Sturgis’s Law #4

This past spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #4:

“The check’s in the mail,” “I gave at the office,” “All this manuscript needs is a light edit”: Caveat Editor.

If you’ve forgotten all the Latin you ever learned or never studied it in the first place, “Caveat” means, roughly, “Watch out!”

brochure cover cropWhen someone tells you “The check is in the mail” or “I gave at the office,” your most likely response is skepticism. You know this because you have used variations on the same excuses yourself, right? I sure have.

It is true that all some manuscripts need is a “light edit.” These manuscripts are generally prepared by fairly experienced writers who have already run them by a few astute colleagues for comments and corrections.

When I and most of the working editors I know roll our eyes at “All this manuscript needs is a light edit,” it’s because the manuscript in question usually needs considerably more.

So what does “light edit” mean?

Nothing associated with editing has one clear-cut, hard-and-fast, universally understood definition, but “light edit” generally means copyedit, as described in “Editing? What’s Editing?”:

Let’s say here that copyediting focuses on the mechanics: spelling, punctuation, grammar, formatting, and the like. With nonfiction, it includes ensuring that footnotes and endnotes, bibliographies and reference lists, are accurate, consistent with each other, and properly formatted.

Once one starts dealing with matters of style and structure — snarly sentences, internal inconsistency, abrupt paragraph transitions, missing information, and so on — one has moved beyond the realm of the light edit.

Most of us are not the best judges of our own work. Good writers know this. When we think a story or essay is done, the very best we can do, we set it aside for a week or a month. When we come back to it, we see it with fresh eyes. Problems we missed before are now glaringly obvious, from typos to dangling participles to plot holes that could swallow a truck.  Often the fixes are just as obvious, thank heavens.

Outside editors come to the work with even fresher eyes, along with considerable experience in identifying and fixing problems in all sorts of manuscripts. They haven’t seen the previous drafts. They don’t know what you meant to say. They see only what’s there on the page.

So when you approach a prospective editor, don’t lead off with “All this manuscript needs is a light edit.” Describe the work and let the editor know what you want to do with it: submit it to a literary magazine or academic journal? find an agent? self-publish?

With a book-length work, fiction or nonfiction, an evaluation or critique is often the best place to start. Editing a book-length work takes time. This means it isn’t cheap. A good critique will point out the strengths of your ms. as well as any weaknesses that may exist. It will identify problems that you can fix yourself. It will let you know if this particular editor is a good match for you and your manuscript.

And if you’re an editor, the next time a prospective client approaches you with “All this manuscript needs is a light edit,” don’t snigger, raise your eyebrows, or roll on the floor laughing.

Because this time the author may be right.

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