything either, and they should be able to enjoy the story just fine.
At this stage you might also get a sensitivity reader if you need one. Not everyone will charge you, but if they do, that's totally fair because we are talking about someone's lifetime of experience.
Step two: developmental editing.
An editor will look at your genre and goals and help you figure out the best choices in terms of pacing, characterization, entry point, plot twists, and a thousand other things. What can change at this point: everything. With a good dev session, expect to do way more rewriting than you initially planned for.
Step three: Line editing.
This is where an editor will tackle your phrasing and clarity, make your dialogue sound natural, make sure your sentences have rhythm and variation. It's very often coupled with copy editing, and therefore called "line and style" or "line and copy" but in reality, it's two different jobs. Line editing is meant to make sure you sound great before worrying about everything being correct.
Step four: copy editing.
This is where we're no longer making decisions that impact the story or style of your writing. That is all locked into place, otherwise this can't work. This is where an editor makes sure you're always using the right tenses, flagging your repetitions, fixing your dangling modifiers, cutting your fragments. Think of it as 'correction' rather than editing. Be warned, though, this is still not proofreading. Proofreading is not an editor's job.
Step five: proofreading.
Again, proofreading is not your editor's job. I know a lot of people wish it were so, and you'll see a lot of people saying, "this needed editing!", but in reality a missed comma or typo was never your editor's responsibility. Proofreading takes care of minute little details like those. They can do it specifically because they only have to focus on those.
Of course, lots of editors will make you all sorts of deals that mix and match depending on what you need. For example, I did one round of developmental on you, then mixed up line, copy, and proofreading into another round. Obviously that means neither will be 100% perfect, especially not the proofreading. Even so, the fact that I can get you within traditional publishing's margins of acceptable errors is a huge point of pride for me. But yes, there will always be errors, doubly so in deals like that.
"An editor will look at your genre and goals and help you figure out the best choices"
How does hiring an editor work? What's the process like, and as a follow up, what should new writers look for when they're hiring an editor?
It's largely the same for most reputable editors. You find them online or through the grapevine, check out their website, make sure they sound like someone you can work with, and ask them to do a small sample for you. You'll usually get to send them a page or two and they'll send those pages back edited at no cost to you. Then, you can decide whether you like what they did and want to hire them for the whole project.
The process is meant to favour the client as much as possible. You get all the information you need up front: the sample, the timeline, the total cost. The one thing that the client has to put up with is the wait. Usually, you'll need to book your editor months in advance. You have to understand, they need to have steady work and can't afford to skip a month.
What to look for: Make sure they are upfront. Personally, I wouldn't send a request to anyone who doesn't have their rates displayed on their website. Definitely never book someone without seeing a sample and signing a contract.
Aside from that, there are a whole bunch of red flags. Editors who talk trash about other editors or their past clients? Skip. Editors who make cruel jokes at the expense of authors on social media? Skip. You'd think this would be obvious, but they're out there, pitching you their wares.
Check out their testimonials, too, and actually read them, deeply. Do they talk about the same sort of values you're looking for? A good testimonial is great, but one that's talking about the specific things you need is better. If you're looking for someone kind to teach and guide you, "wow I loved them, they bled me dry and hung me for dead" is the wrong kind of positive review.
One tricky thing for writers to navigate is the difference between editors like you - accredited, trained, literally an editor for publications and anthologies vs. people who really like reading and are "great at finding missing commas!" and decide they are an editor. Is there any way to spot the difference?
When you go to an editor's web page it might be nearly impossible to see. Even a pop-up Grammarly wannabe can have testimonials from their friends. But asking for a sample shouldn't cost you anything other than a few minutes of your time and two emails. And it's true, you won't know just by looking at the sample. But if you're comparing four of them from four different editors, you will see who put more work and effort into giving you corrections, options, explanations, and motivation.
You'll see who is encouraging and wants you to keep writing, and who is playing "whack-a-mole" with your manuscript trying to find as many things they personally don't like in as little time as possible, and who just put you through Grammarly.
What is a common misconception you see from writers about what editing actually is / what it can actually do?
Oh, the absolute worst one is conflating editing with proofreading. Writers and reviewers all do it and it drives us up the absolute and utter wall. "I hired an editor, and there were still typos and missing commas!"
Because a developmental editor will have made sure people can follow and enjoy your story, literally saving your career and bringing you repeat readers. A style editor will have fixed probably thousands of instances of things like "the two windows were an equal distance apart". A copy editor made sure you didn't have to focus on grammar while you were writing, because they were there to take care of whether it's "rack" or "wrack". We're talking about upward of five thousand snags your book no longer has. And what you're talking about? It's proofreading.
Not to mention that comma use isn't standardized and varies wildly depending on which style guide you follow. So yeah, every time a review says, "this needed editing, I found five commas that were wrong!" my hair catches fire. Especially because people regularly say, "I will check the reviews of the books this person edited to decide whether they're any good".
And explaining that it's not that simple, between authors rejecting edits, authors rewriting passages after editing, and reviewers not understanding what editing is, takes a long time.
Part of the job must be to give tougher feedback, possibly feedback that the writer doesn't want to hear. How do you manage that part?
