Category: Editing

Identifying and Fixing Passive Voice

Identifying and Fixing Passive Voice

I have seen a lot of Facebook questions and posts about passive voice that don’t quite explain it. Almost everyone who knows what passive voice is (or thinks they know what passive voice is) knows it’s bad, but they often have trouble identifying it. Given how prevalent the problem is, I thought I should address it.

A novel is, in some ways, like a movie. How you construct your sentences will determine where the camera is focused, who is on screen, and where the spotlight is shining. This is one of the reasons sentence structure is so vital to writing because if you don’t understand it or use it well you’re like a director whose camera crew is off the rails.

The easiest way I have to explain passive voice is it’s pointing the camera lens in the wrong direction. Now, I know there are times in artsy-fartsy movies where the kind of thing I’m going to describe happens. There are times in regular movies when it’s desirable. That also means passive voice isn’t always wrong. That said, it’s wrong more than it’s right, so don’t take that and run with it too far. Just because, “E said it’s okay sometimes” doesn’t mean to charge into the sunset with it.

Let’s start with an example of passive voice:

The door was closed by the man as he ran through it.

In this circumstance “the man” is supposed to be the primary sentence subject since he’s the one we are following, right? Your MC (Main Character) is running through a doorway and slamming it behind them as they try and escape the bad guys. Simple enough.

Unfortunately, with that sentence, that’s not the way it reads. It reads that the primary subject of the sentence is the door because it is written into the place of power. The camera lens is focusing on the door and watching it while the man (an afterthought) rushes past and closes it.

The reason this is called “passive voice” is because the thing being acted upon is the subject and isn’t doing anything. It’s not even reacting (which is a key part of why this is passive voice).

So how do we fix it? The fix is simple. Have the camera follow the action like any good director:

The man closed the door as he ran through it.

See the difference? The camera is moving, following the subject of the sentence. The subject of the sentence is acting, and we aren’t stuck in limbo staring at the door while action goes on around us. It would be like watching Avengers from the POV of one of the buildings in New York. Occasionally neat things would happen around you, but you’re stuck facing one direction with limited view and no action.

So how do we identify passive voice?

  • One thing you will also notice in the second sentence is I have removed the “to be” verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been). While “to be” verbs aren’t always passive, it’s a good idea to eliminate as many of them as possible in your writing. However, if you see a lot of “to be” verbs in your writing you might discover you have a fair amount of passive construction in there, too.
  • Next, check your subjects. Passive voice is almost always going to  have two or more subjects, so if your sentence has only one subject (e.g. The door was closed.) you are probably not in passive territory. That doesn’t make all single-subject sentences perfect, but they probably aren’t going to be “passive voice” in the technical definition.
  • If your sentence has two or more subjects, is the “camera” focused on the one doing the acting? If they are both acting then the sentence can’t be passive because passive voice requires at least one of the subjects to be doing nothing. If I were to write: “The door swung closed after him,” that is not passive. The door is swinging. It is active.

If those three checks do not hit paydirt on your sentence, it is not passive, no matter what the grammar check on your word processor or editing software says. That’s actually one of the major problems with editing software: it doesn’t realize all “to be” verbs aren’t passive. While I can (and will) do a post later about why “to be” verbs aren’t your friends, they aren’t passive by definition.

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What Is An Editor’s Job?

What Is An Editor’s Job?

I have worked with many clients over the years who weren’t clear on this subject, and it led to frustration for everyone involved. As such I decided to write this out as a way to explain what it is we do for you.

Let’s start by discussing the three different types of editing. When you contract an editor you will talk with them about which type or types of editing you are asking them to perform. While the different types of editing are often interchanged and the definitions argued, I will give you the ones I use, and you can go from there. Also, be aware that I am approaching this from a fiction editor’s standpoint. I have not worked on nonfiction much, so I will only be giving a passing commentary on what it might mean for that type of work.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing means the editor is going to dig deep into your story to examine and work with all the elements thereof. They are going to work with you to iron out major plot holes (or, with a nonfiction work, examine your premis). If you look at your story as a dish at a restaurant, this is where you look at each element of the dish. Are the sides well-prepared? Is the meat cooked to the proper temperature? They then provide feedback on these elements and give you information on the overall construction of the piece.

