What’s this job like?
Glad you asked that. I just accepted a freelance gig with Down & Out Books, the ones who publish my stuff as Jim Winter these days. Nothing I’ve edited has come out yet, and really, I don’t want to talk directly about the projects I work on. Not naming names, anyway.
A little about how Down & Out works with their authors. I received the edits from the latest Jim Winter novel back in October. That, of course, pushed off revisions for Compact Universe books coming out in February and August. But going through edits is not a big issue for me as a writer. I was especially pleased that the editor working on my manuscript had a similar technique to mine. (I had just edited a freelance manuscript the previous month.)
So when I came on board, I worked the same way the previous editor worked with me. My first job was a novel by a guy who’s been writing longer than I’ve been alive. (To put this in perspective, I watched the Watergate hearings as a kid, not that I understood them at the time.) My second was an anthology. That had its own challenges because you edit for one author, then, ten pages later, boom. You’ve got a completely different style of writing.
So, how do I edit?
I do a combination of ProWritingAid and eyeballing it, keeping a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style handy. ProWritingAid flags a lot of things, but it’s far from perfect. Over the two years I’ve been using it on my own work and, now, clients’, I have discovered using it exclusively can be a crutch. I pay for a subscription, which lets me have the plugin for Word. A caveat about using the plug-in. I do track changes on my edited manuscripts unless it’s my own work, so I have to turn the plugin on for the entire manuscript. My first job for Down & Out was over 100,000 words, so around 75K, it got flakey. It captured opportunities for improvement well enough, but it would sometimes forget I’d already cleaned up the quotation marks and apostrophes or lose the underlining.
Even though my tool is good at catching things, eyeballing is how a human would read it. I also have to be careful not to impose my own prejudices on someone else’s story. Plus, there are some things editing tools are not very good at. They are not true AIs, as much as some insist otherwise. Also, ProWritingAid would absolutely choke on Huckleberry Finn. Let’s take the sanitized version, which strips out a couple of words particularly offensive to modern ears. The story is written in the dialect of Antebellum Missouri, and like Walter Mosley a century later, Twain writes his dialog phonetically. Plus, even up to and after Hemingway made stripped-down, lean prose the norm, passive voice was used extensively. Even Ernie used it. Adverbs abound, and character names come out of left field, as they should!
A sidenote on that: ProWritingAid has a feature (I call it a bug) where one of the suggestions is changing the character name. I, as an editor, need to make sure that you, as a writer, don’t spell Tanya’s name Tania fifteen pages after she’s introduced. That’s as far as an editor needs to go. ProWritingAid, for some reason, wants to change names randomly. There’s a function called Report As Incorrect. Usually, I use it when it doesn’t get a made-up word or loses the tense agreement in a passage. When it says that Luke Skywalker’s name is actually Luke Starkiller, the developers get a message back from me, roll their eyes, and say to themselves, “Oh, Christ, it’s this asshole again.” (Yes, I stole that from a meme.)
I generally don’t take every suggestion ProWritingAid takes. People mispronounce words in ways a writer has to render phonetically. A apostrophe might get mistaken for a single quote during a long sentence. And I don’t redo every line of passive voice. In some military jargon, legalese, and political contexts, active voice actually reads and sounds stupid. And sometimes, you want the line to come off as weak and distant because the character is being weak and distant. However, more often than not, if I see it more than once per manuscript page, I’ll redo it, especially for Down & Out as Lance sends me formatted manuscripts.
I do aggressively take out unnecessary “that’s”, zap two out of every three instances of “very.” Not a big adverb guy, though, and most of the writers I’ve edited for Down & Out, plus my Number One client/muse/critique partner all use them sparingly. “That,” “very,” “could,” and “just” are the biggies. Your editor may vary. Michael Bracken, a writer and editor I’ve known for years, hates the word “got,” but left it in a short story of mine because it appears only once. Ellen Campbell, who demands you bring your A game, has a YUGE list of overused words that gets longer as the years go by. It’s worth a read, and perhaps I’ll get her to share it here.
Dialogue: Believe it or not, “said” is starting to wear a little thin after years of editors and writers complaining about adverb-laiden, overused tags. In text, said is invisible. And for the longest time, I would avoid tagging as much as possible in my own writing, preferring action beats. Hey, I’m telling a story, and as one writer I know posited, “I hate white rooms.” But audio is getting big. Whether you go with some in-road to Audible or post your own recordings, “said” becomes the equivalent of “um” in a conversation. I’m not suggesting we return to the heady days of “Shoot!” he ejaculated. (For starters, wrong image and offensive in some quarters.) But it’s almost become necessary to use “shouted,” “whispered,” or some other benign tag that cuts down on excessive text trying to put a line into context. (The downside of show-don’t-tell. Do you really need to show that when it detracts from what needs to be shown? Answer: no. Don’t waste your time or the reader’s.)
