This guy’s so good he doesn’t even need a head to edit well
Editing a book-length project is an intriguing undertaking for the sheer variety of the material an editor might see. I’ve edited both fiction and nonfiction works for years, having cut my eyeteeth on big software manuals years ago (the writing of which can be more creative than might be imagined), and having moved into novels and nonfiction projects as time’s train has moved on.
There’s some argument as to what an editor does (slash the soul out of an artist’s heart might be one angle) and divergent discussion yet about the types of editing. But I set up my lemonade stand with three: developmental editing, copyediting (or line editing) and proofing. You could stack a lot of words to describe the distinctions—and other editors break them down into more categories yet—but for this discussion, let’s call developmental editing the big-picture shakeout: you assess a nonfiction work for its structure: does it have a solid foundation, are the walls of its ideas well-framed, does the front door open to the living room rather than the bathroom, does the roof of its concepts leak, are the floors of its logic cracked?
You get much more granular with a line edit, inspecting paragraphs and sentences for diction, flow, grammar and clarity: is the expression of the espoused ideas crisp, cliché-free, clean? Do verbs have verve? Does a subject play hide and seek with its predicate so that even a sugary gingerbread trail of subordinate clauses can’t lead the way home to understanding?
Proofreaders, the Chimney Sweeps of the Editing World
Proofreading might be considered the lowly chimney sweep of the editing ranks, but if your work is blackened by misspellings, typos, transposed words, extra words (so often I’ll see a stray “a” next to an “an”), or inconsistency of usage and style (writing “versus” when it’s been “vs” all along), the book’s fire just won’t burn clean. And sometimes a work will need an extra sweeping, because when initial errors are corrected, new errors are introduced. (Which should be some kind of law, like the Uncertainty Principle.)
The reason I’m going into this “What’s an Editor Do Besides Unnecessarily Charge You?” is because I’m editing a blend of a memoir/personal development book right now. The work consists of a series of essays, some a couple of pages, some thirty, filtered through the author’s spirited perspective, founded on her extensive travels and her interesting background. The author engaged me to copyedit the book, but in checking it out, it begged for a developmental edit first.
Here a Theme, There a Theme
I ended up moving essentially all the chapters around, and grouping them into six themes. Because there wasn’t a grounding voice that began the work, I wrote a main introduction and then six short introductions to each theme (all vetted by the writer, of course), and will suggest adding any needed transitions at other points in the book. I think this greatly strengthened the framing for the work—the roof, walls and floors are in the right places now, and now I can start looking at whether the furniture fits the rooms and whether the knick-knacks fit the furniture.
And my mom wanted me to be a brain surgeon. She just didn’t realize that editors are pretty much surgeons too. And sometimes politicians. And psychologists. And—oh, don’t get me started.