editing, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

A Word About Editing

By Curtis Bausse

Not my own work, other people’s. I could write reams about my own – the various drafts, the juggling with voice, the search for the right rhythm in each sentence. But that would be like telling you my dreams – only a matter of time before you’re asleep yourself. So this is about how I edit other people’s.

You may be wondering what gives me the right in any case. Well, more than a right it’s a duty, an obligation. I have two anthologies on the go, Second Taste, the third (and final) Book a Break anthology, and (with the invaluable help of Atthys Gage and GD Deckard) The Rabbit Hole, the first volume (of what we hope will be a long and successful series) of weird stories produced by The Writers’ Co-op. As all writers know, a text can only benefit from the critical regard of a reader intent on helping it reach its full potential. To launch an anthology without editing the submissions would be remiss at the least. Closer, in fact, to irresponsible.

I’m not a professional editor, but I do have some credentials in the world of academia, where I peer-reviewed submissions to a number of journals in Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology. I also submitted articles to similar journals myself. It’s not something I recommend if your ego is fragile. The articles are regularly savaged like a ferret set upon by a Staffordshire bull terrier. That’s when they’re accepted. Otherwise it’s a summary ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

I eventually got used to it. But I took away a couple of lessons for use when reviewing myself. The first, more obvious one was to be meticulous, hunt down the slightest weakness of logic, unsupported argument or methodological flaw. The second was to be respectful, less bull terrier than Labrador. (I’m not an expert on the cognitive psychology of dogs, but I see Labradors as firm and rigorous, yet positive and constructive.)

Clearly, a research paper is not the same as a short story. But when I edit, I try to bring those two qualities to the task. Regarding the first, every editor has their own prism, a particular way they like to see things expressed. It’s a fine line between respecting a writer’s voice (which is essential) and accepting an awkward wording or a clumsiness. My own fixation is concision, by which I mean the elimination of any unnecessary word. When I read my own writing I ask myself if every word in the sentence contributes something to the overall effect or purpose. Redundancies get deleted without mercy.

So when they received my comments, a number of contributors to the anthologies may have thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s a nutter!’ My apologies if that’s the case. But faithful to my second principle of constructiveness, I always strive to keep in view what the writer is trying to achieve, and make suggestions to that end. Perhaps I’ve been lucky to deal with writers who are understanding and courteous, but so far the replies I’ve received have been almost all appreciative.

There may on occasion be tension between the two principles of rigour and respect. What happens if the story needs a radical overhaul? You might think that in that case it wouldn’t be accepted, but often I see potential in a storyline which could be brought out if the writing was stronger. On those occasions I won’t hesitate to send back a text that I have in places rewritten, with a comment explaining why. The writer can of course refuse the alterations, but again, the replies I get have so far always been positive.

At the end of the day, it’s like many other types of negotiation: sensitivity, subjectivity, attitudes and egos are involved. When writers defend their position with cogent arguments, it means they’ve thought about what they’re doing and come up with what they see as the best way of doing it. In that case I’ll generally defer, even if my own point of view is different. In fiction, voice and intention count for more than in scientific research, meaning there’s more room for flexibility. In both cases, though, editor and writer have a common purpose: the publication of a piece that’s as good as it can get. Which is why, on the whole, agreement is easily reached.

Perhaps, if anything, I err on the side of respect. Certainly that was the case when I started out. To overcome that, I have a simple expedient: when firmness is called for, I think of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, whose fruitful but fractious relationship led to the publication of stories widely hailed as among the best ever written.

Carver’s initial ending of One More Thing:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm again and once more picked up the suitcase. “I just want to say one more thing, Maxine. Listen to me. Remember this,” he said. “I love you. I love you no matter what happens. I love you too, Bea. I love you both.” He stood there at the door and felt his lips begin to tingle as he looked at them for what, he believed, might be the last time. “Good-bye,” he said.

“You call this love, L.D.?” Maxine said. She let go of Bea’s hand. She made a fist. Then she shook her head and jammed her hands into her coat pockets. She stared at him and then dropped her eyes to something on the floor near his shoes.

