Judging an Editorial Letter

The disadvantage of being an insider in any industry is not realizing how that world looks to an outsider. Before becoming an independent editor, I worked for several decades for various publishing houses, and I learned my craft in the ways senior editors taught me. They knew the difference between development editing and line editing, and that copy editing occupies a rank below them, focusing on grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

In the brave new world where mainstream publishers are struggling and indie publishing represents a viable option, an author who wants to hire an editor faces a quandary. I find all sorts of people advertising their services online, whether through promotional emails, twitter posts, or forums such as Writer’s Digest. When I read their CV and hopefully a few blog posts about their editing approach, I often shake my head. I know that they aren’t qualified. But how is someone fresh to publishing supposed to know that?

In a field as intangible as writing, I’ll try to point out a few guidelines that are useful. I’ll start by breaking an edit into smaller pieces. The most basic unit is an editorial letter. This occurs in the first stage, after an editor reads a manuscript. If you have discussed what the editor offers, you may have agreed that this letter is only the preliminary phase of the edit. In that case the letter should lay out the groundplan of what you can expect in the future. 

The letter is usually broken into 4-5 major areas of possible improvement, e.g., depth of the protagonist’s narrative voice, trimming research, or strengthening a plot line with more frequent scenes. Notice that all of these are sweeping suggestions. You want to see if the editor understands priorities, and that means starting at the top and working down. If your protagonist commits so many uncivil acts that the reader grows to dislike him, for instance, an observation about one thing he said to his wife on page 250 isn’t going to help you. The reader has already given up on him by that time.

If it helps, think of a letter in terms of: theory, example. Sticking with the previous example, the broad-ranging statement about the unlikable protagonist is made first, and the observation about page 250 is merely an example of that larger statement. You will not profit from a string of minutia. You’re hiring the person to see the forest, not the trees.

At the same time, you do want examples. As you probably know from a writing class, people make sweeping, unfounded statements all the time. That’s because they’re not trained to see a pattern emerging from a series of examples. The editorial letter should provide those patterns, backed up by specific instances. Also, look for tone. If the letter turns very negative about a specific point, that means it is being belabored. You don’t want passion; you want analysis. 

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you're inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” 
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

No comments:

Post a Comment

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.