At this stage, an editor might excise or have you add whole scenes or chapters to clarify points and improve pacing. It deals with the macro of the whole book rather than the nitty-gritty details. It also will examine long-term things like characters’ importance and use in the story.

Were I to boil this down into a single principal, this type of editing is dealing with the plot and story as a whole and viewing it in that light. It isn’t concerned with sentences or grammar, it is concerned with the piece in its totality.

Substantive Editing

Continuing the trend of comparing writing to food (I must be hungry), this is where the editor examines each part of the dish closely. Did you use just the right seasoning on the potatoes? Editors at this stage examine things like word choice and dialog. It nitpicks each scene to ensure it is written in the best possible way to get across your point.

During this phase editors also often do things like cull passive voice, adverbs, adjectives, and other unnecessary fluff to streamline your novel’s pacing and improve readability. If it sounds scary you’re right, it is in some ways. Having another person go through your book and pick it apart like this is intimidating, but well worth it if you have a quality editor.

This phase of editing is largely concerned with sentences as a whole. Do they flow well? Do they roll off the tongue? Do they feel right and benefit the book as a whole?

Copy Editing

The final and most focused phase of editing. This would be examining the dish’s plating technique and looking at the trimmings to ensure they are visually appealing. At this point, the editor is reviewing grammar and spelling for clarity. They will fix punctuation and syntax to ensure technical accuracy and consistency in things like dates and spelling of names, acronyms, or other words unique to the text.

During this part of the editing process, the editor is mostly focused on the punctuation marks and technical aspects of the language. They will not fix or touch your text in any other way, though they might make notes.

So what is an editor’s job, really?

Now that we know the three different types and styles of editing, we can dig into the meat of an editor’s job. I’ve waxed on about this particular subject before, and I’m going to do it again, so bear with me. I also warn you that we are now venturing into the territory of mixed opinion and fact.

I firmly believe that an editor’s primary job is to provide an author with the highest quality manuscript they can. While they must work within the bounds of the contract they created with the author, they should do everything in their power to augment the author’s ability and potential to the best of their ability. That’s fact, and good business practices.

Here’s where we hit opinion. I also believe an editor’s job is to teach authors and guide them through the publishing process if they know it. While not all authors want this advice, if an editor is able to give insight into the publishing industry as well as instruct authors on how to improve their writing on their own then they should do so.

Now, the reason I’m going into this territory is because many first-time or even not-so-first-time authors don’t know much about how the industry works. It’s a complex monstrosity that takes years and a great deal of research to fully understand. That’s just reality. Don’t be discouraged by that fact because you have guides to help you out.

To be honest, I view my job as almost teacher first and book triage second. While I can make a lot of money providing first-aid services to authors whose books need a lot of work, I sleep better at night if I teach them how to improve their books on their own so they don’t need to rely on me as much the next time around. It creates better relations with my client and provides them the best possible service, in my opinion.

What isn’t an editor’s job?

Now that you know what an editor’s job is, I am going to highlight a few things that are not included in the job description.