It came to him with a shock that he would remember this night and her like this. He was terrified to think that in the years ahead she might come to resemble a woman he couldn’t place, a mute figure in a long coat, standing in the middle of a lighted room with lowered eyes.

“Maxine!” he cried. “Maxine!”

“Is this what love is, L.D.?” she said, fixing her eyes on him. Her eyes were terrible and deep, and he held them as long as he could.

Lish’s ending:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.

He said, “I just want to say one more thing.”

But then he could not think what it could possibly be.

It takes a brave editor to do that. I think I have a long way to go.


11 thoughts on “A Word About Editing

  1. mimispeike says:

    “The first, more obvious one was to be meticulous, hunt down the slightest weakness of logic, unsupported argument or methodological flaw.” It’s so easy to write a delightful sentence. But is it, essentially, swell-sounding bullshit?

    Thank you, Curtis. I’ll be reading and rereading this for inspiration. Then I will work through my thing (the whole Pied Piper episode, I’m up to chapter twenty-one).

    Foremost on my mind will be continuity and redundancy.

    I worry a lot about commas. Do I overuse them? in a manuscript I handled the other day, on a single page, a dozen or more commas had been deleted by an editor. The author had reversed that for all of them. It is, certainly, a matter of style.

    You, or one of you, has taught me to replace some of my commas with an em dash. Now I have em dashes all over the place. (sigh)

    Liked by 4 people

  2. GD Deckard says:

    I take any criticism as well meant but, perhaps, ignorant. I make the suggested changes and then decide if the criticism improved what I was saying. If so, the critic has my sincere thanks. Else, they missed the point but I thank them anyway and wonder if it is my fault that they didn’t “get it.” I often re-write something criticised even if the criticism itself was off.
    DISCLAIMER: the above was written while on drugs, after a root canal.
    🙂 I like it 🙂
    but that could be the drugs

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Perry Palin says:

    I like Curtis’ concision. I try also for precision.

    My experience with editors is limited. My publisher assigned my first short collection to an editor, who was, I suppose, a university professor. He tried to put university words into the mouth of a rural Midwestern working class adolescent boy. That didn’t work. But he did change one word in one story that made a big improvement. For the second book I was assigned a different editor who made enough comments so I knew he read the stories, but he made few suggestions.

    A week ago I went to a reading from a new book. I know the author. I liked the passages he read, bought the book and liked it all, and learned that a local professional actor, whom I also know, was the editor. He’s a pretty sharp young guy. I’m negotiating with the actor to read and make suggestions on my first novel.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. victoracquista says:

    The topic of editing has been in the forefront of my mind lately. For one thing, I think the word encompasses several different aspects. One person may refer to copy editing, another to line editing, another to content editing (just to use some of the more common delineations) and if there is disagreement about what these words mean, or there is no specificity, it can create confusion. A publisher recently told me a novel I’ve written needed more editing. When I inquired as to what type, I was told “line” editing. It turns out I had already paid a hefty sum for professional line editing. When I asked for further clarification, I discovered that the editor I hired had a different definition of line editing than the publisher. How confusing is that?

    In my correspondence with the publisher, I included the following:

    With respect to editing, there are different ways of categorizing types of editing. In an effort to be sure we are speaking the same lingo, here is a lexicon I copied from a writing site:

    Here is a rundown of common terms for editing services as well as some other terms editors may use to describe them. These are arranged from heaviest editing to lightest editing.

    Developmental editing (may also be called structural or content) – looks at the book’s big picture and overall structure in nonfiction or plot and characters in fiction. Developmental editors may assess a book idea, outline, or early draft to tell authors what works and what could be better. The big picture questions need to be answered first before an editor ensures your words are polished and used correctly.

    Line editing (may also be called substantive or stylistic) – goes through each line refining the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences and smooth-transitioning paragraphs. This helps the book “sound good” by polishing the language used to communicate your story.

