Guest Blog by Patti O'Brien
Editing is a funny business. As an editor, I am basically telling writers that I can present their own thoughts better than they can, which sounds silly, right? But that’s what I do, and people pay me for it!
It’s not that we can do it better, of course; it’s just that we can do it…better. Let me explain.
You are a writer, a storyteller, a litterateur, a scribe. You have characters to think about, action to perform, verbs to choose, plotlines to plot. You type away, thinking about everything that’s going into your story, agonizing over dialogue, trying to get your hero to the climax before he dies, or is bitten by a rabid wildebeest, or quits the team. It’s a lot to deal with.
So you do the best you can, then you read it over and it sounds pretty good—or not. If not, you dive back in, saving your hero from the depths of the ocean before he drowns, along with your story. Even if you like it as is, you keep rereading, or give it to your mother/best friend/wife/husband/garbage collector to read and when they return it with rave reviews (for what else can they do?), you declare it well and good.
But is it ready for publication? Probably not, and that’s where an editor comes in.
No matter what you or your good-hearted reviewers say, your story needs work. It just does. Trust me.
Your readers are not professionals and YOU are no judge of your own work. You read what you think you wrote: you know what it’s supposed to say, and so you read it that way, oblivious to the fact that other readers will not know what you’re talking about. You’re the only one in your own head; you’re the only one who truly knows what it all means. The rest of us? Sometimes, we just have to guess.
And that’s not what you want. You want a piece that is clear, consistent, concise and correct. You want the reader to be mesmerized by the story, not distracted by errors, or inconsistencies, or—gawd forbid—out and out plot flaws! “What the hell is going on here?” is not the question you want your readers to ask. “What is going to happen next? I can’t wait,” is what you’re after.
Your editor is your friend. She will find the problems and help you fix them. Because she is not in your head, she will ask the questions future readers will ask; she will point out what is confusing so you can fix it before you send it out to publishers or agents who are way too busy to sift through a problem-riddled manuscript. I am willing to bet the farm that many good manuscripts have been overlooked because overwhelmed agents just can’t get through the first few paragraphs without throwing up their hands in disgust. The story might be great, but they’re never going to find out because they can’t get past the mechanics.
Yes, we’re talking mechanics here, the English class rules that you’ve forgotten. Most adult writers cannot punctuate, that’s a fact. And hardly anyone knows when to use a semi-colon. But I do, and people like me do. We are blessed—or burdened—with the ability to see errors wherever they lurk. We are the folks who call you out if you dare to misspeak, or put a comma where it clearly doesn’t belong. We are trying to help the world with our gifts, but more often than not, we just tick people off. Sigh.
However, we are the people you want to read your ms, your college entrance essay, your letter to the mortgage company, because we are the ones who will make it shine, get you in, promote your cause. We can do it when you can’t because we know how. Good editors are born, not made. Like piano tuners…and Steven Spielberg.
Yes, we are the Spielbergs of the writing world. We know exactly what we want, and how to get it. And it’s not that you don’t: it’s just that it’s really hard to see it clearly when you’re in the movie, or writing it. We’re behind the camera; we see it all because we’re not in it, we’re just watching. Really closely.
And because we’re not you, but we’re working for you, we want your story to be the best it can be—just like you. We want the plot to work, the characters to be engaging, the dialogue to sparkle. When you’re writing dialogue, you’re thinking about moving the plot along. When we edit dialogue, we’re thinking of that, too, but also we’re making sure that it’s believable, interesting, sensible, and not in contrast to something that was said on page 42. Consistency is hard for the writer, but it’s one of the things editors focus on.
How can we focus on your work better than you can? Because we’re not writing the dialogue, we’re just adjusting it. Ever hang a picture on a wall? It’s hard to get the nail just right, level it, hang it just so. Know what’s easier? Standing across the room saying: “a little to the left.”
Now, you may be thinking, at this point, that I’m wrong. You may think that you have taken everything into account and have written a damn good story, and maybe you have. But I assure you there are mistakes, inconsistencies, punctuation errors and tense problems. Most assuredly, actually, there are tense problems. I see them in every ms, every essay, every everything I read. Tense is a tough one; nearly every writer has trouble with it. But your editor will not. Your editor will fix all that, and make sure that singular subjects have singular verbs; that there are no errant apostrophes in your plurals and “its;” that you don’t say a kid is five years old on page 432 when you said he was only three on page ten.
It’s hard work editing someone else’s story, but it’s impossible to edit your own. Every story/magazine article/newspaper column/published book that’s ever been has been professionally edited (don’t get me started on self-published authors who don’t use an editor!). So why should yours be any different? Why shouldn’t your story get the same star treatment as JK Rowling’s do?
You’re a writer? Great. Finished a story? Get an editor.
And pay him well, because you want him to do a really good job. You want him to care about your story as much as you do. You want him “on your team” because he’s good at the one-yard line and will help you get into the end zone (you know, onto a publisher’s desk).
Writers write; editors edit. Focus on your story, and let an editor fix your grammar so you don’t have to worry about stuff like that while you’re creating a zombie apocalypse.
Here’s how it should go: Write. Revise. Get an editor. Revise. Send it back for a final edit. Reread. Submit.
You shouldn’t skip a step when your goal is publication, just as you shouldn’t skip a step when making a soufflé, because in either case, you could end up with a flat, dead thing. And ain’t nobody got time for that.
South Jersey Writers' Group member Patti O'Brien is an award-winning writer and editor extraordinaire. Be sure to check out her excellent editing service Editing Is Everything, Follow her on Twitter, find her on LinkedIn and Facebook, and read her always entertaining blog, A Broad Abroad.