  • Writing your book for you.
    • This is the territory of a ghostwriter. We don’t want to write your book because we have enough work of our own to do. If you are looking for someone to write your book for you (or close enough) make sure you express this in the beginning and engage someone who provides ghostwriting services.
  • Rewriting your book in their voice.
    • Now, I’m going to preface this by saying voice is one of the most often misunderstood parts of writing. Your “voice” is not too many adjectives, passive voice, adverbs, or other writing sins. Your voice is the unique way you put words together that only you have.The only way an editor can damage this is by gutting and rewriting large swaths of your novel in their voice.The best way to handle this is to look at suggested sentences and rewrites and see if you can understand the direction the editor was going. If you like the way they wrote something, then stick with it. If you don’t then see if you can change it around to fit what works for you. This process doesn’t include snark, however. There is no need to be unfriendly to the editor if you decide to re-rewrite or adjust something they have suggested.The only time you might run into trouble with this is if the editor is working for a publisher because at that point they have final say on what makes it into the book.
  • Being a punching bag.
    • While this should go without saying, some authors become very snippy and require a great deal of coddling. This is not our job, and if you are that level of needy it will become a problem for us. Many editors do their best to be gentle to their clients and give them the benefit of the doubt, but we do not have to accept grief given by clients.
  • Being available at all hours for your convenience.
    • Again, this should go without saying, but some clients don’t recognize office hours or business weeks and expect their editor to answer emails or other contact forms instantly. The downfall of freelance is we work from home and often end up unable to pry ourselves away from our work. As such, many of us have specific office hours that we do not violate.These office hours and days off and so on are mandatory for mental and physical health. I can’t tell you how many editors and publishers I know who go to sleep dreaming of emails they haven’t sent or edits they didn’t finish. That said, unless there’s a pressing deadline, we need to disengage from our computers and be human beings every so often. Yes, many of us are crazy cat owners who spend our days watching Netflix, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need time off to recharge.

“You’re Turning Violet, Violet!”

As I’ve been scrolling through posts in the many writing groups I frequent I’ve been seeing a LOT of purple prose. Purple prose is the enemy of pacing, and it must be eradicated from your writing habits if you are going to become a better writer than you are now.

Purple prose is also known as overwriting. In essence, you are writing long paragraphs about nothing. This excess fluff is the death of pace and means you, the writer, are not contributing anything to your story. If you are spending long paragraphs describing your characters, the scenery, or actions that do not drive the story then you are probably going purple.

If your writing takes a paragraph to say two words you are not in good territory. Shakespeare can be quoted as saying, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and this is the truth. Do not use eleven words to say one. Do not two words to say one. Use that single word, and make it count for something and mean something. It’s easy to write a thousand words of fluff with no meaning and no pace; it’s hard to write a thousand words that MATTER.

Your story should move at a good speed. If you have long scenes where characters aren’t doing anything to progress the plot or their own development axe those scenes with ruthlessness befitting a Mongol warlord. Do not cling to those scenes and words because, despite your hopes, they are NOT gold. Do not linger over phrases just because you like them; if they do not serve your story highlight them and hit “delete”.

As master storyteller Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings.” He is not talking so much about characters when he says this as he is talking about your prose. Don’t get so attached to a scene or a character or a phrase that – should it be necessary – you cannot carve it from your work and leave it on the editorial floor. This will always be painful, but it is important to your work to be able to let go of things that do not improve the integrity of the piece.

Pacing is one of the most difficult things to perfect in writing, but – much like pornography – you know it when you see it. The gray area becomes clear, and you can tell when you’ve hit a good stride because the story leaps off the page. You can read a whole book in an afternoon and not know where the time went because the pace grabbed you by the shorthairs and would not let you go.

If you can create a story with good pacing you are on your way to becoming a strong writer. And good pacing means letting go of the fluff. You don’t need those flowery lines of description everywhere (though keeping a few is okay); you don’t need those adverbs and adjectives or those laundry list descriptions of characters and locations; and you don’t need those scenes where nothing gets done. Cut it all out and get to the raw, beating heart of your story. Once you’re there, grab that heart and don’t let go.

Working With a Pro. Editor

I want to preface this by saying I’m not a bigwig editor who’s been doing this for thirty years and makes a million dollars a contract. I am a pretty small time editor who has more bills than money, and I’ve been in the industry for about five years now. Of course, I’ve been writing and reading far longer, but when it comes to the business of publishing books it’s been about five years.

