This past autumn, a question was posed in an online group to which I belong:
I’m an editor, struggling with how to get the best from authors who are not professional writers. As an author myself, I know how easy it is to squelch the delicate creative voice inside, but I need to ensure readability and standards. I also want multiple submissions from this group of authors who are…experts on a narrow topic, so I don’t have many to choose from. How much editing is too much, how much too little? And how do you facilitate the editor-author interaction?
Readability and standards — both of them are concepts writers should understand. Yes, in your own point of view, you’ve told a wonderful story (or, in the case of the nonfiction authors mentioned above, a fascinating piece of nonfiction), but how readable is it? Have you paid attention to grammar and sentence structure and all the nuts-and-bolts stuff that makes a good story easy to read? Or have you tossed all your ideas onto the page in the literary version of a rubbish heap, and now you’re expecting someone else to make it pretty?
Even if grammar or spelling or punctuation isn’t your strength, learn it.
Ask questions. Read reference materials. Look up information online. Consult fellow writers and readers. Talk to experts.
KNOW your craft. HONE your craft.
If that sounds easier said than done, it is.
The hard work must still be done.
Why should anyone else — least of all, an editor — care about your work if you do not?
I wasn’t born knowing how to put together a story or how edit one. I didn’t arrive in this world knowing how to spell, nor even how to speak. None of us were — but we learned.
My response to the above question:
In response to whether or not an editor should rewrite sentences, or simply confine edits to comments in the margin: A good editor does both. It’s not about making over the manuscript into the editor’s image, but about helping the author produce his best work.
Sometimes, a comment in the margin can only confuse the matter, especially when explaining points of grammar, so rewriting the sentence is an excellent form of illustrating the point. Often, I rewrite sentences when they don’t say what the author intends (subject-verb agreement, for instance, or misplaced modifiers).
I’ll also restructure paragraphs that don’t flow well. In those instances, I generally don’t have to rewrite anything, but rearrange the sentences so the ideas will build on each other in a logical or more fluid manner.
My favorite kind of author to work with is one who approaches the editing process with trust and as a partnership, knowing that I want what he wants: an excellent end result = a clean, strong novel that readers will enjoy.
That enjoyment is lessened if they’re constantly stumbling over awkward paragraphs or convoluted sentences.
After all the rough drafts and messiness of the creation process have been cleared away, and you’ve set about polishing your jewel of a novel, pay attention to your audience, and help them enjoy your work.
And that’s what it’s all about, right? Serving our readers.