Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 1

Self-Editing: Two Half Brains Make a Whole Writer

This month I'm posting the transcript of a program I presented as a guest speaker at a writers' conference held at Tarrant County College in Hurst, Texas. The transcript will take me several postings to present in its entirety. I had a lot to say on this subject.

I. Intro: Why Self-Edit?

Why self-edit? If there are editors working at publishing houses who are paid to edit what writers write, then why do we need to worry about editing our own work?

Let me read you what a couple of highly successful authors had to say during a panel discussion sponsored by the Authors Guild
in New York. This was in their quarterly bulletin.

"There's not a whole lot of editing going on in the publishing world these days. Editors are very, very busy and they're strapped for time, as we all know. I'm lucky that I have a very good editor now, but in previous projects there just wasn't time. So you either hire someone to do it or you do it yourself." —Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers

"I definitely agree with Hampton that there is precious little editing going on, and if you're lucky enough to have an editor who will rip your book apart and tell you why, that's a very good thing." —Dava Sobel, author of Galileo's Daughter and Longitude

The Exception: Children's Publishing

Children's book editors sometimes tend toward the other extreme. Instead of neglecting to edit, they may rework a story with such total abandon that the book that finally gets published bears little resemblance to the story the author set out to tell. I know of a couple of instances of children's books coming out quite different from the authors' originals. Not necessarily better, mind you, just different. Covered with the editors' fingerprints.

The Ideal Editorial Philosophy

I'm both a writer and an editor, I make my living doing both, and on neither side of the editorial desk do I have much use for that kind of invasive, heavy-handed editing. I'm a follower of the Betty Ballantine philosophy. She was a legendary editor known by everyone who wrote or read in the science fiction field. She said: "To me, the essence of editing lies in helping the author say what he wants to say in the way he wants to say it." That's my approach when I edit the work of other writers.

The Reality: A Case Study

Anyway, children's books are pretty much the only genre in which editors are still heavily involved in actual editing. In other genres, particularly mass market these days, the work that gets published is what comes off the writer's hard drive.

I carry
around this book [a paperback that I won't identify here] as a horrible example of what happens when both the editor and the author care so little about the work that neither of them bothers to edit it. This is a fantasy published by [big-name NY publisher]. I've blanked out the title and the author's name, because my purpose here isn't to embarrass the writer. This is his first book, and his newness shows.

Essentially what [big-name NY publisher] did was to publish this fellow's rough draft, without editing it. But when I bought the book, I didn't realize it had never been edited. I was interested in reading it, at first, to get insights into the kind of fantasy that [big-name] would publish.

Well, let me set out for you a typical example of the writing in this novel. We see our hero preparing to climb a tree. As he stands at the foot of the tree: "He unbuckled his scabbard and started to climb." Up the tree he goes. At the top, the hilt of his sword gets snagged. At this point: "He unbuckled his scabbard and tossed the sword up onto the bank."

I ask you: how many scabbards was our hero wearing? How can he unbuckle at the foot of the tree, and then unbuckle yet again, with the author using the exact same five words, at the top of the tree?

That's just sloppy work. In the space of a single paragraph, the writer should have kept track of what his character was doing with that scabbard. It's a goof that the writer should have caught, and if any editor had actually laid eyes on this story before publishing it, the editor would have caught it.

Four pages later, we find this: "Though he had on a heavy woolen shirt, he was sweating after only a few hundred yards."

Huh? "Though he had on a heavy woolen shirt"—in spite of wearing a heavy woolen shirt—"he was sweating." Lapse of logic there. Any half-decent editor would have changed that to "Under his heavy woolen shirt, he was sweating."

I threw this book across the room at page 104. Piled on top of the uncountable errors of punctuation and grammar that had come before, the goofs about the scabbard and the woolen shirt just finished it for me. I wasn't going to waste time reading a book that the author and editor hadn't taken time to edit.

So there's the proof. You cannot necessarily count on getting any editing, half-decent or otherwise, from a publisher, even a major house. If you don't want somebody like me going around to conferences holding up your book in a brown paper bag as a horrible example of bad editing, then you must be prepared to edit your work yourself.

And of course, if you clean up and polish your manuscript before submitting it, you'll have a much better chance of catching an editor's eye in the first place. Editors want to know that you care enough about your writing to make it the best that you can, before they ever see it.

Next post: Part 2

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