However, during that time, I have spent most of my career as an editor of various sizes and flavors. In addition to doing work for Insomnia Publishing I do freelance editing (as you all know!), and during a recent discussion with a prospective client I heard him talking about how most editors he’d worked with were either not aggressive enough, not flexible enough, , or tried to rewrite the story in their own words. Those are all sort of the “deadly sins” of editing, to me. Hearing that got me to thinking. Mileage may vary, as I can only speak for myself and my philosophy, but I’ve known enough other editors to be able to bounce these thoughts off them, too.

The job of an editor is complicated. While we need to ensure the writing is as polished as we are able to make it we cannot insert our voice into the writing. That requires being a chameleon. We must be able to make any things we insert into the writing sound, to the best of our ability, like they belong there. Either that or, my preferred method, is write what we think should be added  then encourage the author to adapt it to their own use however they see fit. That way the author can make tweaks to ensure the work is their own.

We also need to remember to be “aggressive” enough to address everything we think is wrong. If you think a whole chapter belongs in another part of the book or doesn’t work at all? It’s your job to tell the author that! I have no hesitation in saying when something doesn’t work. You are being paid for your opinion, and if you aren’t honest and up-front about what you think then you’ve taken someone’s money and not provided the top-tier feedback they expect from you. It’s disingenuous.

HOWEVER —

You need to separate out your personal taste from whether or not something makes sense. Just because I have personal preferences when it comes to my “style guide” that doesn’t mean that my style guide is superior to someone else’s. If I encountered an author who was deadset against using my precious Oxford comma I wouldn’t attempt to force the issue; that would be disrespectful. But if an author wrote the whole book in passive voice and claimed it was superior to active voice then you have a duty to attempt to reason with them. That said, unless I’m working with someone as part of a publishing contract, I am not going to fight with my clients. That’s just rude.

An editor also needs to be a bit flexible. I have clients who have specific style guides for their writing that needs to be adhered to. It’s important to them to make sure said style is present. As such I need to be prepared to learn and watch for the things in their guide. It’s important particularly if I am working with a client whose work is being overseen by another publisher since they will have their own guidelines.

I’m sure I had some witty way of wrapping this up when I started it, but it’s wandered out of my head. I think I’ve said all I needed to say, though, about editing and what I feel some of the most important attributes of an editor are. These, of course, are not the only things we need to know. We need to be skilled at grammar, multiple styles, and understand the structure of stories as well as having a good head for word usage. It’s a complicated bunch of things we need to know. But when it comes to working with clients I think these are some of the more important PR points we have when handling manuscripts for other people.

POV Characters (or: You Are Not George R. R. Martin!)

Point of View - IMG_7561
Point of View – IMG_7561 (Photo credit: Nicola since 1972)

There are several schools of thought regarding point of view characters. However, in order to discuss them I’m first going to define what I mean when I say “point of view character” since there are many definitions floating about aimlessly.

To me a point of view character is the character that is currently center stage. They are the one driving the plot, and they are the one whose story is primarily being told. There may be more than one, but think of them as the lead character. To use a few examples – Harry Dresden from “The Dresden Files” by Jim Butcher (my current obsession),  Menolly from “DragonSong” by Anne McCaffrey, Shadow from “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman… I’m sure you’re starting to get the picture by now as well as some insight into what I read in my spare time. Your POV character does not have to be in first person, but it is from their perspective that the book is written.

With that in mind I want to stress the importance of your POV character(s). This is the lens through which you will be sharing your story. Regardless of whether it’s written in first person or third person (if it’s written in second shame on you, sir, shame) the viewpoint character is the reader’s vehicle through your story. They ride with them whether over their shoulder or directly in their head, and your world is revealed to them along with the character.

Having multiple viewpoint characters is a common literary convention; many authors employ this tactic to give the reader multiple sides to a story, allow a reader to know what’s happening in other locations (or even other times), and generally give a broader view of the world. This can be a very good thing. It can also turn bad very, very quickly if you end up with too many.

