All Your Edits Are Belong To Us

It’s stupid o’clock at night and I’m up and staring, bleary-eyed, at a monitor filled with prose.

I am inserting commas and full stops, changing tenses, and occasionally leaving what I later realize to be horrifically acidic commentary in the margins – calling out a character’s actions, bringing up the effect the writer’s having on me, as a reader, and advising as to whether I feel that’s the appropriate effect for the moment.

I’m in the middle of editing another writer’s first novel. I am fucking tired, and I’m terrified I’m going to miss a typo’d pronoun.

There’s not a lot I can say about editing that isn’t going to make me sound like a jerk. I’ve done it for over a decade. I’ve done it professionally. I’ve done it and gotten paid for doing it (and yes, I can send you a rate sheet).

I’ve edited as part of teaching undergraduate journalism. I’ve edited my own work, I’ve edited the work of my peers, and a few months ago on this blog I re-edited part of The Hunger Games to highlight  the entirely lackluster job done by its editor.

I tweet Twitterers from my home stream and correct their grammar, and call out people I’ve never met before (and whose points I agree with) because they’re lazy with their language in conversation. My excuse? “It’s the editor in me.”

This marks the first time I’ve ever edited someone else’s novel. It wasn’t easy, but it was a hell of a lot easier than writing a blog post about editing. Because what can you say about editing?

You’re essentially telling a parent with a pretty decent kid – all the limbs, everything where it should be, no vestigial body parts and no major diseases – that their happy, healthy kid isn’t good enough yet. You’re pointing out every pimple, every crooked tooth, too-short eyelashes, the pouches of fat around the kid’s middle. “You don’t say that like that,” you say. “Wait. Wait. Take an extra beat there before you keep talking.” It’s like pageantry coaching, only on the page instead of the stage.

Now imagine you’re doing this to the firstborn child of one of your close friends. And as much as you respect your friend’s dedication to their child’s career, there are a few things that could really up her chances of winning. Or in this case, honing a successful and clear representation of the author’s original intention, in the author’s voice, plus finding all his typos. And you don’t just have a responsibility to the parent who hired you, you also have a responsibility to the book itself (or the toddler and her beloved tiara). If you slack or try to spare feelings, it will ultimately hurt more than it helps.

I’ve been reading pieces and versions of this book for a few years now. I’ve seen a couple different incarnations of the book, and I’ve peeked in intermittently, over the years, on the journey the author’s had in writing and now self-publishing it. This time, I fixed typos, changed pronouns, and did my best to help make the experience of reading the book frctionless. It was the first time I sat down and read the book all the way through. Beginning to end.

Saying anything more would be spoilers.

5 responses to “All Your Edits Are Belong To Us

  1. Hmm, sounds like the kind of editing my book could use.

  2. I think editing a novel is like breaking out the knife to perform a circumcision on a baby, and, opps, end up with a sex change operation, a face lift and a haircut. (“Yes, lady, that’s a fine looking monkey you have there.”) At least, that’s how my first and only abandoned novel turned out. I can still hear it cry at night from the back of the filing cabinet.

    As for editing someone else’s novel, I wouldn’t go there. Some writers don’t want their baby looking like a monkey. 🙂

  3. 🙂 And at some point when I finish a novel that is both fiction and not romance, I want your rate sheet. In the meantime, feel free to lose the one you have from me – it needs to be shelved for a few years before it sees the light of day once more.

    In other news, I recommended this blogpost to a friend who wrote a marvelous novel and who about died when I gave her just the beginning of some serious editorial commentary. The way you spoke of the process was quite helpful – how a novel can be both marvelous and badly in need of editing.

    Thank you.

  4. Pingback: An Exercise in Editing, or, Why The Hunger Games Makes My Eyes Bleed | I Wrote ThisI Wrote This

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