What to Expect from an Editor, Part 1.

Now that I am offering editing to independent authors, here are some thoughts about what I think you should expect from a literary editor. Part 1 is about editing and editors. Part 2 will be about what services I think an editor should provide, and what you should expect your editor to do with your text.

Part 1: What makes an Editor

What is a Good Book? I'm sure the reply is pretty much unanimous: a good book is subjective, personal. But just as I can tell a good violinist from a bad one, although I know nothing about playing the violin, so most people can recognize a bad book. So can most people be editors? I don't think so. Most people can be proofreaders*, however.

Who is a good editor? Derek Prior and I both studied drama theory, and in the course of our studies learned the craft of textual analysis. Textual analysis arises on the one hand from the kind of literary criticism developed by F. R. Leavis and his contemporaries, and on the other hand from the desire to apply scientific rigour to the study of literature. I have applied textual analysis in every type of work and writing that I have done**. A good editor needs to be able to combine his analytic skill with a deep understanding of what makes a story work.

What makes a story work? This is not as hard to pin down as what makes a good book, because what makes a story work is contextual rather than subjective. I have read manuscripts that contain no story - just a series of related events. Sometimes this results from the naturalistic fallacy (that I will discuss another time), sometimes just from narrative incompetence. Narrative incompetence is the inability to tell a story. As long as your manuscript features a story, your story can be made to work. How to make it work means getting down to the nuts and bolts of narrative mechanics, and putting right what is obviously wrong. Sometimes an editor's work is limited to this, but this alone does not make a good editor.

So what makes a good editor? A good editor needs to know what makes a good writer. After all, an editor needs clients, and a client who is a good writer will be good publicity for an editor. So a good editor will be able to show a writer not only how to improve his book, but how to become a better writer.

* The techie culture surrounding indie publishing has made "beta-reader" the favoured term. Literally, 'proof read' means 'test read'. A proofreader is someone who reads as if they are the intended reader, whether for pleasure, information, study, who is able so state, thereafter, whether the book met their need.
** In French academia, there is a vast, rich, and mostly redundant vocabulary of technical terms that can be applied in textual analysis. I try to steer clear of this kind of thing, though some of the terms are indispensable.


Anonymous said...

"Most people can be proofreaders*, however."

Does this mean,

"Most people can be proofreaders, though"?


"Most people can be proofreaders, nevertheless"?


"Most people can be proofreaders, in some way"?

I am unclear of the meaning of the word, "however", in this context. Perhaps you could enlighten me?

Unknown said...

What it doesn't mean is "in some way". Use of 'however' in this sense is still current in some parts of the USA, but in British English, 'however' at the end of a clause (rather than as a conjunction) usually means something like "whatever else might have been inferred", which means the meaning is closest to your suggestion 'nevertheless' - but 'nevertheless' felt too strong in the context.

(This "literal" use of 'however' is restricted to the idiom "however you look at it" and variations of this.)

I consciously blog in British English, and I don't usually deviate from my normal way of speaking when I blog. If I were writing this as a commercial piece in international English, I would have taken more time to say it more explicitly.

I think in the structure of the paragraph I have implied that criteria for being a good editor are quite prescriptive, whereas I think the same is not true for the activity of proofreading. There are people whose full time occupation is proofreading but what they do is very varied.

It's curious that I'm quite comfortable putting 'however' or 'nevertheless' at the end of a clause like this, but I would not be comfortable using 'though' as anything other than a conjunction, and even then, I usually use 'although'.

I've no idea if I can enlighten you. But I hope this makes my meaning a little clearer without open up too many more cans of worms.

Mike Dennis said...

Harry edits my novels and I couldn't ask for a better, more thorough job. Professionalism at the highest level.

Anonymous said...

Found your blog through Kindleboards, very interesting articles, thanks for sharing your knowledge!

Please remove the fricking Captcha from your comment section, bloody annoying.

Unknown said...

Thanks. I only put the Captcha on recently as I hate it myself, but I started getting too much spam.

Anonymous said...


I had not idea that proofreader and beta-reader were synonymous. I do know that beta means that something is in the testing stage, so I send a manuscript (book in the beta stage) to beta-readers. That manuscript can still be significantly changed: names changed, scenes added or deleted, that kind of thing.
After I implemented the feedback from the beta-readers, I proofread the manuscript myself and turn it into an ARC for my reviewers.

So, I can proofread my own book, but I cannot beta-read it.

Unknown said...

That's an interesting quibble, and probably a correct one. In the old days, the author was one of the people who proofread. I'm not saying the term "beta-reader" shouldn't exist; and it looks like you've justified its existence!