Friday, September 29, 2006

How I edit

People will think I'm a horrible writer. I'll never write another book again. I don't know what I'm doing. What if I'm wrong?

Sound familiar? Do you have these thoughts, these doubts? Well, replace "People" with "The author," replace "write" with "edit" and you have the doubts that go through my head every time I edit a manuscript and write an editorial letter. I get the same anxiety when I send off an editorial letter as authors get when they send off their manuscript to an editor. Or artists when they send sketches or final art. (Okay, well, maybe not "the same" but similar.) I don't want to hurt the author's or illustrator's feelings, or anger them. I don't want them to think I'm incompetent and/or crazy. Because I have the highest level of respect for the creative people I work with, because I could never do what they do.

I hope that my editorial letters have the right balance of praise and constructive criticism. I know that it can be intimidating to receive a four or seven-page editorial letter. But I hope my authors know that I love their writing, love their work, to know that we're on the same team.

The task of writing an editorial letter to me is daunting, and I certainly had no idea how to go about doing it when I edited my first novel (sorry, Libby!). But I learned as time went on, I learned from my mentors, and I learned from reading the correspondence files that circulate in my department: each week, everyone in editorial (when we remember to do this) places copies of our editorial letters and other outside business correspondences into a centralized folder which is then circulated throughout the editorial department so that we can be aware of other editors' projects, problems that other editors are having that may be similar to our own, and also so the younger staff can read many different editorial letters to start to understand how to write them. I think this process is the same in most other companies, and it's one of the crucial learning tools for an editorial assistant.

I think every editor develops his or her own editing style, and I've certainly honed my own throughout the years. I shared some of my revision process at the SCBWI annual conference in LA, but I thought I'd go through it now in more detail in the hopes that it will be helpful. It's generally always changing slightly, but I just went through this four+ times in the past few weeks, so it's pretty fresh in my mind.

1) First, I read through the manuscript (this is my favorite part of the process!). I make very few notes, just read for the experience, and jot down things I notice, usually broad, over-arching things. (Although if I do happen to notice a typo or sentence that feels off here and there, I'll mark it.) But I'm really just looking to get a fresh read, reading for the overall experience as a final reader would. Is it enjoyable? Am I pulled into the book right away? Is the pacing off? Do I care about the characters? Does the plot make sense? Is the ending satisfying?

2) Then, if I can, I'll let it sit for a few days. Sometimes, right after the first read I think, "there's nothing I could do to improve that novel!" But inevitably things will come to the surface during that "sitting" time, issues with the plot, questions about certain characters, solutions (suggestions, I should say) to problems I've been having with the book, resolution to how I've been feeling about the ending, etc. I also want to see if the book "stays with you"--do I remember it several days later?

3) After a few days, I'll sit down again with the manuscript and go through it carefully, line by line. I do some line-editing now, although I think I'm generally pretty light overall in this regard. I tend to just call out sections or underline sentences that aren't working for me, but rarely will I actually reword things myself--as I've said before, I'm not a writer myself, so I like to give the author the freedom to work it out themselves. I'll jot down more notes on a separate sheet of paper that I know I'll have to expand on in an editorial letter.

4) And then finally, I copy my generally messy notes onto a clean copy of the manuscript that will be sent to the author. This step not only allows me to clarify my notes for the author, but to also review my edits, decide if I still agree with them. As I do this, I also expand on issues I need to in an editorial letter, trying to offer several suggestions for how I think an issue can be solved as I go. Sometimes I add and delete my own edits as I go along. I'll often just type things out into a Word document chronologically first, and then later go through my letter and reorganize it by topic: characterization, plot, pacing--whatever I think the main issues are in the manuscript.

5) I tweak the letter a lot. Get it to the structure I want, add the opening and closing (make sure the author knows that these are my suggestions only, not demands), print it out and edit it on paper two or three times until I think it's ready, and then send it off. I'll usually email the letter first and then send the hard copy of the manuscript to follow a few days later. This way, the author has a day or two to mull over my comments before they receive the actual manuscript and start to work, and inevitably their subconscious mind will already be starting to work out solutions to problems with the manuscript (if they agree with my comments, that is!).