With the popularity of “Game of Thrones” as a most recent example of such a work people are starting to write books with more POV characters than Stephen King has books. Alright, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I promise it isn’t much. As a Public Service Announcement I’m here to tell you that this is a profoundly bad idea.

The hard truth of the matter is very few writers are able to pull off more than maybe three viewpoint characters in a work without running into continuity errors, flow problems, and issues with just plain having too many stories going on at once. Most writers should maximize out their POV characters at two (or three if you must). You should also make sure that you are extremely clear about which character is speaking when. You cannot change POV mid paragraph. You shouldn’t change POV mid chapter, and if you change POV between chapters make sure your audience knows it up front. Otherwise you will end up with a great deal of confusion.

When using multiple POV characters you will also need to make absolutely certain that your organization of your novel is spot on. There is no set formula for how many chapters should be written from which point of view, but however you do it make sure that it fits. You should also make sure you have test readers look at things for you. If they are confused by the switches something is wrong, and you need to adjust for that. Don’t get defensive and cranky; just do it.

Guest Blog: Should a Debut Novel “Play it Safe” By Gus Sanchez

Gus Sanchez is the author of the blog anthology “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run.” He is currently at work on his first novel. A native New Yorker, he now lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife and daughter. You can find him online at www.outwherethebusesdontrun.com

Some time ago, I was at a local writer’s critique group I attend every second Saturday of each month. For a writer’s group, it’s a pretty large one; on any given Saturday, when the group meets, we can expect up to thirty people to meet at one of the local branches of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library.

I felt one of the pieces being critiqued that Saturday needed a lot of work. I had the chance to read the submitted piece a few days before the writer’s group met. I found reading this one writer’s story somewhat frustrating. Too many run-on sentences, odd and sudden shifts in POV, and his story seemed to threaten to get away from him. Like a lot of young adult writers, his story is part of a multi-part story; his submitted short selection was the prologue and opening chapter to the first novel. A lively discussion was taking place after he’d read a few paragraphs of his story. The group agreed his story needed work, and we were here to help him.

My suggestion to him, one which I voiced loudly, was to make the story more ambitious. I felt he was restraining himself a bit too much. His story was a cross-genre attempt at both historical fiction and conspiracy thriller, in which the illegitimate daughter of the last Tsar of Russia…something…something…something. Regardless, I urged him to pursue this. Be ambitious, I told him, get it all out on paper. Allow your imagination to roam as free as possible, and don’t get in its way.

One participant argued otherwise. There’s an adage in the publishing world, she said, that both agents and publishers will repeat with writers: your first and second novels should play it safe. Save the really ambitious stuff for the third novel. Agents find it easier to sell novels that play it safe. A few participants in the group nodded their heads, although it was hard to say if they agreed, or were just nodding for the sheer hell of it all.

I let her commentary pass, without a comment of my own. After all, I’m not a published writer, so I have no frame of reference to retort with. There are rules every writer must abide by. The classic “show, don’t tell,” is probably the one cardinal rule no writer dare violate. The greatest lesson any writer should know is what the rules to writing actually are. Know the rules, and you’ll play the game correctly. Rules apply to just about anything, really. Understanding how the rules apply makes you more disciplined in what you do. It’s what makes a soccer player a better goal scorer by understanding the offside rule, if you’ll pardon the sports analogy. If that striker thinks he can simply ignore the most important offensive rule of the goal, then he’ll make for a terrible striker. Excellent strikers understand how and when the offside rule works. Excellent writers know the rules of writing. They know how and when the rules work.

With that being said, there’s something to be said about breaking the rules. The greatest art has often been created when the artist thumbs their nose at the rules, and creates a new set of rules. Actually, let’s take that one step down a bit. Good art, even if it’s not great, should make every attempt to break the rules. And this rule that your debut novel should be something you should play safe, as a writer, is one rule I think needs to be broken more frequently.

