Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Ten Commandments for Editing Someone's Work

It's Jacob Wonderbar week as I'm gearing up for the release of Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe! Stay tuned for prizes tomorrow and Thursday.

Whether you're a writer or not, there's a substantial likelihood that you will be called into service editing someone's book. It may be a loved one, it may be a writing partner, it may be a sworn enemy. It probably won't be a sworn enemy. (Though that would be the most fun, wouldn't it?).

Whomever you are editing, follow these ten rules of law to be the best editor you can be.

1. Remember that it's not your book - Your job as an editor is not to tell someone how you would have written their book. Your job is to help them write the book they want to write. This can't be emphasized enough: It's not your book. It's not. Defer to the writer. Try to help them do what they're trying to do. Work within the world they've constructed.

2. Find out what the author is looking for before you start editing - Are they wondering about a particular stretch? Are they hoping for a major edit? Are they not really looking for editing at all but for moral support? Make sure you have a sense of what the author wants and what their mindset is before you start editing and adjust your approach accordingly.

3. You're not doing anyone favors by being too nice.  - Here's what a writer wants to hear when someone is editing their work: "OMG it's perfect I love it!!!" Resist the temptation to tell them just that. Your job is to help them make the work better, not to be a human rubber stamp. There is a Major Exception to this commandment: When the writer is looking for reassurance that they should keep going and is not really looking for editing. In which case the appropriate reaction is "OMG you're brilliant I love it you should keep going!!" (If you followed commandment #2 you will have sniffed this out ahead of time.)

4. You're not doing anyone favors by being a jerk either - When you are editing someone's work you have their fragile, mercurial, reptilian writer brain in your hands. Do not crush it. Be gentle. Be polite. Suggest, don't order. Ask questions, don't assume.

5. Pointing out problem areas is far more helpful than offering solutions - While editing, it is inevitable that you will be struck by ideas about how someone else's book could be better: What if he had feathers instead of hair?! What if this vampire twinkled rather than sparkled?! No. It's okay to offer up some illustrative directions the writer could go to fix something that isn't working, but ultimately the writer is the best equipped to come up with ideas for new directions. Your job is to spot what's not working, not to rewrite.

6.  Try to figure out why something isn't working for you - There will be times where something about a scene just doesn't seem right. But rather than thinking about how you would make a weak stretch better, try to figure out instead why it isn't working for you. Is it implausible? Are the characters not being true to themselves? Does the scene lack space monkeys? Identifying the underlying issue can be invaluable for the author.

7. Just make it work - Throw out everything you learned in English classes. You're not looking for what the book means, you're not looking for symbolism, you're not looking for theme. You're looking for whether it works as a coherent story and whether the writer achieved what they were striving for. It's about making it a good story, not about writing a paper on it.

8. Don't overdo it - Tailor your edit notes to the amount of work that needs to be done. If you see major plot/structural issues, stick to detailing those, don't get caught up in copyediting and line edits. If the plot feels mainly okay, focus on chapter-level issues. If most everything is in place, feel free to pick nits. There are two reasons for this approach: 1) You don't want to overwhelm the author and 2) There's no reason for spending a lot of time on line edits that are changing in a major revision anyway.

9. Remember that personal taste is personal - We humans can be too sure of our own viewpoints. We may hate things other people love and love things other people hate. Never be too sure of your opinions when editing; you may be the only person who feels that way. Be cautious when making suggestions and frame your thoughts as your own personal reaction rather than as a pronouncement from the editing gods.

10. Be Positive - Your job as an editor is not to crush someone's spirit, even if you think their manuscript sucks. Your job is not to "tell them like it is" (telling them like it is is telling them how YOU see it). Your job is not to transform a mess into The Great Gatsby. Your job is to be helpful. Your job is to be supportive. Your job is to leave the manuscript and the writer in better shape than you found them. That is the essence of editing.






79 comments:

Suze Reese said...

Once again your advice is both common-sense and brilliance. Thanks for the tips. I don't generally edit, except for my own work, but I think this is a must-read article for anyone who does!

Sion Dayson said...