And I fully expect the author to disagree with me sometimes, and if they offer me an explanation later to why they disagreed and didn't revise something, that's fine with me. Occasionally there's an issue that I feel especially strongly about, and in those cases, I'll keep requesting the change on subsequent revisions, reiterating why I think it's a problem. But after asking three or four times, there's not much more that I can do. Ultimately, it's the author's work, and we can't force the author to make changes he or she is not comfortable with, or in agreement with.

This process repeats until the manuscript is "done." Generally, the first editorial letters are more general, and as we go I get more nitpicky about the little things, and the last edit is just "clean-up" of all of the little things that are left. I've never taken less than two rounds, and on average it takes three or four, oftentimes more. And I put "done" in quotations because sometimes it feels like it's never really done to the author--they want to keep tweaking and revising. But at a certain point, we need to declare it done and get it into copyediting.

So, there you have it, my process. Of course, depending on the time crunch, sometimes this process is cut down--I'll combine 1 and 3 and delete 2. Or I'll combine steps 3 and 4. Or I'll cut down on how many times I edit my own letter. Also, when I'm reading a revision, unless there were many structural changes or major plot-point changes, the "fresh read" isn't as crucial a step.

I am an editor, and although editing is probably one of the most important parts of my job, I feel that it's only 10-15% of my job description. In fact, when I was on a panel at the New School last year and explaining what I did, I completely forgot to include "edit"! But as daunting as it is, I do relish it. I love examining these works of art carefully, trying (and I emphasize "trying") to get to know the book as well as the author does. I do respect the work, even as I seemingly "rip it apart," and ultimately I just want to help the author get the work to the next level and get it ready to introduce to the world.


Check out my updated "How I edit 2.0" post.


Anonymous said...

I wish Little, Brown were open to unsolicited mss. You seem like a wonderful, knowledgeable, passionate editor, and you must be all you seem, because your books are wonderful.


alvinaling said...

Thanks for the kind words--well, I don't necessarily like that we're a closed house, but then again, when I take over 6 months to get back to even agents and all the solicited authors in my reading pile, I can understand the necessity of the policy. Maybe I should spend less time editing and more time reading...

Anonymous said...

What you describe is much like my editorial process. One thing I always have to make myself not do after describing a possible solution to a problem is to tack on "Does that make sense?" because I'm always worried whether I'm communicating it in a way the author will understand/appreciate/sympathize with.

We don't circulate editorial letters in a folder here, either, but since Mirrorstone only has two editors, it's not a surprise. When I first started, though, my senior editor, who has been a mentor to me the entire time I've been here, edited my editorial letters to help me learn how to express things in a way that will help the author understand them better. When I first started, I tended to just dive right in to the problems without emphasizing the number of positive things, for example, and she helped me learn how to cushion feedback with positive at the beginning and end so that the author understands that what needs fixing is only part of a very good whole.

Part of my work is in shared-world fiction, so it's interesting to see the difference (and now practice it as I begin to work in author-owned properties) between how I have to specifically require certain changes in shared-world (for consistency in the world), and how in author-owned, changes are as you described, suggestions on my part, because it's the author's work, ultimately, and they have final say. It's really a fine line, yet in both cases the editor's job is to persuade, guide, and point out possible solutions rather than to demand--so they're not that different after all.

Does that make sense? ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the skinny, Alvina. :)

I always enjoy learning about what goes on 'behind the scenes'.

Cheryl said...

Terrific post! I'm working on an SCBWI talk right now about editing and self-editing, and I'm relieved to recognize both my process (e.g. reading every draft three times) and my emotions in your essay -- perhaps I'm not such a neurotic editor after all. :-)

I especially like your emphasis on giving things time . . . We're always so deadline-crunched and eager to get things done that it's sometimes hard to remember to let things sit, develop, mature in the mind. And yet that's exactly what we should do, every time.

Again, great post!

Libby Koponen said...

I love this post! I'm fascinated by how similar the editing process seems to be for everyone. All the editors have commented on that....I'm mainly a writer, but I support myself by editing/rewriting manuscripts before they are published, and this is the process I go through, too. I also have all the emotiona Alvina describes--so much that one of my favorite clients routinely emails me or calls after he's read one of my editorial letters to assure me that he's not freaking out, it's fine, etc.

And Alvina, your letter to me was great! It is my gold-standard for editorial letters. I've reread it often.

Anonymous said...

>>But I hope my author's know that I love their writing, love their work, to know that we're on the same team.<<

I think they would respect you more if you knew how to form plurals.