I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly how many debut novels I’ve read, but I find that while so many are well-written and possessing of a literary voice that’s clearly going places, often times that debut just seems unmemorable. Not to say it’s a bad book. Far from it. But I get a feeling sometimes that after I’ve read a debut novel, I’ll likely not think much about it ever again. Which leads me recently to wonder if someone, an agent, an editor, another writer, suggested to this writer that they play it safe with their debut novel? The better the chances to get their novel published, right? So be it, I suppose.

Then I finished reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline recently, and was reminded again of what a debut novel should read like: an opening, forceful statement of intent from a new novelist, one that brims with so much promise, and whose debut novel is filled with the idea that “playing it safe” is a fool’s errand. Clearly, Ernest Cline skipped class the day that lesson was taught, and thank the gods for that, because had Ernest Cline played it safe, Ready Player One would simply be another run-of-the-mill sci-fi tale. By not playing it safe, Ernest Cline has weaved a hilarious, heart-racing, smile-inducing pop-culture thrill ride, a love letter to nerd culture and 80s-era nostalgia, and a game inside a story that’s hard to put down. If you’ve read this novel, then you know what I’m talking about. In other words, this is one hell of a debut novel because it goes for something far greater than the sum of its parts. It dares to be far more ambitious than it should be, and it works. Ready Player One isn’t perfect by any means. It relies way too much on backstory, which for the sake of this novel is a necessary evil, and relying on backstory can threaten to grind a novel down to a halt. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen in Ready Player One.

I thought of some of my favorite debut novels: Fight Club, by Chuck PalahniukWhite Teeth, by Zadie SmithThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, and Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. What if Chuck Palahniuk’s agent told him to play it safe, and lose the whole plot twist about Tyler Durden and the narrator being the same person? Certainly Palahniuk’s ruminations on commercialism, masculinity, and materialism wouldn’t have had the same heft and anarchic glee to them. What if Joseph Heller’s publisher told him, “Forget it, you need to make Yossarian less crazy and more likeable?” It’s possible these conversations took place. Clearly, if they did, these authors dug their heels.

I admit the comment the group member made about playing it safe later irked me to no end. I found it to be extremely discouraging advice, even if it was given under the best of intentions. I’m careful not to give advice that’s too lofty or unattainable; I got the sense that the writer of this Tsarist Russia YA conspiracy novel definitely had lofty ambitions in mind, but needed help shaping his vision. So why tell him to tone his ambition down? I don’t want to see him needlessly give up on something he’s been passionate about, something he’s clearly done a ton of research on, just because it’s not “marketable.” Let him decide that for himself.

Mind you, I’m not dumping on agents or editors or other writers for dispensing this advice. Sometimes an author not playing it safe is an author being self-indulgent, and a good agent needs to call bullshit sometimes. But sometimes this advice can be misguided. I’m not saying the rule of “playing it safe” is wrong, but it’s a rule worth breaking when writing your first novel.

Guest Blog: Small Pleasures: Why I’m Not Going Crazy Editing Boring Stuff by Joshua Grant

Joshua Grant is a technical editor who primarily works on nonfiction. You can find his blog at www.radicalrevisions.wordpress.com

His email is jc.grant22@gmail.com. Check out his blog for great tips and tricks and stories about his own writing and editing journey!

At a recent family get-together, I tried to explain to my sister what I do:

“I edit. Mostly technical and sciencey stuff. Reports and things. Sometimes presentations.”

“Wow, that sounds boring,” she says. And it is—sort of. It’s not fun like editing fiction, much less writing fiction. But it’s also not devoid of its own pleasures.

You might get the sense from Ms. Harvey’s posts that editing is all about jetting around the world and editing out people’s extra dragons (okay, maybe not just that, but something like it). But it’s not all excitement (and fiction). A lot of us work with stuff that isn’t fiction, or even creative non-fiction. For certain reasons, my young editing career has detoured down this road, to technical documents, academic papers, financial proposals, whatever. I hope you’re not bored already.