    Copyediting – corrects grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. Copyediting also includes correcting commonly confused words (e.g., affect and effect) as well as checking for internal consistency of facts and consistency with capitalization, hyphenation, and numerals.

    Important note: Sometimes Copyediting and Line Editing are the same thing…just depends on that editor’s interpretation. In our list of book editors below, we combined them as “LE and CE” and just made it one.

    Proofreading – a final check before publication to find missed typos, missing words, repeated words, spacing and formatting consistency. Proofreading should be the very last level of editing.

    I don’t have an end to this story as I have a phone conference set up with the publisher for later this month. Personally, I find self editing to be challenging. I learn quite a bit from having my work edited and this helps me to become a better writer. Recently I invested in some editing software and I am still playing around with it. So far, I am finding it to be a powerful tool and I plan to apply it to writing my next novel at the onset. I have a paid version, but you can trial the tool for free. It doesn’t have the full functionality of the paid version, but it will give you a feel for what it can do. https://prowritingaid.com/

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for the useful comment, Victor. I didn’t think of going into the various types of editing, but they’re obviously important. I find developmental editing tricky – it’s not always easy to spot where the problem lies, but then when it’s pointed out, it seems obvious.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. mimispeike says:

    I am trying to do my own edit. I have learned a lot from Curtis’ edit of my anthology entry, and from other comments here and there. I now pay close attention when I read, to see how various issues are handled.

    I am editing my novella myself, because I paid $900 for a developmental edit (on book one, but the problems are the same) and disagreed with half to two thirds of the suggestions. My style is my style, and unless the problem is clarity, I go my own way.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes, finding an editor one is on the same wavelength with is hard. I’m still looking for one… I revise my work so much that I’m fairly satisfied there’s not much in it that needs changing, but a fresh pair of eyes will always spot things I hadn’t thought of.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. GD Deckard says:

    I know only enough about editing to know that I don’t know enough about editing. Curtis was too kind to mention me as editorial help for The Rabbit Hole anthology. Truth, I was careful to not let my judgement interfere with doing what I was told to do 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  7. atthysgage says:

    Editing is an endless quandary. All three of my officially published novels had professional editors — both a content editor and a separate proofreader. I went through numerous rounds of back and forth with each of them. It was a satisfying process. And yet, when I read my reviews, I find about an equal number of comments declaring that the works are (1) free of editorial errors, or (2) riddled with editorial errors. (For the record, most reviewers don’t comment either way on the editing, which is really the response we ought to hope for.) The bottom line? No one likes everything. AND no — even with careful, professional proofreading — you will not eliminate every error. I frequently see mistakes in big name, large press books, and I’m sure yew due to.

    Frankly, I find the cost of professional editorial services to be prohibitive, and I’m not sure it’s worthwhile. I’ve made this case before and been told by online strangers that (1) professional editing is absolutely essential because otherwise, your work will be immediately spotted as amateurish, and (2) hey, you get what you pay for, fella, so stop calling eight dollars a page excessive. (I’m not sure, but something tells me some of these online strangers were in the editorial business.) As far as the first point, well, I am an amateur, and frankly, I’m not sure admitting that is going to further diminish my minuscule market presence. As for the second, I think we all know that we do NOT always get what we pay for. In fact, the correlation between price and quality is a weak one at best.

    So, harumph. As far as commas go, there is a fairly simple set of rules determining their usage. It is probably ignored nearly as often as it is followed. The pedant in me says: learn your rules, kids! – but Fitzgerald avoided them like he avoided sobriety and he did okay.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. mimispeike says:

    I am two-thirds through chapter twenty-two of my PP (Pied Piper) adventure, and chapter twenty-two will be the last chapter, except for a chapter twenty-three that will consist of two or three wipe-up paragraphs. I’ve edited as I’ve written, but I will doctor punctuation, and reread for continuity. (Did I say something in chapter nineteen that contradicts an earlier remark? Very possible, it’s been a long journey.)

    I now begin to think about a cover, and those bumper stickers.

    Liked by 2 people

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