In the life of any book, there comes a time when the writer has to step back from the creative process and move into editing mode. Once that first draft is down, whether written in spurts or a steady stream, the task of critical evaluation and tweaking begins. We go over our work multiple times in an effort to identify what’s working and what isn’t. Because we’ve spent months with our characters, shaping our plot, losing and finding our way and picking up dozens of threads, it can be difficult to see clearly with fresh eyes, and chances are, because we’re so close, we miss a whole lot. We need to cut without remorse, address issues of craft that might have been neglected, rearrange paragraphs or chapters, and even lose a character or two.
William Faulkner said it in a handful of memorable words:“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” He was echoed by Stephen King, who went a step further, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”What does it mean to kill our darlings? It means that every word has to count, and if it doesn’t earn its place, it must go–even those sections of prose we feel most precious and sentimental about, the ones we’ll do anything to protect. The ones we have the most trouble doing away with. And killing our darlings unfolds during the editing process.
Editing is in many respects an act of destruction and rebuilding. It drives us crazy because it can go on forever. Change one element of the story, choose a different path, mutilate the manuscript, and you have a different book. There are an infinite number of different books in one novel. How do you know when to stop? Well, the easy answer is, you don’t know and you don’t stop, not until your eyes squint and all the words look like gibberish. At some point we develop what’s known as manuscript blindness, where we cease being effective because we can no longer see our work’s errors and flaws. At that point, when your brain feels like grated cheese, you might consider asking a beta reader or a professional editor to dig in, someone whose insight you trust and respect.
It’s important to choose whom you work with carefully, because an editor who doesn’t get it is as bad as a mismatched therapist. Both can topple you over into new levels of paranoia, desperation and futility. You want someone who knows books, who knows writing and craft and is savvy enough to jump into your work with the sole purpose of helping you make it the best it can be. It’s that person who understands the nuances of rule breaking and can recognize the difference between mistake and innovation. You’re not looking for the editor who wants to turn your book into something they would write, nor are you looking for someone whose approach is rigidly formulaic. By that I mean someone who tells you to lose every adverb and adjective and never use the passive voice, or someone who has no sense of poetry. In the hands of such an editor, Anne Michaels’ exquisite Fugitive Pieces might have been a very different book, and all the poorer for it. Because creative writing is defined by its very name, the last thing an editor needs to do is turn your novel into a clone of everyone else’s. Adverbs, adjectives and the passive voice have their place, but like everything else, they must assert their right to be there.
Once you’ve found a professional editor who feels like a good match, you’ll want to be very clear about the kind of editorial feedback you’re after. These are the broad categories and levels of editorial service that most professionals offer:
- Proofreading (light). This is the most basic service, and will usually cost less. The editor will read through the manuscript, checking for inconsistencies and errors in syntax, grammar, spelling, punctuation and formatting. Proofreading is usually the last step before a manuscript goes out on submission.
- Copyediting (medium) includes a deeper evaluation of use of language and elements of craft such as style, voice, dialogue, narrative flow, pace and plot. A copyeditor will also check for inconsistencies in content.
- Developmental/Substantive Editing (heavy). This type of edit takes all the above into account but gives priority to structure and foundational aspects of a manuscript. It’s the most comprehensive of editing services. An editor may recommend cutting, expanding, or reorganizing and may raise questions or make suggestions that call for rewriting.
While you can expect a degree of conformity, editors charge different rates and possess varying levels of skill. Some will offer payment options and work within your budget. While a substantive edit can be expensive, a broad editorial overview will be less so. It’s also important to ascertain whether proofreading is included in a quote, as this will need to be done once the author has completed his/her revisions. An editor should be very specific about what you’re getting, and will usually give you a breakdown of what each step costs. A useful website to check out is the Editorial Freelancers Association which goes into more detail about rates and services offered in the industry.
As a literary agent, the bulk of my day was spent editing clients’ manuscripts for submission to publishers. It’s what I do best, and I’ve since chosen to concentrate on freelance editing. I make sure that every author I take on knows exactly what I can do for him/her and what s/he can expect from the process. Because I’m also a writer, I’m sensitive to the emotional and practical investment in work that’s taken months to produce, and the anxiety around entrusting it to a relative stranger. I make it clear that I can be tough, and I don’t lie. I’m not brutal, but my job is to find the flaws and excesses an author might have missed, draw attention to what’s working and use my knowledge of the industry and craft to bring out the best in a book. That requires rolling up my sleeves and getting dirty. Throughout, I always make sure that the author knows she has my support.
On a light note, consider the wisdom of Dr Seuss, who said, “…the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” Whether you choose to trim and tidy those words yourself or with help, there’s a better book waiting at the end of it all with your name on it.