Sure, fiction is fun, full of (hopefully) engaging characters and (ideally) compelling situations rendered in (possibly) interesting prose—all things that “boring writing” lacks. It could drive one a little crazy, but there’s a trick. I have to appreciate the beauty in clean, clear, simple prose. Prose that de-complicates complicated processes or communicates its ideas as quickly as possible. Prose that works.

Editing fiction/poetry/creative non-fic has been a dream of mine, but because the paying market for these things is thin (pro-writers are connected to specialized editors, and many newer authors balk at the notion of… well… paying), I’ve found an okay place to rest and work for now, a place to expand from.

It helps that I’m maybe pathologically obsessed with language and style. I’ve managed to find the same pleasure in editing out a comma splice in a piece of technical writing as I would in a story. Clean, strongly parallel prose feels good in any genre.

It helps that I’m curious about how the world works, and come to every fresh project with the mindset, okay, today I’m going to learn about mine engineering. Or financial consultancy. Or first aid training. Or whatever. I come to most projects with a fresh mind, and get to learn as I go, while correcting style and grammar. It’s kind of like being in a gelato shop where I get to test all the flavours, and then proofread their menu. A dream. I also get to learn about how certain professions teach their workers to write—I’ve edited engineering reports where 9 sentences out of 10 are in the passive voice. Yulp! What does that say about how engineers look at the world? Maybe nothing. What’s that say about how they write? Perhaps there is some truth in stereotypes. I feel needed.

It also helps that, with boring writing, the writer and editor tend to share a very specific and concrete goal: to produce a document that communicates certain information to a certain audience in the easiest possible way. This is, believe me, a much, much simpler and less frustrating goal than “expressing oneself” or “advancing the plot to the final battle scene.” If I query a particularly opaque term, saying “Is this common industry terminology? Revise to ___ if not,” I know I’m not putting the kind of hooks into the author that I might be if it were a creative work. No tears will be shed over my brusque queries. Not this time.

Guest Blog: Writers and Editors, Friends and Foes by Kimberly Klemm

Thank you and welcome to Kimberly Klemm ( http://www.kimberlymckenzie.com )!

 

I have worked in the Technical Writing industry for eight plus years as both a contributing writer and a Senior editor.  The relationship between writers and editors can be likened unto a romance, a terminal illness, and a business partnership.  Writers and editors can be both friends and foes, and usually everyone is happy if a satisfying product is produced.  From my own experience there are a few tips for both writers and editors that can assist the process of producing written works and that may help keep the metaphorical daggers off of the table.

Writers:

When working with editors:

  •   Always send your best version of a “clean” copy.
  •  Draft, draft, and revise BEFORE the editor sees your work.
  •  DO NOT take edits personally.
  •  Refuse edits you do not agree with, sometimes you will be correct.
  •  Negotiate your refusals; DO NOT dictate.
  •  Show appreciation for those who increase the value of your work.

Editors:

When working with writers:

  • Remember you are working with a writer and not just copy on the pages.
  •  ADMIT to occasionally making a mistake.
  • STAND YOUR GROUND; you are an authority.
  • Never re-write work that belongs to another writer (unless asked and agreed to).
  •  CHECK YOUR FACTS.
  •  Edit more than once.

These are just some of the tips that, put into practice, can ease the strain between creating and crafting.  Wearing both the writer’s hat and the editor’s eraser, I have come to respect both roles as necessary together for truly top-notch writing.

Scalping (and other horror stories)

English: Hands collaborating in co-writing or ...
English: Hands collaborating in co-writing or co-editing or co-teaching in online education. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my time in the writing world I have encountered multiple horror stories. And I am hoping that sharing some of them with you will help you avoid these pitfalls in the future. As you may have gathered I am militant in my march against people that are selling their services for massive prices without offering comparable worth.

