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ASK THE EDITOR Every Writer Needs 'Outside Eyes'

by Susan Malone

September 2003

Writers need editors. We all understand this, no? Even successfully published authors need "outside eyes" to help perfect their work (and many more of those know it than do published folks). But misconceptions abound as to what true editing is, what it means to a writer, and who does it.

Used to be, a writer would work with her editor at a publishing house to make the book the best it could be, and to most further the author's career. My word, that now sounds like utopia!

The business has changed. Where once editors at publishing houses spent most of their days editing, now that is rare indeed. Today's editors focus on acquisitions; on selling the books they want to publish (which are ready to roll from the onset) to editorial committees and the dreaded sales force. Their time is spent positioning those books in the list while keeping an eye on production as per jacket copy, cover art, etc. In essence, these editors' jobs have changed radically over the last twenty years. And so has your relationship to them.

Publishers are no longer willing (or sometimes even able) to spend the time with a "project" book—one that has potential but needs major work. Or often, even minor revisions. Manuscripts these days must pretty well be camera-ready when they reach the editor's desk.

So where does that leave you, the writer in need of an editor? Adrift in a sea of various editors and editing services, that's where. So, let's sift through what's out there, and then you can better see what fits your needs.

First off, a lot of editing services, groups, and websites offer manuscript evaluations or critique services. In this level you should receive a thorough reading of your work, and an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses. It'll tell you where you stand, quality and market wise, and how much revision remains. This service also provides feedback as to the major elements of your book—characterization, plotting and pacing, organization and structure, flow, voice and tone, literary devices and stylistic issues, and overall substance. And it should do all of this within the parameters of the genre in which you're writing, including specifics regarding word count, plot points, etc. In other words, an evaluation of a Cozy Mystery is by its very nature quite different from that of a memoir.

A manuscript evaluation is of special help to two divergent groups: the newbie and the established pro. Many new writers hesitate to take the plunge into in-depth editing, for a host of reasons, and this provides a way to get your toes wet. When you're searching for your sea legs, and trying to make sense of what makes a book (or short story), getting a barometer reading helps to chart your course. Then you can more efficiently find the resources to do so as well.

Conversely, the multi-published author still needs outside eyes, and often an evaluation is all that's necessary. An established pro then knows which direction to follow and how to fix the problems. She's done it enough, faced a variety of writing dilemmas, understands the process well enough that once a good editor points out where she's stumbling, she knows how to dust her character back off and set him on the right road. Often, however, even pros seek more in-depth help.

But where does that leave the vast majority? Those who have been writing and getting critiqued and still need direction? The ones who need the benefit of a really good editor's pen, as they once would have received from their publisher? We all know the stories of Maxwell Perkins and his stable of writers; of relationships with Hemingway and Marjorie Rawlings, et al. Where do you find that today?

This is where the developmental editor comes into play. This person will go through your book with a fine-toothed comb, attending to all of the problems and also letting you know what's working, so you don't reinvent the wheel. What shines clear in our minds as writers sometimes doesn't translate to the page, and your editor should find those glitches. She'll write between the lines, in the margins, and give longer examples on the back of pages. Are the characters realized? If not, why? But this sort of editor not only addresses all of that (as in an evaluation), she also then goes much deeper into why the problem is a problem, suggestions about how to fix it, when to do so, and specifically where. In other words, you won't just receive a "this character is flat," but an explanation of why he's flat, what it means to the story, suggestions of ways to deepen him as he relates to said story, and page numbers of places to do so. The critique that comes with the edit should be in-depth, comprehensive, and correspond directly to the manuscript. A developmental editor must attend to both the forest AND the trees, simultaneously, and be able to convey all of that to you.

One of the most vital aspects of working with such an editor is the "after care." Upon receiving your edit and critique, you'll have questions. It's imperative that the editor be able to walk you through any revisions, to answer questions, to bat about ideas, and to just generally help guide you along. This has "made" more authors than any single element of which I know. Writing well just isn't learned in a vacuum!

Finally, the copy edit. This is the last step in the process, and the one most new writers confuse with the true edit. While we all want our manuscripts to be as clean as possible, the straight copy edit offers the least bang for your buck (unless you failed English five times). It's not going to do you a lot of good to have a manuscript devoid of misspellings, typos, and grammatical errors that's still lacking in the major components of what makes a good book. At that point, the person you've queried won't get past page one anyway, so he'll never know how clean your text is. Save this as the very last step—when you're sure the manuscript is really ready to go.

Writing well, and being published, is a team effort. John Donne was really talking about us when he wrote that no man is an island. Of course, being a poet, he would know!

About Susan Mary Malone


Author of: By the Book (novel); BodySculpting; Fourth and Long; Five Keys for Understanding Men. Fifteen Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! She is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com . Reach her at www.maloneeditorial.com