Friday, September 12, 2008

Welcome Guest Blogger - Angela Harms

Alright! From the last article on Fiction Matters, the one where John Ramsey Miller scared us out of our cotton socks, we all understand that we need a lot going for us as writers to get noticed, and to stay noticed. But what's a good first step? Besides actually writing something, I mean. The answer just might be: editing.

Now, there are lots of books out there about self-editing (some are better than others), but my experience tells me that, no matter how many times I comb over a section of my WIP, no matter how many times I tweak the words and fuss with punctuation, I'll miss something. Sometimes it's the whole boat I'll miss. That's where hiring an editor BEFORE you submit your work to an editor comes in. Confused? Our guest blogger Angela Harms is here to make it all make sense.

Angela Harms is a freelance editor and writer from the Pacific Northwest. She has been writing and editing for over 20 years, and particularly enjoys substantive editing of fiction. Her website is More of her articles can be found at

Writers have told me that the idea of working with an editor can be a little intimidating. I’d like to talk about what it’s like, how it works, and what an editor actually does.
Do you need an editor?

“…everybody needs an editor.” —Michael Crichton

You’ve heard the advice before: everybody needs an editor. But surely that doesn’t mean everybody, right?

Your grammar and spelling are excellent. You understand that the revision process is vital, and you’ve asked friends to read your work and point out typos. And that’s all important, but—while I’m surely biased, being an editor myself—you might be surprised what a difference a professional editor can make, even after you’ve done all you can.

The difference between a talented friend and a professional editor
Being a professional is not a matter of memberships in professional organizations, and it’s not accomplished through years of formal education. It’s really a combination of two things: fascination with the language and the art, and commitment to the profession. A professional editor has studied what’s required to do a complete job, and knows how to find errors that a friend or family member may miss.

For example, I once had a writer who used the word shanghaied, as in “We got shanghaied.” The setting was about 1800. Trouble is, the term didn’t come into use until the 1850s. It’s not that editors have memorized those kinds of facts. But we are practiced in flagging them, and checking.

Another novel had a lovely woman in it, with the bluest eyes you’d ever seen. Until the next chapter; then they were green. Oops.

I’ve never seen a manuscript that didn’t need some level of editing.

What will an editor do?
Collaborating with an editor should not be a painful process. In fact, it can be a lot of fun. Now you have someone to talk to about your novel who is as interested in it as you are—or almost!
As author, you make the decision about whether to accept any changes your editor suggests, and an editor should remind you of this. Anything that goes into your manuscript should go in there because you love it, not because you feel pressured to modify something to please the editor. That said, it’s also a good idea to talk to your editor about changes you disagree with, because if you talk about it, you’ll often discover that your editor was right, or—even better—the two of you together will come up with an even better solution. But in the end, it’s your work, and your decision.

Levels of Editing
Editors will talk about “levels,” but none of them talk about them the same way. Each editor has his or her own hierarchy, but here’s a basic breakdown of the levels your editor might recommend.

Light Edit: proofreading
Proofreading originally referred to comparing the edited manuscript with the galleys, or typeset pages, to be sure that they match. But in the twenty-first century, it usually means a light copyedit.

A proofreader checks that a finished piece says what it was intended to say. That is, if a word is is repeated (Did you catch that?) it was probably not intended, and a proofreader will correct it. However, a proofreader won't comment if something is phrased awkwardly or a passage is wordy. Briefly, a proofreader looks for typing or typesetting errors, formatting errors, straightforward grammatical errors and misspellings that may have been missed during copyediting.

The proofreader should be the last person to work on the manuscript, and it should be a new person, a fresh set of eyes. Every published work needs a proofreader.

Medium edit: copyediting, or line editing
A copy editor will look for grammatical problems, spelling errors, factual or plot inconsistencies, too much use of passive voice, and anything else that will make it hard for the reader to enjoy the novel.

The editor will also create and follow a stylesheet. This is a guide that allows anyone who works with the manuscript to make sure the novel is consistent. How do you spell the main character’s name? How many commas do you use in a list? (“Peanuts, almonds and walnuts,” or “peanuts, almonds, and walnuts”?) What’s the correct name of the agency that’s investigating the UFOs, and how is it abbreviated?

You will receive queries asking you to clarify things or suggesting that you rephrase something to correct an error, but the copy editor won’t do the rewriting for you.
Fact-checking is usually part of the copy editor's job. Easily checked facts (that can be checked on-line in a moment) may be included in the copyediting fee (ask!), but extensive checking will usually cost extra.

Heavy edit: substantive editing, content editing
A substantive editor works as a partner with you, to help you create the best writing possible. The editor will help you to
¨ make sure the organization of the story makes sense
¨ find the perfect word or phrase
¨ strengthen your beginning
¨ remove words, paragraphs, even chapters that aren't doing their job
¨ move things around for better flow
¨ make your dialogue and descriptions more powerful.

A substantive editor will challenge you, and also help you create a novel you can be proud of.
Find out for yourself

Try this: google “free sample edit.” Visit a few of the websites, and find a couple of editors who appeal to you. Request a free sample. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised at what they are able to tell you. It’s worth your time to find an editor you enjoy, who understands your writing and who you understand as well. Once you do, I think you’ll find that your editor becomes a valued friend.


Thanks Angela!

Often a factor writers bring up about hiring an editor is the cost. Let's face it, writers (most of us!) aren't wealthy, we don't have money lying in drawers waiting for a rainy day. Hiring an editor costs money, and poor writers are reluctant to part with hard earned money. It may be helpful to think of this step in the process as a different kind of investment toward your writing goal. You've been investing huge amounts of time, talent, energy, and money already. Take time to evaluate the benefits of hiring an editor to work on your manuscript. Working with an editor before you submit your work to a publisher or agent will help you understand the process of editing, and better prepare you for when that big royalty paying publisher tells you, "YES!"

I bid you good writing.


lynnrush said...

It sounds so funny to hire an editor before you submit to an editor...LOL. But I understand the need.

I've heard both arguments. Some say a great critique group can get the WIP in shape enough to present to agents for representation? Have you heard this before?

Thanks for the post

Sharon A. Lavy said...

Thank you for the great post.

The one thing a critique group cannot often do, is the substantiative edit.

I've taken a lot of writing classes, and now I am going the freelance editor route.

Angela Harms said...

There's no way around it. Editing is expensive. But another way to think of it is this: when you hire a substantive editor, you're getting more than an edit. You're also getting a great education. An editor should be helping you learn what to look for in your own writing, and to really understand the changes and rewrites she or he suggests.

(For that reason, it can be a good idea to hire a substantive editor after you've written just a few chapters. It's not too expensive at that point, and you can learn a whole lot.)

Laura Davis said...

OK I'll ask it - how much should you spend on an editor? What is reasonable? Great post BTW and gives one a lot to think about!