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).