So You Want to Be an Editor…

One of the authors I work with (J.R. Handley, who writes military sci-fi) asked me to write a post on how an aspiring fiction editor can know if he or she is ready to go pro… This post contains some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts on the matter, although I’ll probably have more to say later.

As I commented recently on a guest post by Susan Uttendorfsky on Chris the Story Reading Ape‘s blog, I see a developmental editor as a really good alpha reader, someone with excellent instincts for how stories work and the ability to tell the writer — this is important — how to make the “big picture” aspects of their story (plot, characters, setting, etc.) the best they can be. Although a degree in literature or creative writing isn’t by any means necessary for a developmental editor, earning such a degree is certainly a valid way of learning the skills that are necessary. (Those skills can also be learned by reading hundreds or even thousands of books and paying attention to what you read.)

A lot of developmental editing is based on readers’ tastes. No matter what anyone tells you, there are no rules concerning whether a story should follow the Hero’s Journey, or whether it should be written in first person, or whether it should have a strong romance subplot. This makes developmental editing difficult. The developmental editor needs to be aware of things like plot pacing and character arcs and how much detail goes into worldbuilding, but he or she cannot allow personal tastes to overshadow the real goal, which is to make the author’s story the best possible version of itself, not what the editor would write if it were his or her story. A good developmental editor never tells an author something like, “I think you should change the genre of this story. And even if you leave it as a cozy mystery, it would be a lot more interesting if you make the protagonist a sexy vampire from the fourteenth century, and then have her fall in love with the lawn-ornament thief and help him cover up the crime instead of bringing him to justice.” There’s a reason why a lot of developmental editors specialize in just a few genres. Someone who doesn’t “get” romances can’t help you much with making sure the connection between your leads grows at the right pace for the kind of story you’re telling, and someone who cannot abide strong language, sarcasm, or violence cannot help you much with characterization in a police procedural.

If you want to be a developmental editor — a good one, not just someone who charges money for telling an author, “Yeah, I liked it — keep writing” (because that’s not sufficient even when it comes from a volunteer beta reader) — you have to be able to read a lot and pay attention to what you’re reading. You have to think: Does the plot hang together? Is there clear cause-and-effect connecting events, eventually if not immediately? Are the characters acting in character, according to what has already been established about them? Is there sufficient detail about the setting for the reader to feel immersed in it without there being any clumsy info-dumps that pull the reader out of the story? (See why I said developmental editing is largely a matter of readers’ tastes? What’s barely enough description to go on for one reader will be way too much description for another. There are general guidelines for what seems to work best — what is preferred by the majority of the target audience — for different genres, though, and a developmental editor has to know those guidelines.)

Copyediting is a different matter.

For one thing, there’s no university degree that will teach you how to be a fiction copyeditor, because very few (I know: I’ve looked) universities offer even one course on the mechanics of writing. There are courses in journalism, but the rules of journalism are not the same as the rules of fiction. If you’re not aware that fiction isn’t done the same way as journalism, you’re not ready to be an editor of fiction. Don’t assume knowing everything about the AP Stylebook will make you a good editor of novels, because it’s all about Chicago in this business.

If you want to be a copyeditor, you must be prepared to dig deep into the mechanics of writing. You have to grok written language, not just the words but also the “extra” marks (punctuation) that go along with it and give additional meaning to the words. You must possess a large and robust vocabulary, so you can recognize when the author has used a word that isn’t quite right for what he/she is trying to say… or one that is totally wrong. It kinda helps if you can read authors’ minds, too, but if you’re not a telepath, that’s okay, as long as you’re good at asking the right questions to get clarification. (This last bit is also necessary for developmental editors, who must often dig deep into an author’s brain to figure out what sort of story he or she is attempting to tell… It’s no wonder men who specialize in developmental editing often go bald from the stress. 🙂 )

If you don’t flinch, at least mentally, at the typical grammar and punctuation found in internet memes, you’re not ready to be a copyeditor. As I said, you have to grok this stuff. It has to be nearly instinctive. You can’t just have a handy list of “words to use in place of said” (and for cryin’ out loud, you must know why shuddered and paused are not valid as dialogue tags!) and a piece of paper declaring that you got good grades in high school English classes. (I could tell you stories about graduate students in creative writing courses who didn’t have a frakkin’ clue about how words and punctuation work to form sentences, but I don’t want this post to be too scary.)