Grace Lin said...

Well, that's why we have copy editors. I think Alvina's job is more about the soul of the book, not the nits and picks.

alvinaling said...

Heh--thanks Anon, and thanks Grace. I fixed it--I always find grammar and spelling mistakes embarassing, but yes, that's why I'm glad we have copyeditors and proofreaders on our team. But I'll also say that I don't generally edit my posts as much as I edit my books. So feel free to point out mistakes in the future, and I'll fix them. It happens--and although it grates when I see mistakes in submissions, too, I understand that they happen, and as long as the work isn't overrun with them, I don't let it affect my opinion of the work. I assume that my authors (or author's--ha!) feel the same way.

Meghan McCarthy said...

I am the QUEEN of typos. People who aren't yet published are shocked by some of my embarrassing mistakes; such as "it's" instead of "its" and my latest stupidity--"peak" instead of "peek." I NEVER notice ANY OF THEM. I've even accidentally allowed spell check to insert "pubic" instead of "public." That's an embarrassment!

Interestingly enough, or perhaps not so interestingly, I pick up on others' mistakes frequently. I, too, noticed Alvina's blunder. But the thing is that Alvina is busy and she's human and she too makes mistakes like everyone else!

For example, a very high up editor, actually editor-in-chief, once used "their" instead of "they're" in a rejection letter to me. As you can imagine, her mistake made me feel BETTER. I laughed. I thought--wow, this editor sure must be stupid. It's a darn good thing she rejected my MS! But the truth is that she isn't stupid, but busy. Very, very, busy. She most likely spent one minute on my cover letter and moved on. So even though her mistake made me feel better momentarily, I soon realized that I needed to get back to making my books better. Perhaps then she'd take more than one minute corresponding with me!

So I think the lesson is--editors are human. Editors are busy. Editors screw up like everyone else. And a perfectly gramatical story doesn't mean it's a good one. And no, I shouldn't start a sentence with "and" but I like doing so and often.

meghan, who can't spell a damn thing so thank god for spellcheck.

Meghan McCarthy said...

P.S - I spelled grammatical wrong on purpose. Okay, okay, no I didn't. I just can't spell.

Linda S. Wingerter said...

Here's to editors being humans and not word processors.


Anonymous said...

"I think they would respect you more if you knew how to form plurals."

How lucky Alvina's writers are to have an editor who is so gracious with her suggestions (and her classy response to the above comment); she knows the difference between a typo and a grammatical mistake borne of ignorance.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the insight. Thanks for being human and having some of the same insecurities writers possess.

Brian H.

RaeLynn said...

So, so, so happy I found this blog. I recently switched from my life long dream of being a doctor to aspiring to be a book editor! Math and science, not my thing, English and reading, oh yeah. That's home for me. I was just wondering, how much do editors make on average? Does one usually have to start as an editors assistant or something lower down on the chain before becoming an editor? Again, absolutely love your blog! It helped solidify my desire to switch career goals!

alvinaling said...

@RaeLynn--happy you've found your calling! Yes, being in editorial is an apprenticeship--I would say 99% of the editors started as editorial assistants. Unless you've worked in a related field and can get someone to give you a chance at a higher level, you pretty much have to start as an assistant.

As an editorial assistant, the starting salary will probably be in the $28K-$35K range, depending on which publishing house and your level of experience. Many of the major publishers in NY have a starting salary of $30K.

Check out PW's salary poll for some averages at different positions: [www_publishersweekly_com]

Martha Bennett Stiles said...

How I wish I'd had the opportunity to read this so helpful letter 11 books ago. Martha Bennett Stiles

amberargyle said...

Totally sending some of your tips to my alpha readers when they do their first read. Thanks!

Debra St. John said...

Great post. It's always nice to know what happens to our manuscripts when they are away from us in someone else's hands.


Susan McGraw Keber said...

I'm a "new" writer, finished my manuscript for the second time after sage advice...(returning to illustrating as well after years of hiatus) it is a nurturing that helps the writer deliver the story as it should be and your explanation of how you edit seems quite caring and thorough. I hear so often that editors don't take the time to do this anymore, so it is a pleasure to see how engaged and earnest you are in your work to help the writer produce their best work. I'm going to print this out and share it with my writer's group...we're in between semesters. I'll be attending the SCBWI conference this second. I'm learning!