A Writer’s Secret Weapon: Interview with An Editor
Writing the book is the easy part. The challenge lies in everything that comes after. When I completed Legacy’s manuscript in May 2014, it was the most pages, the first book, I’d ever written. I had never taken a course on creative writing, and most of what I knew about writing came from my own avid reading and my mother’s fifth and sixth grade English classes. In short, what I needed was an editor–a great editor. Through an incredible stroke of luck and a little perusing on the Bay Area Editor’s Forum, I found exactly what–or who–I was looking for. With the assistance of Ann Castro and her team, Legacy’s manuscript was cut, shaped, and polished into something that was still mine…but so much better. I’ve been fortunate to receive several awards for Legacy, and I credit Ann for much of that success. Throughout our work together, I’ve come to realize that the best part of working with a great editor is becoming a better writer. And I’ve been fortunate to watch my skills grow with each book. This month, I’ve decided to share my secret weapon and have invited Ann to provide her insights on all things editing.
Tell us about your path to becoming an editor.
It was totally serendipitous, born out of my creative life journey: Dance, degree in acting with additional work in English and philosophy, music endeavors, writing, my passion for books and libraries (burgeoning love affair with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in middle school)—and a finely positioned next door neighbor from my fifth-grade days onward, Dr. Russell J. Jandoli.
A seasoned editor/journalist with academic excellence, Dr. Jandoli was the founder and 34-year head of St. Bonaventure University’s Department of Journalism (later named after him), who recognized, encouraged, and nurtured my writing ability at an early age. He gave me many opportunities over the years to learn from journalists who would visit him or speak at St. Bonaventure University’s Press Days.
Much later on, a professor teaching a writing/editing communications course recognized my editing abilities and strongly suggested I consider that route. And I did.
I became the chief editor/writer for a marketing firm, where, as destiny would have it, I met a non-fiction author with national prominence in her field. She became a client and commissioned me to collaborate with her on various high-profile book projects (write/ghostwrite/developmental edit), which were released via major publishers and did well.
That launched my freelance developmental editing/writing project work with authors and marketing clients—the rhythms of the words, the movement of the syntax, the dramatics of the characters, the dance of the story, and an eye on the trends.
Along the way, I learned that not all writers are editors . . . but all editors are good writers who love to read, observe life, listen intently, and stretch up, out, and deep. Yep, that’s the ocean I swim in—and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
Helping authors release the story that’s stirring within them. I get a thrill working through the creative process with authors—listening to their vision, tapping into the heartbeat of their manuscript, diving down deep into their scattered project parts, then walking with them along the book journey, encouraging and guiding them with techniques and suggestions.
And the most difficult?
With every project, it’s always a balancing act—but one that’s different for each author. How much to move in, how much to step back . . . and when to do either.
As a developmental editor, you see the good, the bad and the ugly, the before in the before and after. What are some of the common mistakes writers make pre-editing?
First up, I’d say it’s telling vs. showing. The key always is to let the action, dialogue, a movement, a look, an innuendo, etc. do the revealing. Your developmental editor can help you identify those telling potholes and nudge you into a showing landscape.
As for other common pitfalls . . .
- Rushing the story line and not giving sufficient room to develop characters/relationships. Taking the right amount of time for development helps build a more credible story and gives characters a deeper dimension that will draw readers in so they care.
- Static or redundant sentence structures. Writing is like music—it needs rhythm, needs to rise and descend, and needs to shift tempos.
- Dropping the ball or embarking on wild bunny trails. Words, paragraphs, and chapters must be anchored to the premise, plot line, truth of each character. There has to be a strong sense of connectivity to guide readers into and through the experience.
Stephen King tells us, “Kill your darlings.” Some say “write drunk” and “edit sober.” Do you have any favorite editing maxims?
Writing down the bones . . . based on Natalie Goldberg’s book title. Go down deep, get real, until you submerge into those richer waters. As Goldberg put it, writers need to play around, take chances. “If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.”
Learn to say “no” to your keyboard [typewriter] . . . Hemingway’s minimalist style challenges writers to be deliberate, honest, forceful, courageous—not tied to what they previously wrote. He would cut out the scrollwork, throw it away, and begin with the “first true simple declarative sentence” he had written. As he said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”
How can authors find an editor who is a good fit for them? What are some of the qualities to look for in choosing an editor?
There are different levels of editing . . . and different types of editors. Their talent, client/author experience, personality, and passion all come into play. It takes someone who is a critical thinker, intentional, and an encouraging collaborator of sorts. Your developmental editor has to “get” you, your book, your style, your right marketplace. S/he should be able to artfully go down deep—while flying high to get that eagle perspective and offer clear-cut suggestions that will stir your creative waters and help you tighten the read.
This next quality is vital. Your developmental editor needs to understand the book is your baby to birth. I see the job of a developmental editor like that of a midwife—assessing, identifying, monitoring, educating, advising, supporting, calming, and ensuring the best delivery possible.
It goes without saying: Your developmental editor should be ethical, focused on your concerns. Be sure to sign a two-way contract outlining the scope of the work expected, deadlines, fiscal arrangements, contract-ending options, portfolio usage, name placement, etc.
You might ask for a sample edit to see if the fit works for you—and for the editor. We offer a complimentary evaluation of two chapters to give authors a window into what our team is seeing and how we’d bridge out to better develop the manuscript.
Does the book process really require different types of editing?
Short answer? Yes.
A book’s creative process has multiple aspects . . . each one needs careful tending. Some editors specialize in one phase since it takes a certain mindset and skill set for each level—or offer a team to handle the various phases.
- Developmental editing—artful, comprehensive, goes deeper, and focuses on structural development. That includes content and character to plot line issues, credibility, dialogue, movement, atmosphere, tonality, emotion, tension, pacing, symbolism, logical stream, transitions, inconsistencies, redundancies, confusing/unclear/weak areas, connectivity for a cohesive whole, etc. It also factors in current market trends. Hands down, every manuscript—regardless of the author’s writing abilities—needs a developmental editor. Even literary giants have had developmental editors. Hemingway and Fitzgerald had Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor who inspired them, supported them, counseled them, befriended them.
- Line editing—as defined here—is a smaller-scaled version of developmental editing. It focuses on light structural corrections, clarity, fluidity, syntax, style, dialogue strength, paragraph flow, flagging confusing, redundant, or weak area, offering some recommendations for plot, character, setting, etc.
- Copyediting—once the manuscript is tightened up/finished. A copyedit addresses the technical, fairly straightforward side of things: spelling, punctuation, grammar, hyphenations, capitalizations, simple syntax, word usages, fact checks, discrepancies within the manuscript, checks consistencies in capitalization/spelling/fonts/number usages, etc
Don’t forget proofing.
- Pre-layout proof. Your clean, copyedited manuscript should be proofed before it’s formatted or graphically prepped for layout.
- Prepress proof. I strongly recommend a prepress proof of your publisher’s or graphic production artist’s formatted manuscript because errors can occur. It also gives you one last look for any errors not caught in the prior proofing process.
One last word.
The industry’s error rate—even with professional publishers, copyeditors, and proofers—runs 95% – 99%. So due diligence is a good thing. Give your eyes a break from the manuscript for a few days or longer, then carefully reread everything—aloud can be helpful—before the book is sent for print/upload. If you find any errors, double-check with your editor to ensure your change fits the editorial style guide used for your book project. Better yet, have your editor review the area in question.