If you believe small words are always the best words and that simple sentences are always the best sentences, you’re not ready to be a copyeditor. If you believe passive voice is always wrong and that all uses of to be verbs are passive, you’re not ready to be a copyeditor. (Also, you’re a parrot. I don’t like parrots.) If you believe a colon and a semicolon are the same thing, you’re not ready to be a copyeditor. If you can’t keep correcting the same noun-verb agreement errors over and over again in a single manuscript without totally losing your cool and running down the street shouting, “‘Neither ship nor pilot was seen again,’ dammit!” …you’re not ready to be a copyeditor. (A Wielder of the Red Pen must be able to correct grammar silently. We’re here to help authors, not embarrass them.) If you think commas in compound sentences are optional or should only be used under certain circumstances, you’re not ready to be a copyeditor. If you’re not willing to look up the meaning of a word (or a rule of punctuation or grammar) when you’re not really, truly certain about it, you’re not ready to be a copyeditor.

Being a Wielder of the Red Pen isn’t for the faint of heart (and if you thought that was supposed to be feint of heart, you’re not ready to be an editor).



About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have eight cats. I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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12 Responses to So You Want to Be an Editor…

  1. Judy L Mohr says:

    I’d like to add to your list that one must know the difference between a hyphen, an en-dash, and an em-dash, and be able to recognise the difference on sight. With em-dashes becoming common within fiction, it’s vital for editors (copyeditors and developmental editors) to know the difference. (Editors should know the proper uses of ellipses too.)

    I can accept an en-dash special character in place of an em-dash, but only if it’s consistent (and the only reason why I can accept it is because MSWord insists on spaces vs. no-spaces when rendering the two special characters). However, TOO many writers use the hyphen instead of an em-dash, or use an em-dash incorrectly. Many misuse hyphens too. Grrr! That’s one of my little pet peeves.

    Liked by 2 people

    • J.R. Handley says:

      OR you choose what’s behind door number two,… a good editor! 😛

      Liked by 1 person

      • Judy L Mohr says:

        That is perfectly true.

        It should be noted that, as the article said, there is a big difference between a developmental editor and a copy-editor. In some respects, I feel that a development editor is more important to a book’s future. Most people are willing to forgive the odd typo and grammatical error, especially if the plot is so gripping and the characters are so engaging. However, it doesn’t matter how grammatically correct a story is if there are glaring plot holes and the characters are unbelievable. A bad story is still a bad story.

        When people hire editors, ensure they hire the right editor for the right job. Editors do specialize. (I, myself, specialized in developmental editing, as it frustrates me to copyedit something that has a glaring plot hole that you can drive an 18-wheel truck through.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I didn’t write this post to disrespect developmental editors. I have tremendous respect for the developmental editor who fixes the “big picture stuff” on certain manuscripts before sending ’em on to me for the nitpicky, “trivial” corrections to punctuation and sentence structure. I wouldn’t want to copyedit a manuscript full of plot holes, either.

          Most people (including me) are perfectly willing to forgive “the odd typo and grammatical error.” The thing is, a lot of books these days are being published while still containing A LOT of grammatical/punctuation errors, misused words, etc.

          Liked by 2 people

          • J.R. Handley says:

            Because we, as a society, aren’t teaching grammar the way we should. I was in the honors programs throughout high school and college and never had formal training. I manage because I read a lot, then hire a competent editing team, but if we taught it in school, maybe this wouldn’t be such an issue?


          • Judy L Mohr says:

            I didn’t take that article as being disrespectful at all. I actually liked what you wrote. Some of your comments made me laugh and had me shouting out, “YES! Someone who gets it!”

            Both developmental editing and copy-editing are vital to a book. It’s amazing the number of writers out there who don’t understand the difference. Many will say to me, “I’ve had my book edited. My neighbour is really good with grammar.” At which point, I often just want to hang my head in shame. They just don’t understand.


        • J.R. Handley says:

          Very true, which is why I have the perfect team with Corey and Thomas!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. J.R. Handley says:

    What if he really DID want to make a feint at the heart, so the death stroke that took of the head worked? 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    • Then his author should have written “feint at the heart” instead of “feint of heart,” shouldn’t he? 🙂

      Also, if his author had written him as wielding a war hammer/bec de corbin instead of a sword, he could have just smashed his opponent’s brains in rather than having to take the head clean off. (*makes mental note to get videos of the clone doing medieval-style combat*)

      Liked by 1 person

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