I got one of my first freelance contracts because I rejected a query (when I worked with Divertir). No joke. And when I rejected that query it began a dialogue with the author regarding the editing that had been done on his book. Ultimately, the author told me that I had given him more help in those few emails (and in working on the first chapter of his book for him) than the editor he’d paid thousands of dollars to in order to edit his work.

I was floored.

This has not  been the last instance of this happening that I have encountered. Recently I began working with an author who had paid an editor twice what I was asking to edit only half the book. That “editor” mangled it and left not only word choice errors and so on, but failed to catch major grammar problems like runon sentences and capitalization mistakes. I don’t blame the author for these – that’s what editors are supposed to catch.

And these poor authors paid thousands of dollars for this trash. Needless to say my blood was (and is still) on fire. I don’t charge an egregious amount of money to edit a manuscript, but by God I edit it properly to the best of my ability. And I believe that authors deserve that kind of integrity. It would be like someone editing John Lennon out of a Beetles album because they thought it “sounded better that way” when they have never so much as listened to music.

I think my biggest problem has to come from so-called “editors” that actually have no idea what they’re doing. They’ve done a lot of reading and may even be writers, but that doesn’t mean that they are capable editors. Editing is its own art. It’s liked inexorably to writing (because if you don’t understand and have a firm grasp of the mechanics and craft of writing you can’t edit), but they are absolutely not one and the same.

Being able to edit effectively (and I don’t mean proofread for your buddies) takes years of practice, study, and hard work. Almost anyone can eventually do it, but it isn’t something you can just pick up and do because you got good grades in English. It requires a passion and sensitivity that easily equals an author’s. You need to be able to tend to that author’s voice like a garden. You weed it, water it, and fertilize it. Then you watch the flowers bloom after your hard work is done. Writers are like flowers; they will bloom and provide staggering beauty time and time again if properly and lovingly tended. Some of that tending requires pruning and other things they may not appreciate at the time, but it becomes worth it when the end result is a spectacular display.

“Why do I need an editor? Can’t I just do it myself?”

Edit Ruthlessly
Edit Ruthlessly (Photo credit: Dan Patterson)

My recent move to freelance editing and my upcoming marriage have left me with little time for writing, I’m afraid. But nonetheless I want to comment on a trend I’ve noticed in several writing groups I participate in.

The answer is pretty simple, in all honesty. You need an editor because your writing isn’t going to be anywhere near as good without one. I am an editor, and I need an editor when I write! My writing isn’t perfect either, and because when you write something you’re so intimately tied to it there’s a fair amount of difficulty in stepping back enough from your own work to recognize the necessary changes. Grammar changes are pretty easy to notice on your own if you have a trained eye, but sometimes you miss things like word choice or plot holes that you didn’t realize you had.

Now, with all that said, you can do the majority of the work yourself by going through multiple drafts, researching the craft of writing, honing it, and then applying that new understanding to your writing. But that can take a fair amount of time to do, and some people just plain don’t want to do it. I’ve seen books cross my desk as an editor that made my fifth grade research papers look like Edgar Allen Poe. And those people wonder why these things are important.

I recently had someone ask me the question of “why is grammar important?” and my answer was pretty simple and straightforward. Having poor grammar in your writing when you go to sell it to others or market it to agents/publishers/whatever is like showing up to a job interview in your sweatpants and hoodie. It doesn’t matter how good your resume (manuscript) is no one will take you seriously, and someone else will get hired. There are no two ways about this fact. While, yes, most people don’t speak the Queen’s English and wouldn’t know a semicolon from an ampersand (well, they probably would, but still) it does make a difference. I know that I, for one, prefer books that don’t leave me itching to go for my red pen the first few sentences in. If I spend all my time editing the book in my head while I’m trying to read it I’m not enjoying the characters, story, or world. I’m just frustrated and typically won’t finish reading it.