Today I have finished the fifth-ish round of edits for Robyn LaRue’s debut novel, Shadows Wake. I say ‘ish’ because, at this point, I’m not exactly sure how many times I’ve read the book. But, being the perfectionist that I am, I can’t help but go over it a few times to make sure the copy she’s offering to the public is as clean as possible. (Note to any new buyers: there was a mixing of copies and an issue with the original release version. Those minor errors are currently in revision and will be corrected ASAP.)
The thing is, Shadows Wake was a debut novel for both Robyn and me: she as the wonderful writer, and me as her dictatorial editor. The entire process was a learning experience for both of us, and thankfully Robyn was patient — both with my 200 trillion edits and my back and forth of ‘put this back in’ and ‘no, I changed my mind, take it out.’ (I’m kidding . . . sort of.)
Regardless, thanks to her trust in my work, I was able to gain valuable experience, which I am hoping to use in pursuit of a future career in editing. Here is what I have learned.
1.) Preserving the author’s voice is just as important as fixing grammar, syntax, and punctuation. I read somewhere, and this is loosely paraphrased, that the goal of any editor is to take what isn’t working and make it work in such a way that the author says, “Yes, exactly, that is what I was trying to say all along.” Authorial voice is perhaps the backbone of any good story. No two writers will write a sentence exactly the same way. And being a writer myself, I can understand the pull to make something sound more like the way I would write it. But that’s not my job. My job is to ensure that the edits preserve the way my chosen author speaks through his/her written work.
2.) Your relationship with your client/editor matters. Working with Robyn has been a great joy. We both wanted the best for her novel, and we’ve both worked equally hard to get it to the point of polish. As an editor, if you’re not invested in your client’s novel — in his or her success — you’re going to have difficulties. I wanted her book to shine because it was her baby. Because she cared. And it deserved 110% of my effort.
3.) Line edits are not just about grammar, syntax, and punctuation. To be honest, I did much more than a line edit for Robyn’s novel. But I did eventually get to it. For me, a line edit is the road to making words sing on the page — finding and bringing out the song in the author’s voice. Sure, that comma there probably matters. My brain says it does, and I’ll tell you to fix it. Most of the time. But line edits are about making each line read like water passing in a brook. Smooth, fluid, beautiful. The dipping intonation of certain sentences, the fragments pulsing in beat to a scene. There was one moment in my edits where I encouraged Robyn to take advantage of the situation by using the rhythm of language and bending it to mirror the emotional discord and fright of the MC. This not only strengthened her prose, but it helped her to find a rhythm that worked for her and the scene — one that made the story flow and the words scream.
4.) Editing is subjective. There were moments when the Chicago Manual of Style would say, “A comma most definitely should be here.” But there were moments when I said, “No, for the story, it should not be here.” There are basic English rules of grammar and punctuation to follow, I know. Since I study linguistics, nothing irks me more than bad grammar. But part of being an editor (and a writer, for that matter) is knowing the rules of language — knowing the rules dictated by style guides and grammarians — and then knowing when and how to break them. Learning how to exercise this judgment has been an important part of my process. Which leads me to my next point . . .
5.) Style guides are friends, not food. No, but seriously. The CMoS was great help, and I referred to it on more than one occasion. Part of an editor’s best-educated choices come from knowing the rules or, at least, knowing how to find them. No editor knows everything. No editor should edit your novel without knowing how to use a style guide. Whether or not they need to use it is another matter entirely. But I think most editors would agree that there is always going to be at least one instance where some element of language or punctuation requires outside advice or a quick review.
6.) Reading is just as important for the editor as it is for the budding writer. They say you can learn a lot from reading. It’s true. My inner-editor never shuts up now when I sit down with a book. I find myself studying the editor’s allowances for punctuation. I look at the way the pacing works, the syntax used. The rules broken. Not only does this allow me to see what the pros are doing, it lets me see what has become the standard for editors in the traditional publishing world. Rules change as language evolves. What is correct in the technical sense is not always correct in the world of fiction. Knowing what other editors are doing keeps me up-to-date. Reading is like a window into their world. Use it to your advantage.
I’ve learned much more than these six bullet points could ever express, but these are some general things that come to mind when I think about the work Robyn and I have done over the past six months. What about you guys? Do you have any experiences with editors to share? What do you look for in an editor? If you edit, how do you go about it? Any advice?