Wonderful list! Will you edit my novel? ;)

Ishta Mercurio said...

Everything is better with Space monkeys. :-)

Great tips, as always. Especially the part about finding out what the writer is looking to get from your feedback in the first place.

Loralie Hall said...

Love this list. I was trying to pick my favorite points made, but it turned out to be all of them. This is all so true.

Becky Mahoney said...

I love this post. I want to give it a hug. If everyone followed this advice, critique circles would be a better place!

Stephanie Black said...

Great advice! Thanks! Space monkeys . . . that's what my WIP needs.

The Resident Heretic said...

Thanks - Our writing group is dealing with just those problems.

@ilola said...

Very interesting and useful editing tips.

csmalls said...

"Fragile, mercurial, reptilian writer brain!" LOL! We are a strange breed I suppose. :)

Great post, thank you!!

James L. Hatch said...

I enjoyed this; thanks for posting it. The advice is great, especially about not getting tied up in line editing.

Liberty Speidel said...

Great advice!

I'd say #5 is not necessarily always true, though. One of my favorite things to do with my crit partners is to sit down and talk about what's not working and brainstorm ideas. I spent more than an hour with one partner last night and he helped me come up with some great ideas that I may not have considered on my own. This is for a project I'm going into draft #3 on, and he's only read 98% of the 1st draft, but was given a chapter outline of draft #2.

I find this "offering of solutions" has been one of the things that has most strengthened my stories in the past--both novel-length and shorts.

Of course, the writer has to be willing to accept this kind of criticism, and open to the discussion. Otherwise, it's not doing anyone any good--either the writer or the critter.

Doug said...

But what does one do for manuscripts that need much more than "editing?" The biggest problem I have is with manuscripts that seem to have been written by 3rd-graders.

How does one gently explain, "You really need to spend a number of months in Remedial English courses before you're going to be ready to write?"

The best I've come up with is, "You're going to self-publish this, right?"

Reagan Philips said...

Great tips. I was looking forward to this post and was not disappointed.

JES said...

On this general topic, you might enjoy (or be horrified by) Jack London's letter to a young, aspiring author who'd apparently made the mistake of sending JL a story in hopes of getting feedback.

It's at today's post on the Letters of Note blog (with which I have no affiliation, btw).

And now that I'm thinking about it, you might could do a companion post here, along the lines of "Ten Commandments for Asking Someone Else with Editing Help."

Matthew MacNish said...

First of all, I've never worked with an actual professional editor (well, unless you count Bryan, but I wasn't paying him, so I don't), but I think all your points apply just as well to critiquing another writer's work before it gets to an editor.

In that sense, there's a thin line between a great critique, a good one, and a terrible one. I've received all three, and probably given them out myself, as well.

Josin L. McQuein said...

This is why I don't edit more than a short sample, and that only when it's posted on a public forum.

I tend to assume people want a "hard" critique if they're asking for editing assistance. I'm a proud wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (Dooooooooooooooooom!), and apply it often. It's best that this happen when other, softer opinions are at hand.

Richard Mabry said...

Nathan, Great guidelines that should be posted next to the monitor of every editor out there.
Boiling it all down: "It's not your book, it's his/hers. Don't rewrite it. Just suggest ways to make it work."
Thanks for sharing.

L. Shanna said...

This is a great list to share with any writing group, as well as those well-meaning friends and family who "really really want to read what you've written" and don't quite understand what it means to truly edit a person's work.

Rick Daley said...

I've found that each time I critique another writer's work, it makes my own writing stronger. It's a great exercise to shift gears from the creator to the purely objective editor.

Maya said...

Great advice!

Georganna Hancock M.S. said...

You'd be amazed at how many writers thank me for telling them their writing sucks and exactly where they can go to learn how to write well.

Lexa Cain said...

I'm going to disagree with #5, too. Just saying "This line doesn't work" or "This para is confusing" is too vague. People often won't understand your point even if you explain 'why.' They often need an example. I like receiving suggestions and just rewrite them my own way.

Also, there's always the option of gracefully bowing out if it's just too awful. I've had to do that several times.

