Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What Is Editing?

Last week I went to our monthly Sisters-in-Crime meeting, but my attitude was half hearted. The morning speaker was going to talk about editing.

I'm a writing teacher--I grade lots of "college-level" essays each semester. I'm constantly thinking about grammar and straightening out the grammar of my students. Since I'm also an author, I'm always vigiliant when it comes to my own writing. I spend a lot of time working with grammar. This is a normal part of my job both as a teacher and as a writer.

Hence I didn't feel that the speaker from the local community college would be able to teach me anything about grammar. Indeed Terry Filipowicz didn't teach me a single thing about grammar. Instead what she taught me was that in the world of writing and publishing, "editing" means something very different to most people than what it normally means to me.

Terry asked us a rhetorical question at the beginning of her talk. "Would you rather have someone who's good in your field or good as an editor?" she asked the gathering of mystery writers. Then she started talking about some of the "editing" she'd done. She'd toned down scenes that were too explicit, for example. She'd realized that "Danny Boy" had been written after the turn of the century, but the author had placed it in a story that took place a couple of decades earlier.

Master editor having grammar discussion, photo by DRR
To me, toning down a scene is a kind of rewriting. It's re-seeing the text, re-working the text. It's understanding the audience and responding to that audience's needs. Getting a song with the right date is a kind of fact-checking. To me, neither of those actions, while important, would be considered editing.

For me "editing" is always grammar/language/mechanics. I expected the speaker to help us with tricky subjunctive clauses or difficult punctuation cases, not to speak about broader matters.

What ensued was a lively discussion among the authors. Some had hired "editors" to help them work with storylines or character development. They didn't have any complaints about the people they'd engaged for such activities.

When it came to grammar, they had a lot to say because only one had found a good grammar editor (line editor). They were frustrated that they hadn't been able to find someone reliable. They also complained (I was the loudest) about all the flaws they'd seen in recent books, as if current authors simply couldn't be bothered to either proofread their work or pay someone worthwhile to look at it for them.

The point was made that there's no exam to be an "editor." Anyone might call herself an "editor" until not proven guilty. But this meant another painful truth was evident: most people don't know how to edit, especially so-called editors. Instead the onus is on the writer to get it right.Maybe that's where it should be. That's also why I always use my mom and a colleague--both former English teachers--as my primary line editors. Between the three of us, I'm confident we can produce a manuscript with few errors. 

What does editing mean to you? Who do you turn to when you need line editing?

For my recent novels, both of which were carefully line edited, please see