Yeah, a lot of the feedback is tough. Some writers loathe the idea of making huge sweeping rewrites, others will rewrite whatever but despise having their wording touched. Everyone has something. I try to know what that something is ahead of time, so that when I have to deliver the information, I can give them a little more time. More explanations, more encouragement, more offering alternatives.
In part, the sample really helps. Writers don't know this, but the sample is also a way for me to weed out the people who were actually just hoping to rent a cheerleader and did not, in fact, want editing at all. I've had instances of someone after a sample going on a very public rant about how they actually think head-hopping is great, and they love run-on sentences, and they don't think tenses are that important, and so on.
In a case like that, not collaborating is a very valid choice we both get to make. I want to be deeply enthusiastic about the people I work with, too, and I've got enough of them willing to trust me that I can be a little picky.
And the author has every right to go through with publishing unedited work. I firmly believe that you can do well either way, but that in the end, the more work people put into their craft, the more it will show. I trust in that process. It's not always immediate, but it always changes you. If they make it through the sample, it might still occasionally be hard, but it'll work. Because by then, we have good communication, and we're on the same team.
"The more work people put into their craft, the more it will show. I trust in that process"
Let’s touch on a topic that seems to ruffle feathers - sensitivity reads. What’s your thoughts on this topic and is this something you include as a part of your editing?
I think sensitivity reading is no different than telling a friend "I have the best intentions to buy this common friend of ours a really great gift but I just don't know what, help me!"
You clearly have good intentions to include diverse experiences in your writing, and you clearly want to do the best job possible depicting them. Every writer wants to be great at what they do. When you see it that way, and realize there's a limit to your knowledge someone else could help you with, why wouldn't you ask? Especially since it doesn't necessarily imply a paid service. You probably have friends in your network who can read for every sensitivity issue under the moon.
I do it while I edit as much as I can because it just wouldn't feel right to let something that might harm both the author and their readers slip. So if someone's wildly misrepresenting what it's like to be Romanian, or an immigrant, or a woman, or queer, or a trauma survivor, I will absolutely point it out. It's as simple and polite as any other edit. "Hey, this sounds like X, wouldn't it be better if we Y? this character would probably know that Z". Done, moving on. Everyone makes mistakes, it doesn't have to be a big deal.
Obviously there are sensitivity issues I don't have personal experience with. I'm an editor, so I will very likely at least recognize that there's some sort of need for a sensitivity reader, and be able to direct you towards one.
Important addendum: editors can tell when an asshole character is being an asshole. This isn't about making everyone nice and kind. This is about the fact that we can also tell when that asshole-esque quality is coming from craft and skill, and when it's coming from the author's lack of knowledge or breadth of mind.
One of my favorite things about the way you edit is how human your feedback is. It's a mix of suggestions, tactical changes, jokes, wry observations and cheerleading. Was this always your style or was it something you developed over time?
It's probably not the most flattering thing to admit, but when I started out, I think a lot of my kindness and cheerleading was because I was so very scared. I was afraid I'd get it wrong, or crush someone's spirits. I was scared they'd walk away and never write again, or walk away and make sure I never edited again. So I couched every suggestion in a lot of soft padding. If anything, over time, I've gotten a lot more confident. My main goal is still and always will be to help people tell great stories in great ways, and that can't happen if I don't motivate them to keep writing. But with experience came the skill to navigate that racing line more tightly, where I can corner pretty well between what needs fixing in the book, and what needs fixing in the author's morale.
I still make mistakes and mishandle things and misjudge things all the time, even with all the experience and with asking for constant reaffirmation of consent and with great communication. We're only human. But I'm doing my best for the person in front of me, so I'm happy with that. It's enough.
"My main goal is still and always will be to help people tell great stories in great ways, and that can't happen if I don't motivate them to keep writing."
Name three things writers can do with their manuscripts to make your life easier.
1. If you're booking me for a later stage of editing, like copy editing, please make sure you are as certain as humanly possible about the previous stages. There's no shame in admitting you're not and starting with the earlier ones, instead. Or even just asking me what I think the book needs! There's a limit to how many arms even an octopus has, and it takes a lot of arms to cover every edit under the sun all at once.
2. Get readers before editors. There's no magic number, but three would be awesome. Let them help you see your story from an outside point of view before it gets to me. It will literally save you money, as well as provide you with a better end result, if I'm working with the best possible materials.
3. I cannot over-stress the importance of clean formatting. You're not supposed to format the book until after it's finished editing, so definitely don't give it to me in what you hope is your final formatting when I need to be able to read it comfortably and ask you for rewrites. Ideally, I'd like to get a standard Shunn format. No tab indents, no hard returns at the ends of lines, no hard returns between paragraphs, nothing that will be completely ruined the moment we add cuts and rewrites into it. When you edit with "track changes" on, it alters everything. Clean formatting really matters.
That’s the end of our Interview with the Editor, gang. Thanks Alex for taking the time. If you want to find Alex or ask her any questions, you can find her on Twitter or ask about her services on her website where you can reach out to her any time, whether it’s to ask for more info, or to get your free editing sample with no strings attached.
Alex also has an incredibly cool project in the works, In Somnio, a collection of modern gothic horror. The kickstarter has already raised an astounding ten thousand dollars, and you can buy your copy by following this link.