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The Value of Good Editing

 Three C’s—and a couple more, by Ann McGlothlin Weller

Who’s on first?  The reader, always, always, always.

The goal of the writer and the editor is to develop a product (book, article, blog) that someone—a lot of someones, preferably—wants to read.  That’s the bottom line.  How can good editing contribute to that?

It’s true that poorly written, badly edited (or unedited) books have made it to the marketplace;  that’s especially true in these days of independent publishing but even major publishers can fall short.  But I’m sure you would rather have your name on a book that’s been done well.  Perfection is not necessarily what you are aiming for.  You and your editor can drive yourselves crazy–and spend loads of unnecessary time–trying for that, but you do want a product you can be proud of.  To me, that means you need an editor.

An editor can keep embarrassing mistakes of fact or style out of  your work.  You want readers, and reviewers, to enjoy your writing, not to be annoyed by errors that could have been prevented.  I worked with one author who always misspelled the word lightning, another who mixed up “loose” and “lose,” and a third who was so fond of commas that they seemed to multiply on every page.  An editor will make sure the tenses and the time frames make sense.

An editor brings another set of eyes and a fresh perspective to your work. If your nonfiction book or article is intended for the general public, an editor is your surrogate reader, making sure that what you have written is understandable to a lay person.  An editor can spot gaps in your story, where additional information, a more thorough explanation, or better transitions would be helpful.  Looking at your book as a whole, she or he can see, pretty quickly, if there is too much repetition or too many unnecessary details.

One book about editing says: “A good editor is liberally educated and culturally literate”–that is, ideally someone who has read widely, is up to date, who either knows when a name/term/reference is wrong or knows when she better check it out.  For example, I had someone confuse “Motown” with “Motortown” recently in a piece about Detroit; another misnamed a famous sports stadium and I had to realize the errors and call them to the writer’s attention.  An editor should be culturally competent as well, I believe, aware of bias and stereotyping, sometimes slang, that not only is offensive in general but also—and even worse–may hurt some readers, and your credibility.

Now for those “three C’s” I mentioned earlier. An editor can help your writing be compelling, clear, and consistent.

Compelling:

  • Is your focus in the right place?
  • Are you telling the story you wanted to?
  • Have you told the whole story…or have you left the reader with too many questions?
  • Does your writing “flow” from one section/chapter to another?

Clear:

  • Can a reader easily understand your writing style?
  • Is the passive voice mostly passé in your manuscript?  You’d never say, “It is understood that most writers are a hard-working bunch.”  No, you’d claim, “Most writers are hard working” (even if at the moment you are gazing out the window and thinking about going downtown for an ice cream cone).
  • Do you “show” and not “tell”?
  • Is  your work free of redundancies, dangling participles, misused words, and clichés?
  • Do you keep repetitive words and phrases to a minimum, as well as slender yellow fruits?  That banana reference that makes me smile:  “Barbara loves bananas.  She always picks out the slender yellow fruit in the supermarket.”  While it’s not good to use the same words and phrases over and over, especially in the same paragraph, don’t twist yourself into silly knots trying to avoid a few of these.

Consistent:

  • Are names and other words always spelled correctly?  I’m still surprised how often writers overlook this.  One independently published author frequently mentioned that his co-workers bought guayaberas– a shirt men wear in tropical climates–(something he really didn’t have to repeat) and he used four different spellings for the garment.  Another writer included biographical information about 30 different people and spelled their names in several creative, and incorrect, ways.  Make sure you have the right spelling and stick to it.
  • Do you use the same style throughout your work for punctuation, capitalization, and numbers?  Please do!  Your readers may not notice the inconsistencies at first, but after awhile many will, and they’ll feel annoyed.  That’s not a good thing.

Finally, if you are a writer, approach working with your editor in a spirit of good will.  Try to regard your editor as your Collaborator, not just a Critic wielding the dreaded red pencil.  We know you’ve given it your all to have a successful publication.  We respect that.

If you are an editor—and I give myself this advice–keep your own ego in check; it is the writer’s baby, after all, and you can’t let yourself care more about the product than the author does.  As editors, we need to be diplomatic and flexible in our collaboration with writers who have entrusted us with their work.  That doesn’t mean, by the way, that we don’t care about deadlines and following style guidelines…but there are times we can be persuaded as editors to give writers some leeway.

Editors and writers—they are better together.  After all, we’re on the same page, aren’t we?  That’s the value of good editing.

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From Ann McGlothin Weller’s roundtable presentation at the 2013 UPPAA Spring Conference.

Selected References

In a time when you can find almost anything on Google and other internet sites, some people think books aren’t needed or helpful.  I disagree!  Besides, some are just plain fun to read.

O’Conner, Patricia T.  Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.   New York: Putnam,  1996.

Described, correctly, as a clear, simple, elegant introduction to good usage.  The bonus is that it is very funny; it’s one of my favorite references.

  Truss, Lynne.  Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.   New York: Penguin,  2003.

Favors the British style of punctuation, but has good, pointed advice (e.g., “Don’t  use commas like a stupid person.”)

Wallraff, Barbara.  Word Court: Wherein verbal virtue is rewarded, crimes against the       language are punished, and poetic justice is done.  New York: Harcourt, 2000.

“Word Court” has been a feature of  The Atlantic Monthly magazine.

 

——–  Your Own Words.  New York: Counterpoint, 2004.

By the author of  “Word Court”;  practical answers to readers’ (and writers’)  questions about word usage and style.

*                                              *

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 

There are many, many dictionaries; I like this one.

American Heritage Dictionaries editorial staff.  100 words almost everyone confuses &  misuses.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.,  2004.

Includes word history, usages, forms, and hyphenation.

Gooden, Philip. Who’s Whose: A No-Nonsense Guide to Easily Confused Words.               New York: Walker & Co.  2004.

You won’t need this book if you ALWAYS know which word to choose in the     context of your writing:  lie or lay, affect or effect, who or whom, loose or lose,         it’s or its, and lots more.

The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. 16th ed.  Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

The best, and most thorough, style guide for American English; published since  1906. Available online.

 

Einsohn, Amy.  The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and      Corporate Communications, with Exercises and Answer Keys. 3rd ed.    Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2011.

Updates reflect the 16th edition of  The Chicago Manual of Style; on-screen             editing procedures; resources for editors.

Saller, Carol Fisher.  The Subversive Copywriter: Advice from Chicago (or, how to             negotiate good relationships with your writers, your colleagues, and yourself).   Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

The subtitle pretty much tells it all.  Basically a guide for editors…but authors will get a glimpse into what your editor may be thinking when she or he works with        you.  The chapter “Dear Writers” has helpful advice, including how to think of       “Editing as a Gift, not an Insult.”

                                                 *                                              *

Gerald Gross, ed. Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do.  3rd ed., rev.  New York: Grove Press, 1993.

How editors work with different genres, by experienced practitioners.

Norton, Scott.  Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and  Publishers. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

This, too, is a copyeditor’s guide, but it will help writers learn more about telling    a story in an organized and effective  way.

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