Nathan Bransford said...

I don't think the fact that some writers are polite in the face of rude or harsh critiques justifies that approach. Some people can handle harsh critiques. Just about everyone can handle polite critiques. I don't see the place for rudeness. What is gained?

Robin said...

I have found that clients with no clue about how to write an effective story need honest and kind feedback with specific focal points. They also need encouragement and congratulations for sticking themselves out there. Another great post, Nathan; I appreciate your diligence.

Michelle said...

I had started writing a comment, but then I realized it would be much too long. So to not clog up the comments on this post, I wrote up my own, where I included 2 additional commandments I've learned over the years working professionally as an editor.

11. Do not edit to make yourself look or feel superior.
11a. Do not talk down to the author.

12. Be a coach, but also a cheerleader.

They're explained in more depth here:
http://michellewittebooks.com/2012/04/12commandments/

But I have to say that Nathan makes excellent points, something writers should consider whenever they take a red pen to someone else's work. When we edit, it's not about us; it's about the person we're trying to help.

Gretchen said...

These are virtually the exact same things I teach my middle school students when we begin peer editing. All things that are easier said than done. Editing is hard.

Anna said...

Every scene is lacking in space monkeys. Even the scenes with space monkeys don't have enough space monkeys.

Joanne Bischof said...

These are great points! I'm so thankful to be in a critique group that is really focused on these important steps.

Emily said...

Thank you so much for these! I wish my former professional critiquer had read them. She was so disparaging that I couldn't put another word on paper for two years. Even now, the thought of letting anyone else read my work is so fraught with anxiety, I break into a cold sweat.

Ted Fox said...

I think at least a few of these could double as relationship advice. Like helping to figure out what's wrong but not saying "Here's the solution."

Yeah.

Connie Keller said...

Perfect!

Mr. D said...

Again... perfect timing!

Bryan Russell said...

And everyone should listen to Nathan, as he's rather good at this whole editing thing.

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban said...

Thanks so much for articulating how I feel about editing.
My favorite is #1: It's not your book.
I resent most those people that tell you what to do in your story and take it personally if you don't do it.

Christina Fifield-Winn said...

I just got done editing a screenplay for someone who wants to collaborate with me on his next one. I treated it as an interview. Your commandments reassured me because it seems that if he is of the same mindset, I did well. Thanks. I needed this.

Darley said...

Good advice, and I am happy to say that the individual who has edited most of my work over the years has displayed the ideals you outline. And if this were a voting post, I'd say #1 is the most important.

Elsie Chapman said...

Thanks for such a concise post. The advice is great, as always!

Veronika Walker said...

TERRIFIC STUFF! I am saving these as helpful reminders to me as I go through clients' manuscripts. Sometimes it can be rather difficult NOT to get my grubby little creative ideas all over their story because I'm a writer too. Their story, not mine.

Thanks, Nathan. :)

Suzan said...

And how about: It's not your book + it's not about you and your edit.

I've run into a couple of people in critique groups who like to get on their soapbox while critiquing a person's work - most of their comments are turned around to focus on them, instead of the author.

(Example, "I didn't like your paragraph because I've read extensively that pigs really do fly, and I think that I have more knowledge than you do about pig flying, and I would much rather read about fish riding bicycles.")

Hello, it's not all about you, critique buddy. :-)

Diana said...

Great post! Once again, you've hit it out of the ballpark.

I would expand number nine to say that if you can't separate your personal taste from your evaluation, then don't edit someone else's work. It really doesn't help the writer if your personal taste is coloring your evaluation.

I'll use Twilight to illustrate my point. I've only read the first few chapters of Twilight, but that was enough for me to see that Meyer can write compelling prose. I stopped reading it because the story wasn't to my personal taste. That doesn't make her writing crap. She is a talented writer. Sparkly vampires or the other things people complain about don't negate that quality.

If you don't see how I can say that, then you probably aren't separating your personal taste from your evaluation of the story.

Love it or hate it, you can actually do more harm than good if your personal taste is coloring your evaluation of a story you're editing. Hate it and you're going to say it's flawed. Love it and you may miss those correctable problems with the story. I've observed this happening many times. It really doesn't help the writer.