But I’ve discovered that every writer’s go-to errors are variations on ones I make myself. I still find too many thats in my prose, even after I’ve purged it and sent out for beta a couple of times. One rather experienced writer seems to love the word, so a lot of it I had to let go. I still zapped all the instances where it’s used to join clauses.
There are other things. A race-themed short story uses Black to indicate African-Americans and black to describe the color of one’s shoes/car/that stuff growing on the leftovers from Applebee’s that probably should go into a landfill by now. Another writer just uses the word with no caps, unless it’s someone’s name. Details like that get harder in an anthology because, unless the editor who compiled it says otherwise, you have to edit for the author of a particular story. Ten short stories? Ten authors. Each story requires a reset.
I make judicious use of comments. Sometimes, I’m merely explaining myself. Sometimes, the line isn’t clear. (And I’ve gotten that note as a writer only to discover I forgot what I meant as well. ZAP! Rewrite.) I make suggestions when making an edit veers into rewriting. I’m not here to do the writer’s job. Also, comments make it easier to stet a change an author doesn’t like. Use that privilege wisely. It was fun on the last book I turned in because the copy editor and I had the same mindset. I requested him again only to learn he was moving on. Bummer. For freelance clients and authors I know fairly well, comments can be fun. My main freelance client and I have been known to send each other zingers in each other’s manuscripts.
Now, you may ask if the writer has to take everything the editor says. Stephen King suggests the editor is always right, despite releasing a massively extended version of The Stand, putting 400 pages back in. It’s an exception that actually proves his point. To King, The Stand is his Blood Meridian, so even he admittedly is going to get precious about it. Usually, he listens to his editor. Many of us mere mortals are doing this on our own or with a small press. Do we take everything? As a writer, I don’t. I know the authors I work with don’t. Ellen Campbell, who can look at three paragraphs and have it carved up without even turning on Track Changes in MS Word, says no one takes everything. It’s unrealistic, actually. And in the case of the anthology project, I had no way of asking a dozen writers what their style preferences were. When I pinged the editor who compiled the anthology, he said to go with my instincts. And since this was a Down & Out project, I would not be the final word. Lance and Eric, the publishers, would.
Also, speaking as one of their authors, I also know the writer has a bit of leeway. I stetted a lot of The Dogs of Beaumont Heights. Not a majority of my copy editor’s changes, but a noticeable percentage. I also noticed he and I had the same editing philosophy. Unfortunately, I have no idea who will do the follow-up as I was his last author for Down & Out.
Then there are those editors, the ones with the heavy hand. The ones who might have taken a creative writing course or two. I had one go on a show-don’t-tell rant because I said a character felt ill instead of describing it. I had another scold me for a character wearing a piece of jewelry she hadn’t worn earlier, never mind that earlier was a dream sequence. I had one look at a science fiction book who didn’t pick up the part where I said the setting was not Mars. They ranted that I took ten chapters to reveal that information. (1. I expect a certain level of knowledge from a space opera audience, like our sun is not a red dwarf. 2. In Chapter 1, the narrator clearly says, “This is not Mars.”) What do you do about those?
One of them I stetted. It was a short story going to a publisher, and since the gent who compiled it had the final say, I stetted and gave my reasons. One tends to be rigid about style, and I was his first deep editing job. The problem is you do have to allow for the writer’s style. Now him, I hope, takes up editing but loosens up a bit. The instincts are there; he just needs the flexibility. Kind of like your humble narrator has needed on occasion. The last one I fired. I suspect she tried to sell me an expensive (and unnecessary) developmental edit.
Of course, the writer’s response puts all the onus on them. It takes time to know whether an editor is a good fit or knows what they’re talking about. I don’t do developmental edits because I know what a slog that is. I’ve worked with a couple, and they really loved picking a story apart and putting it back together better, kind of like working on a classic muscle car but adding extras to it. Also, a writer needs to develop a thick skin. It’s not personal. Well, it shouldn’t be. See above. You have to be able to look at a darling the editor just killed for you and ask, “Is it me?” And don’t waste time navel gazing as you ask that. Stet, rewrite, or, and I can’t stress this enough, ask. I’ve been in two anthologies edited by Brian Thornton. The downside of workshopping with Brian is we end up wasting extra time talking about music and why Toyah Wilcox is the sexiest sexagenarian of the twenty-first century. (Though she’s no Lauren Bacall in her sixties. I digress.) You have options. A bigger press? They might point out how much money they’re paying you for an advance. But down the food chain, it’s more collaborative, or should be. When it’s self-publishing, you have the final say.
Use it wisely.