The Intimacy of Book Editing

by | Aug 30, 2018 | Editing Nuts & Bolts, Inspiration | 0 comments

Editor’s note: Zora is our summer intern. In exchange for marketing and social media help, we’re teaching her about developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Zora majors in Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

Editing is an intimate thing. Let me explain.

I have been telling stories all my life. My mother says that before I could even speak English I would babble at her in baby language, recounting all my adventures. My mother believes storytelling is a gift I’ve possessed since I could form sounds. This is part of why I had to be named Zora, after the famed African American writer Zora Neale Hurston. She had the name in her head long before she adopted me, and now she thinks of it as an act of serendipity. I suppose I do too.

And so, from baby-babble, to the garbled English of a little girl, to shaky pen strokes across hundreds of journals, and finally to the swift tapping of keys across my laptop, I have been telling stories. Inventing characters and their adventures has been the gift that has continued to give, so much so that it is what I now attend college for and will, if all goes according to plan, shape into a future career.

Writing is not easy. Don’t let anyone tell you different. While it is a skill that comes more naturally to some than others, it can be a grueling and excruciating process that may cause you to want to tear your hair out. Would this character eat beef stroganoff at this random little pub? The wedding scene was supposed to be at the center of the whole book, so why is it now so difficult to write? I thought putting my story in rural Russia would be a good idea, but now all the research behind it is growing tiresome. All these thoughts and more can burden the writer’s head. It’s unfortunate because we’re artists, and we don’t want to struggle with our stories but rather dance with them in a perfectly choreographed waltz of plot. Yet there can be a certain thrill to the struggle.

I enjoy staying up into the wee hours of the night agonizing over what some might consider to be pointless details. Does Rose wear pink lipstick or red lipstick on Fridays? How does she feel about Honey Nut Cheerios? She doesn’t currently have a dog in the story but if she did, what would she name him? I am one of those nut-job writers who doesn’t like to start writing until she feels she could write a separate memoir on their characters. It can be time-consuming and can stall the actual sitting-down part considerably. But hey, that’s my process.

The Role of the Book Editor

This brings me to my point: the editing bit and the intimacy of it all. Writers are sort of like rock stars or actors, while book editors are much like their agents. As writers, we get to be dramatic and hole ourselves up in our rooms babbling about our characters and how much they like Honey Nut Cheerios. We can spend a year or two shut in our room, clutching our manuscript to our chest and refusing to let anyone else see it. Sure, we can ask for the occasional bits of advice or even collaborate with a fellow writer, but for the most part, it’s just us and the book.

Enter the editor we’ve hired to make sure it’s not complete nonsense. They now have to look at the words we spent ages crafting, the characters we’ve shaped and groomed, the plot that we’ve (supposedly) perfected with a fresh pair of eyes and a mind that doesn’t necessarily understand our vision, and they have to tell us how to make the story better. In many ways, editors are the unsung heroes. They take the mess that only your best friend or spouse has seen and turn it into something worthy of the bookstore’s shelves.

As a writer who also does a lot of editing (mostly for my peers’ work) and has spent the summer learning about the various editing stages, I have found it to be an interesting and sometimes treacherous role to navigate. I often have to ask myself if I am really being partial and truly meeting the author on their terms. Can I let go of my qualms and let their world absorb me, or is my own writing style creeping into my edits? At what point am I changing things because it’s the way I do it versus the way it should be done? I sometimes struggle to let writers have their own style and not make any changes that I think would simply sound better.

As an editor, you have to approach your job with tact. You need to be assertive enough to give your writer the notes they need, but sensitive enough to realize that too many comments and criticisms can be overwhelming. I have been prone in the past to cover a fellow writer’s work with comments and edits. I’d like to think it’s not because I’m insensitive but rather because of my love of brainstorming. I like to get fully immersed in the worlds I read about, and therefore a slew of questions and ideas will often commence. Yet again, I have to ask myself if more details and different wording are really what the writer needs. or if it’s just my own inner writer coming out and trying to take over.

Editing is a balancing act that blends itself with intimacy. You have to get close with the writer’s material, let yourself get lost in it. If you can’t, or in contrast, you find certain details too overwhelming, that can be part of your editor’s critique. You must appreciate the unique perspective and atmosphere the writer provides, as well as push them to go further, be bolder, and lead them to places that others haven’t gone before. Editing is both a conversation with the writer and a command. You have to learn when to be firm when the writer insists upon something that simply doesn’t work, while also being careful not to destroy what makes their style unique and distinct. In doing this, you have to be careful, considerate, and perceptive. You have to pay attention to how your suggestions will affect the body of work.

Line Editing versus Developmental Editing

Did you know there are seven different types of editors? Each one provides a different service to writers and also coincides with the different phases of a book’s life cycle. I’ve learned that I am more drawn to line editing, which involves more of the busybody suggestions I like. I am also learning about developmental editing, which looks at the larger elements of the book like theme, plot, and pacing. I like to analyze these matters, too, but here I have to be more careful with my plentiful notes in the margins. Developmental editors don’t comment on every little thing. They can query an item but other than that, they must remain tight-lipped for the sake of their own time and the writer’s. Learning how to do this has been an excellent lesson in restraint.

All this is to say that the presence of input from both editor and writer on a piece of writing can be both harrowing and magical. As writers, we have to accept help from someone who might not know our exact vision, but we also must trust that their ideas could be greatly helpful. As editors, we have to remember that the piece of work we’re looking at is someone’s cherished project and patience is required, but at the same time, being too nice isn’t going to help either. It’s a balancing act that calls for a certain amount of intimacy.

The relationship can be rocky at first, but with the right amount of consideration by both writer and editor, the outcome can be a stunning collaboration that gives readers the smoothest possible ride.