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What It Takes to Be a Good Editor, Part II

by Floyd Largent, book editor

In my last blog, I discussed some of the basics of what it takes to be a good editor: voracious habits of reading and writing, a thorough grounding in the tropes of the genres one works in, and simple experience—the quality that comes with quantity. But while those factors are important, they’re not the only ingredients that go into the cake.

Like any good writer, a good editor must also be a master of the rules of the language he or she works with—not only in order to know what works best and what sounds right, but also when to effectively break those rules. You need not know every single esoteric mood or tense by heart, or how to diagram sentences (seriously, have you ever had to use that skill in real life?) but you do have to know the basics of your language so well that they become as instinctive as breathing. Only then can you deconstruct them and help your client put them back together in new and exciting ways.

Oddly enough, this is more common in mainstream fiction than it is in genre fiction, which tends to focus on classical storytelling. Speculative fiction is a good example. Science fiction and fantasy are imagination-stretching genres; creatively breaking the rules, with both tropes and language, can change the whole tone of the story, especially since the central tenet of speculative fiction is to challenge existing stereotypes and create new words and worlds. Readers expect things out of the ordinary… which too many writers fail to deliver, preferring to hew to the Tolkienesque and Heinlein-like as proven formulae. The field is made poorer for it.

A good editor also needs an eye for detail. You can’t just skim a manuscript and produce a worthy edit; nor, heaven forbid, can you just do a spell-check and call it edited. A spell-checker can’t tell when the writer meant to type “than” rather than “that,” or “for” rather than “of.” A good editor reads every word of the manuscript, considering it in context so that she or he can tell whether or not it works, identify its grammatical quality and value, and catch any misspellings. English, for instance, has too many sound-alikes—here and hear, your and you’re, or they’re, their, and there—to skim or simply spell-check. And I also believe the editor should make multiple editing passes to catch anything they missed the first time, any errors they may have accidentally introduced, and to reconsider specific passages. I personally make a minimum of three editing passes before handing the manuscript to my proofreader. Although it takes a bit longer to complete the project, it’s always worth it.

One of the reasons I do multiple edits is so that I can gain a full understanding of the story, and what the author intends with it. Often the intent is pure entertainment; sometimes it’s deeper, particularly with philosophical novels and non-fiction. While I have no problem with escapism—it can be healing, and you need the pleasure to offset your cares and responsibilities—I also like entertainment that makes you think. The best writing isn’t pedantic; it presents the facts and lets you draw your own conclusions about what really happened. Consider a paragon of another art form, the Guillermo del Toro film Pan’s Labyrinth. Without bludgeoning you over the head with it (though it is brutal sometimes), it soon becomes obvious that the worst monster in the movie is the fascist Captain Vidal, even in comparison to the enigmatic Faun and the terrible Pale Man, who eats children and has eyes in the palms of his hands. You’re also left to wonder, in the end, if any of the fantastic elements were true, or merely the figment of a child’s vivid imagination. The lesson I took away from the story was that it’s about choosing the way you die.

Multiple edits, as well as deep discussions with the author, help you become intimately familiar with the story’s plot, structure, and characters, and how the characters think and react. This in turn simplifies the editing (although it takes longer), helping you improve the story, especially when developmental writing is involved. Editing provoked by deep thought, rather than superficial surface editing, inevitably improves the story—as long as you remain true to the artist’s vision, and don’t try to twist the story to your own. This is crucial.

When choosing an editor for your novel, these and the characteristics I included in Part I are those I feel you should look for. Of course, it’s hard to tell from a photo and a few blurbs who to select as your perfect editor, but that’s what our testimonials, sample edits, and these blogs are for. Consider them part of your due diligence. If you yourself are considering becoming an editor, then in my opinion, these are the skills you need to cultivate to do the job right. They can all be learned, and honed with experience.

Keep Writing!

Floyd Largent, book editor, is also a published writer of hundreds of articles.

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