Isn’t it funny how “editing” has become such a confusing subject?
Discussions abound, from writers’ conferences to Internet groups, and everywhere in between about what editing actually is.
You can drown in all the definitions.
And while different sorts of editing do exist, for now, let’s talk about what substantive editing truly is.
Also known as developmental editing, this is (or should be!) the first step on your editing road. Yes, you need a copy edit. You need a final proofing. And before those you need coaching and mentoring.
But when your draft is down on paper, written to the best of your ability, you’re now ready to dive into what revision is truly all about.
And that begins with a substantive edit.
So let’s take a look at what that actually entails.
First off, a great editor begins by reading through a manuscript, start to finish. This helps get a grasp of not only who the people are, but where they end up in the story, and how they get there. A forest view, if you will, of people and plot.
From there, he can begin to dissect the trees: where the storyline takes off, where it falters, where it sags, the bridges that are missed, the roads that go nowhere, the paths that were not taken but hold enormous promise to flesh out the story, the streams that don’t feed into the main river—all of these become apparent to a seasoned pro.
This organization and structure, especially in novels but in narrative nonfiction as well, needs hard attention. Because everything leads back to the main plot, no matter how ancillary it may seem. Or, it gets axed.
Does the pacing fit the genre? And yep, different genres, categories, and sub-categories require different types of pacing. While this may be difficult to see from outside publishing, an experienced editor not only knows these distinctions, but intuitively feels them as he goes through each manuscript.
The characters get taken apart, piece by piece, studied under a powerful microscope. Are they multi-sided? Are they flesh and bone and real people? Can a reader relate to them, think about them, feel for them as they go through the storyline? Does the reader know them, or just know about them? I.e., are they created on the page, or told-to, by the author?
And more than just identifying the issues, an experienced editor will suggest many ways to flesh out the folks, to fashion them into memorable people.
While through this process, we take the characters and plot as separate items in order to revise and recreate, in essence, they’re all part of the same tapestry. The main character travels through the arc of the storyline, to get from the beginning story question that opens the book, to the climax at the end.
That shows you how to make sure the character drives the plot, and the plot changes the character.
Because in its essence, a book is far more than the sum of its parts. All those individual fragments must finally be woven into one piece.
A tall order, indeed.
Does the prose sing? Or fall leaden, clanging in the ears? A writer’s voice is honed over a long period of, well, writing. Often I can see the glimmers of a beautiful voice, just waiting to be heard, buried under mountains of ancillary dirt. It’s a great editor’s job to help excavate that, with very careful steps, and specific instruction.
Writers are so in the weeds of creation, often all of this proves difficult to see. Until that gets pointed out to them by a skillful editor. And, in a way that the writer then has an ah-ha moment when she sees it as well.
The point is not to change the writer’s story, people, or voice, but to make all of that better, more fruitful, ending with a successful (saleable) book.
Of paramount importance is to assure the book is the writer’s—not the editor’s.
Not all writers learn in the same manner, and a developmental editor has to be quite cognizant of that. The point is to coach the writer to reach the promise inherent in the work.
Again, a bit easier said than done! But it’s what great editors do.
A great book is the creation of a separate entity, which can’t really be defined by its parts. That’s when you know you’ve achieved your goal. You’ve combined all the elements of great writing into one whole, painting pictures with words that resonate in your reader’s heart.
Putting that reader into the story, into the experience of it, rather than as a spectator.
Substantive editing, with a talented editor, who knows the pitfalls and can help you deal with the problems, is what separates the wanna-be writers from those great authors who get published, gain a readership, and win awards.
And isn’t that what you want for your book, and for your writing career?