Marta said...

Just had to comment that you've nailed it in #6.

Space monkeys. Now I realize what's often missing.

(Have to read how you handle them, since it's got to be at least as amusing as sneaking them into this list.)

Imani said...

Your article has come in good time. I'm looking for an Editor.

Meredith said...

Right on with number 4. I had a reader once tell me that she disliked my book so much she wouldn't make it past the first page if she picked it up at the library. Crushing.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Great post! I think a lot of issues can be resolved if the author and editor sit down ahead of time and hash out what the author is hoping for from the edit. (Analysis of whether the structure is working? Line edits?) I've definitely had an experience before where an editor was overly helpful, suggesting some frankly odd line edits when I'd made clear that the draft was very rough and I just wanted to know if the story was cohesive. I think in that case another editor no-no was in play: over-editing another's work to make you feel better about your own. Don't edit if you're going to do that!

Bamboo Grovers said...

Amen!

RobynBradley said...

Best advice I've seen on this subject. I'll be sharing it -- a lot! :)

Tom Bentley said...

I've edited a lot of nonfiction books and a few novels, and your tips here are solid, Nathan. I do occasionally insert full rewrites of a sentence with the comment of "Might something like this work better?" or something along those lines. But that question is positioned in the larger sense of inviting the writer to consider their own approach.

But most of the time where a phrasing is awkward or an idea is in need of deeper development, I simply suggest that the material in question be examined as whether it's the right construction for that context. There's never a place for rudeness or baseless criticism.

Thanks for your consistent good stuff!

Lisa Shafer said...

This is nice, Nathan. I think I'll use this with my creative writing class next year (kids).

Backfence said...

EXCELLENT advice, Nathan. This is good info. to pass on to any writing groups with which we may be associated also.

Laura W. said...

I want to print this out and hand it to my professor. :P Especially #1, #4, and #9.

Escape Artist said...

You know it's a fine line to walk. I was very involved with a crit partner, pages flowing back and forth. It was difficult not to 'take over.' I was itching to take the story somewhere else, veer off in another direction.
Can't do it! Resist the urge. You are so right. It's their story! Always respect that, and yeah, we all make mistakes along the way. Say too much, too little, but we do learn! I think I have anyway! : )

MOV said...

Nathan,

GREAT POST! Will be back to read more.

Just found your blog, and am now a a follower. But not in a binoculars and night-vision goggles sorta way. That you know of.

best,
MOV
http://mothersofbrothersblog.blogspot.com

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I think that fiction writing teachers who lead workshops should distribute your list to their students. When I took a fiction writing class for the first time back when I was only about 20 or so, I remember how negative and overly critical some of the other students were. I know that the stories I wrote back then weren't very good, but the fact that some of those students never gave anything but mean-spirited criticism was very discouraging. I even stopped writing for a while after that, but I couldn't stay away from writing for too long.

Mira said...

This is terrific.

When you were an agent, the main reason I was dying to work with you is your mad editing skills. You are a really gifted editor, and I think that comes not only from your writing talent, but from your insightful and empathic understanding of an editor's role.

Thank you for sharing that insight! And I hope someday, if it's something you'd enjoy, that you'll be in a place where you're sharing those skills again, because a really great editor is priceless! :)

M. K. Clarke said...

Amazing stuff, Nathan! Shared with my critique group and solid points we could all learn from. Though, regarding point #5, whenever I'm stuck for a story/plot idea or direction to take a scene, brainstorming's the best thing I've ever engaged in. As usual, awesome points all. Thank you for sharing.

Bonnee Crawford said...

Well this is sure useful for me, especially since it's the sort of business I'd like to end up doing for the rest of my life. I agree with these rules here, being positive, refraining from giving bias opinions, etc... thanks for sharing :)

Lynn said...

Good advice. Thanks for sharing it. How long have you been an editor and what is your favorite part of the job?

Lynn
www.writeradvice.com

Joseph Ramirez said...

