What does it take to be a Literary Editor?
First of all: what is a Literary Editor?
A writer writes – say – a fiction novel. This could be the work of a month, a year, a decade. It’s a toil of passion, experience, research, time, energy, blood, sweat and tears. After what seems an age, they have a completed manuscript. They go over it, chopping bits out, adding other bits, tweaking here, fixing there. They sit back and re-read it any number of times, continually fixing and tweaking as they go, but having been so close to it for so long, objectivity might be a little difficult. They fuss over sentences that might not sit quite right, even though they can’t work out how better to say it. They leave it, frustrated. Maybe that’s the only way to express that particular circumstance or sentiment. They sit back and scan through the rest. It works. The story is there. It’s good. In transforming it from a good job to a great one though, they need help.
Answer: beta reader! Fresh eyes!
A beta reader (also known as a proof reader) will go through the manuscript, and will find any errors in structure, character development, underlying messages, even some grammar. With their feedback, the writer can revise, rebuild, rewrite and generally bring to the project what it needs to feel right.
Answer: an editor! Yay!
A Literary Editor (also known as a Developmental Editor or Substantive Editor, depending on specifics) will provide that level of critical analysis that turns an okay work into a commercially attractive asset. They will mercilessly trawl through every element of the novel, correcting as they go. That’s right – they rewrite where necessary. They’re like a guardian angel ghost-writer.
The thing is, they charge like a wounded bull for their effort, so the more highly polished and problem-free the manuscript is before it hits their desk, the better. In saying that, Editors are worth their weight in gold, as it is their critical eye that can make the difference between rejection slip and congratulatory letter.
Keep in mind, the results of their effort may not even be what goes to print – a publisher may choose to allocate their own in-house Manuscript Editor on top of the Developmental Editor to ensure the novel’s language and structure is in keeping with preferred standards or styles (these are paid for by the publisher, their cost recouped from revenues generated by sales of the novel). What a Developmental Editor will do however is focus on story, dialogue, points of view, plot, grammar, syntax, character development, pacing and anything else that will ensure when a publisher reads the first page (and subsequent), they’re convinced the author is one worth investing their time and energy in.
Editing is – aside from when I’m writing myself – what I feel like I should be doing. Recently I was sent excerpts of other people’s works and edited them. Mindful of language, tone and the author’s voice, what I sent back turned out to be pretty well appreciated, even if I do say so myself. I seem to have that fastidious, obsessive-compulsive nature that means nothing gets past me. Must be my Asperger’s. Curiously I can’t do it for my own work, but anybody else’s – no problem. I expect that’s what it takes to be an editor for anything – literary works, movies, magazine copy, anything involving quantity of content.
Not for a moment do I reckon I could edit just anything – technical papers or corporate reports, in fact most non-fiction requiring prior knowledge of the subject matter would be well outside my comfort zone; but I have read enough fiction, good and bad, to know what I like, what works well and what sits comfortably within my relatively broad sensibilities. I also have what I’d like to think of as a reasonably solid grasp of the English language, which helps too.
My first step is to determine whether being an editor is something I should do by myself, or if it’s something I might do as a contractor to an established publishing house. The trick will be to find someone who needs an editor.
I guess the first thing to do would be to build a bit of a portfolio, and go from there.
I have to do something to earn a crust within the confines of my limited health. This isn’t a bad way to do it.