Tea and No Sympathy: the Invisible Editor

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Editing is an underrated, underpaid skill in large part because it’s invisible. Good editing, in the reader’s experience, is a negative. Some people may note the absence of typos, or the lack of stumbles over poor sentence structure. Nobody but editor and author knows about the rambling, pointless plotline, the ending that weakened the whole book and had to be redrafted, the inexplicably omitted antagonist, irritating repeated word, massive plot hole, or 5000 words of unnecessary verbiage. By God you’ll see all that if it’s left in, and leave scathing reviews accordingly, but with a properly edited book, for all the reader knows, the author delivered an impeccable MS and every plot twist, satisfying scene and well structured ending is her genius. Nothing to do with anyone else, oh no.

And of course, because editors are invisible, you get people thinking they don’t need them. Authors who refuse to accept editing, self-published authors who say, ‘I’ll get my friend to read it over’. And, worse, people who work as editors without really understanding the job. People who think it’s about tidying up, who have no idea how to tackle deep structure or tonal issues or limp characterization, or how to do that without breaking an author’s heart.

Dinner party man: What do you do?
Me: I’m an editor.
Dinner party man: Don’t they have spellcheck for that?

I learned to edit working on travel guides. There is no room for sloppiness in a printed travel guide. There was no room for bringing them out late, either, since they are out of date from the day the author delivers. We used to edit in shifts, splitting MSS to finish them. People sometimes slept in the office. After that, I worked at a large romance publisher for several years, where the book turnaround was insanely fast. There is nothing like editing four books in a week and reading six slush MSS in between to get you good at X-raying a book, seeing the bones, and rearranging them to make a functioning skeleton. Do that enough and you don’t just have a vague feeling of wrong: you know exactly why this character’s decision weakens the book; why that scene, brilliant in itself, destroys the pacing, or alternatively needs to be twice as long; why these two plot points have to be rearranged; why this character ought to live rather than die.

I really feel this book should end on the obliteration of the entire human race.

(Editorial email from me to author. She agreed.)

As both an editor and an author who has benefited greatly from editing, I know how much work goes into this. I know how hard it can be to identify the problem with your own MS, and how hard it is to write the email that explains what has to be changed. I know that nobody wants to hear ‘massive rewrite’ and that it actually doesn’t feel that much better if the editor calls it a tweak. And mostly, I know that editors are the unsung heroes when it goes right, but the first in the firing line when it goes wrong.

Because, if you think for a moment, ‘This book is badly edited’ is kind of meaningless. What that actually says is, ‘This book is badly written and the editor didn’t fix it.’ But that’s the job. The author’s hacked out the raw material and the editor’s there to do anything from a light polish to a full-blown carving operation – but leaving no fingermarks, with no trace of her presence, just letting the story shine.

So when you read a book and you don’t notice anything wrong with it, spare a thought for the ninja editor, reading the clunky and the poorly structured, the repetitive and the nonsensical and the really quite alarming, the badly spelled and the just-not-quite-perfect…so you don’t have to.
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KJ Charles is a freelance editor and author. Thanks to Andrea Pina for the inspiration for this post!

29 replies
  1. Dani Myrick
    Dani Myrick says:

    My best friend just switched her major in the hopes of pursuing a job as a fiction editor after college. I’m sending her the link to this right now. 😀 Then I’m going to go buy her an appropriately awesome ninja t-shirt.

    Reply
  2. a_pina
    a_pina says:

    Indeed. Next time I read a book in which the author has profusely thanked their editor in the acknowledgements, I’ll have a better idea of what’s behind it. As a reader, editing is what makes a book worth paying for in my opinion, as opposed to something serialized for free online (the sort of thing that is written in pieces, and not written ahead of time and then edited before release: it can be enjoyable to read, and may contain a certain amount of brilliance, but there are always problems which make for a less satisfying experience).

    Also, this is good advice for people who aren’t editors and are considering the possibility, such as myself. It is a real skill which takes time and practice to develop, like anything else, and it is worth doing right. (And it sounds rather fun. Like a puzzle.) Thanks for the insight!

    Reply
  3. Sirius
    Sirius says:

    Thank you. As a reader/reviewer I wish more authors were thankful and grateful for their editors. Sadly too many times I hear that as the author grows famous they decide that they do not need the editor any longer. Yep, you do, no matter how famous you are. Especially somebody who can tell you that your book needs to be massively tightened and/or rewritten. I was talking to a friend just couple hours ago and she was reading latest “Outlander” and she asked me whether I think her book ever went to an editor. Sad.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      It is sad, and it’s incredibly obvious too, when the author is no longer taking editorial advice. I don’t get it, there is really nothing shameful in seeing the editor/author relationship as a working partnership. I’m having the hell edited out of my WIP by my agent right now and it’s doing amazing things that I couldn’t see for myself.

      Reply
  4. Claire Read (@readthewriter)
    Claire Read (@readthewriter) says:

    I’ve always thought that being an editor/sub is a bit like being a football manager. (Bear with me, I promise this is going somewhere).

    It always seems to me that, if a team is doing well, it’s the players who get praised. But if a team is doing badly, it’s all the manager’s fault.

    Same with editing:

    Piece of writing good = My, what a brilliant, talented author!
    Piece of writing bad = What a pathetic, incompetent editor!

    But I very much like the ninja analogy as well.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      THAT. Yes. That. ‘God, it’s full of spelling errors, what’s wrong with the editor?’ Um, she didn’t type them. (Except in one case, where I got a MS back from a copy editor with all the apostrophes changed to be incorrect. Don’t even *ask*.)

      Reply
        • KJ Charles
          KJ Charles says:

          No, incredibly, it was hand done. This was in the olden days. I had edited the MS on paper; she bitched up the punctuation throughout (in pen); I ended up retranscribing all my edits on a 50K MS and then basically threatening the copy-editing manager.

          Reply
  5. quillpoweronline.wordpress.com
    quillpoweronline.wordpress.com says:

    I love this piece. How could I not? I’m an editor too. Please may I republish it on my blog? (I’m not on Facebook.)

    Reply
  6. pepón
    pepón says:

    Have you ever noticed the hinges on the doors of your car? I used to design them, well, at least some of them. No one ever notices those small pieces of steel that hold your car doors. When I talked to people about my job, they allways asked, “But, can’t you like buy them in the hardware store? I mean, hinges already exist, don’t they? What do you really do?”

    But don’t worry, the day the hinges on your car doors fail, you *will* notice and remember my (ex)job.

    And now you may corect my grammar…

    Reply

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