Editing is one of the Dark Arts of publishing. For proofreading and copyediting, there are books and courses that explain all the quirks and twists, but editing – and by this, I mean structural editing, where you take somebody’s manuscript and help them make it better – does not fit this model. For me, editing is where the magic happens. And editing has a lot in common with magic: it takes a lot of practice, and it works best when you see its effects, but not the details of how it was done.
With this in mind, I’m going to share with you five secrets that I think will help you become a better editor.
1) Stay focused on the brief and the audience
Chances are, if you’re an editor, you’re also a voracious reader who is passionate about good writing. Your personal response to what you read is going to guide you and keep you truthful, but it’s vital that you put your own opinions in perspective. Before you begin, ask yourself: What is the purpose of this book? Who is it for? Keep these questions in your mind for the whole course of the edit. They will keep you grounded and ensure that the comments you make are relevant to the project and helpful to the author.
2) Remember: it’s a dialogue
You’ve got your own opinions and your view of the book’s intended audience, and now you’ve got lots of observations to share with the author. Great. But it’s not a one-way street. It’s very rare that you’ll be issuing blanket instructions: Do this. Change that. You’re part of a process; you’re aiming to understand what the author wanted to achieve, and then you’re going to suggest how they can achieve that same result in an even better way. Pitch your ideas as suggestions, place them in the context of the book’s purpose and readership, and allow the author to respond.
As long as your ideas aren’t mad, the author is likely to receive them positively – and you need to leave the door open so that the author can say, from time to time, ‘Yes, I see what you mean but I think it works better my way, because…’ After all, you may be totally brilliant but even brilliant people get it wrong occasionally.
3) Look out for what the author doesn’t say
Of all the secret tips, this is my favourite. When you’re reading a text, the natural tendency is to think about how you could change it to make it better: take a joke and make it funnier, or take a piece of dialogue and make it sound more natural. But one of the smartest things an editor can do is look out for what isn’t there. Like Sherlock Holmes, sometimes you have to listen out for the dog that didn’t bark.
For example, if you’re reading a travel narrative, perhaps the author describes everything that happened but they never write about the landscape, the scents, the sounds of the place they’re going through. Or perhaps they tell you what happened but not how it made them feel. You can bring your perspective as a fresh reader of the author’s text, and one who’s steeped in their genre, to ask them to fill in the blanks and make the story more complete.
4) Timing is important
‘What’s the secret of good comedy timing.’
That’s a joke that works a lot better in speech than writing, but it was so relevant here that I had to try it on you. The point is that you can really steal your own thunder if you don’t get your timing right.
It’s not just obvious chronology slip-ups that you need to watch out for – the kind where a person gets married on Friday morning and walks out into the Thursday afternoon sunshine – but also those ‘give the game away’ moments. Some authors will tell you at the start of every adventure, ‘As I was to discover later, X would be a terrible mistake.’ You must – very politely – scream at them ‘DON’T TELL US YET! TELL US WHEN IT HAPPENS!’ You will feel better and the readers will thank you. Or they would if they knew anything about you. Which they probably never will because you are a hidden practitioner of the Dark Arts of Editing. Sorry about that.
5) Share the love
This is probably the single most important thing you need to do when you’re editing: tell the author what you love about their book. Don’t just hand out a one-size-fits-all love-bomb, but tell them which bits made you laugh or cry, which descriptions took you right into the heart of the action, which sentences took your breath away because they were simply so beautiful.
The author has achieved something amazing already: it’s so important that you express your delight in their work, and don’t just deluge them with your million and one ideas for making the book even better. Imagine how pleased you feel when someone loves what you do, and give that feeling back to the author you’re working with.
This blog by Abbie Headon was originally posted on BookMachine in 2015.