I’ve now been editing for the better part of a year. To say that I learned a lot is an understatement. Some of the work Down & Out has sent me could be intimidating. My first project came from a well-known author in crime fiction circles, one I read quite a bit of in the oughties. I might have been more rigid on that one simply wanting to do a good job when, as a writer, I actually turned to this guy for advice. But I’ve learned a lot since then. Like, the writer expects you to edit. So if there’s a glaring issue, it probably means he or she forgot it or wants suggestions.
More recently, the publisher handed me a local author, which worked out well. His would be a difficult book simply for the story he told and the choices he made. Being local, I was able to meet up with him (in an indie bookstore, no less.) Which was cool. We’d met and interacted before, so it was old-home week. Plus, his book had some AC/DC references. I’d just read Brian Johnson’s The Lives of Brian, so invoking Mr. Johnson’s bff from beyond the grave added some fun to this project. It wasn’t easy, but it was a joy to work with.
Since I use ProWritingAid to edit, some things become obvious. Writers, including the two I happen to be, don’t always follow the rules. PWA hates passive voice, but most writers, including the two I happen to be, use it sparingly or in contexts where active would just sound silly. But I’ve often wondered how I was doing? I mentioned in an online forum how much fun I had doing a recent music-themed anthology (which are always fun to edit, write, or read.) The editor, who had his own story in the book, sent back a note and said, “Yeah, I fixed a couple things with mine because of your notes.” Yeah. I like feedback like that. If they didn’t like it, I usually don’t hear about it.
Unfortunately, I’ve had a couple of bad experiences as a writer. One with an editor trying to backdoor their mad developmental editing skills and coming off as though they didn’t even read. I won’t recount the “I didn’t know this wasn’t Mars” story, but suffice it to say, a red dwarf sun and the line, “Unlike Mars, we have a magnetic field” line should have been huge hints. (As TS Hottle, I write scifi. I have expectations of the audience. I have higher ones of the betas or an editor.)
The other, also a beta, thought everything was an Easter egg because I’m an American. And Americans put Easter eggs into everything. Some of this paid off, and I had to thank him even though I didn’t take a particular suggestion. It wasn’t his objection to “tea bags.” It was sending me down a rabbit hole and asking a handful of UK friends and an exchange student from Japan how they drank their tea. As such, Suicide’s silent rant about the Interstellar Era’s equivalent of the Keurig expanded. But downside, he was finding Easter eggs where their were none. “Falcon? Do you think everyone knows all the names of Apollo lunar modules?” Space buff that I am, I had to go look that one up. And I had seen the command modules from 11 and 15 that same year. This one wasn’t so bad because it did help having a reader who wanted to know if I killed off that murderous human pestilence, Jez Salamacis, yet. Spoiler alert: No. And not even in the upcoming Suicide Gambit.
Yet I always wondered how I was doing as an editor. Was I stepping on my writers’ toes? Was I being too loose and handing back my publisher a less-than-stellar product?
Then I ran into a couple of instances with other writers where the editors clearly did not know what they were doing. One came from, of all places, the introduction to a memoir of a woman my wife and I met up in Ohio’s Amish Country. The intro, written by the editor, had said editor telling on herself. She said she ripped out all the passive voice, all the adverbs, and all the offending “thats.” The author said that wasn’t what she’d written. Oops. What I actually bought had a much cleaner edit. Yes, there were adverbs and a stray passive voice phrase here and there, but not that many. And she still showed “that” no mercy. That was the editor telling on herself. She was also a writer, this her first attempt editing a manuscript.
A friend of mine fared worse. He made friends with a couple of editors, one of whom would be a bit expensive. The other wanted to become what’s called a “story coach” (a glorified developmental editor.) Like the lady from Ohio, she, too, had never edited.
My friend showed me a 1500-word scene he’d given her. Upset, he said there was no way he could do everything she asked. It was turning less and less into what he’d written. I gave him the same treatment I give Down & Out’s authors, that two of their copy editors gave me. It wasn’t bad. I trimmed the fat, took out two of three passive voice lines, and tightened up a few lines. It was a fight scene. I wrote more comments than usual so he could understand what I was doing, with an eye for him looking for these things himself. Then I looked at the offending edit.
Tempted as I am to say who it was, I won’t. I will say opening an edit with a flagged paragraph and a page-long rant is not professional, never mind helpful. I was angry when I saw that. He’s a new writer, and the rant was one of the most insulting (and in a lot of places, just flat-out WRONG) comments I’ve ever read. I told him to part ways with the editor. This after she locked him into a six-hour story consult. For reference, the two dev editors I know – Stacy Robinson and Kalene Williams – limit such Zoom meetings to about an hour. Will this person ever become a decent editor?
Hey, I did. My first attempt at editing left the writer in tears. I didn’t try it again for several years afterward. But, there’s a balance between sticking to the rules like politicians to bribes and keeping the writer’s voice. Yes, you have to take out the excessive crutch words, repetitions, adverbs, and passive voice. But all of them?
If you really do have to do a rewrite, the best person to do that is the writer. Rewriting is not your job.