Fantastic. This is how I will build my critiquing in all my spheres of influence. Bravo.

Sher A. Hart said...

Since I'm starting a new SCBWI critique group for my county which has never had a children's writers' group before, I may send the members this link. One woman already posted on her blog how scared she was. I don't want her to be scared. I still remember how scared I was at my first meeting. I found a group that included the Wicked Witch of critics. Lucky for me, Prince Charming attended that day.

Oh, no, captchas! I can't read them so I got rid of mine, and not a single spam has made it through to my blog since. I see the emails so I know they're trying.

wendy said...

Aaah, if only I knew then what I know now. Thanks, Nathan. :)

Marian said...

I enjoy editing but I like it even better when a good editor works on my writing. I have a story in an anthology about NYC and the editor reduced the length of my story considerably but what she did was exceptional. It was as if she extracted a vein and set it out perfectly. I regard it as a privilege when my work is in the hands of a great editor.

Nicole said...

Great list, Nathan! Your points #5-7 are particularly brilliant and very true in my experience. Congrats on your launch week!

Andrew Leon said...

This is the best post I've seen by you.

Robena Grant said...

And the last two sentences say it all. I love this. Thank you.

Rachel Neumeier said...

Thanks, Nathan! That'll be so useful for the workshop I agreed to help with later this year. I was really keeping an eye out for a post with this kind of advice!

Daniel McNeet said...

Nathan,

I believe the hardest part of having your work edited is: finding a good editor for your genre. Not easy to do.

Good post, thank you.

tonyl said...

Nathan, thanks once again for a great post.
As an author, and sometime editor, let me suggest to all authors who would like their work critted by another sentient being: apropos of number two, make it clear what you're looking for in the edit; don't leave it up to the mental vibes rising from the pages (or screen) to carry that information to the editor.

Space monkeys rule! (Now to fit them back into my YA adventure...)

Allie B said...

Well said! I've been struggling with this in my own Writing Group because I don't really know how to separate myself from what I'm reading. It gets easier each time and I am learning so much about writing in general. I think, just like writing, good critiquing comes from practice.

Iola said...

I also disagree with Rule 5 (Pointing out problem areas is much more useful than offering solutions). As an example, one friend I edit for specifically commented that she liked my editing because I didn’t just pick up the errors, but I suggested ways for her to make it better.

So, I suppose that there are times where Rule 9 (Remember that personal taste is personal) might conflict with the others, but if I’ve followed Rule 2 (Find out what the author is looking for), then we will both be on the same page anyway.

Very useful!

Joe said...

Best editing results I've seen for blog posts, business reports, and student essays (on subjects ranging from China's "one child" policy to the Black Eyed Peas) have been from www.kibin.com. A very deep and talented pool of professionals and terrific value. Those looking to have work edited should make themselves familiar with Kibin.

Red Tash said...

Thank you for saying this!!!!!

Mirka Breen said...

Your first point is my 'editing bible,' and something I have floating in the ticker-tape in front of me as I critique.
An editor who rearranges words and thinks it's fine to ignore that thing called 'voice' is worse than none.
And all the rest of your points are solid too. This comment thread is filled with folks who wish they had you back when you did that agenting gig. Good luck, Author!

Daisy Carter said...

Thanks for this excellent post - I need to keep ALL of these in mind as I critique/edit. New follower!

Diane said...

Great Post!

Anna Fani said...

I concur fully!

Leanne said...

This is a great list of important truths. I am a professional editor, and I agree with every point. The ultimate goal of what I do is to connect the writer and reader together. Numbers five and six are the nuggets in making that happen... what doesn't work and why (why won't the reader connect here).

Based on what I find out in number two, I will either offer suggestions (it's ultimately up to the writer to solve the issue) or just pose the "why" for what isn't working.

Great article! Thanks!

Jemima said...

Excellent post, Nathan! I appreciate your selflessness in sharing everything you have learnt. You have one more regular visitor and fan in me.

Sue Nelko Carr said...

Excellent post. I will definitely share these tips with my fellow writers and editors.

Wordhelper said...

All good points, but remember, you can't shine a sneaker.

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