The Power of Place

As a writer, I love revising and rewriting. As an editor, I do almost none of it. Critiques, yes. When a writer I don’t know asks me to edit a book-length manuscript, I generally suggest critique as a first step. I read the ms., make suggestions about plot, characterization, structure, and all that good big-picture stuff, but then the writer does the heavy lifting, not me.

For me, revising and rewriting is like first-drafting in that the ms. takes up residence in my head. My mind works on it when I’m not paying conscious attention. This is why character insights and solutions to plot snags often come to me when I’m walking with the dog or kneading bread.

I’ve learned that when I take on a revise-or-rewrite job as an editor, it often pushes my own writing out of my head. So I avoid developmental and structural editing and stick to stylistic editing, copyediting, and proofreading. (All these things go by different names. In “Editing? What’s Editing?” I explain what I more or less mean by them.)

But I recently (very recently, like this past week) took on a rewrite job for a client. It was short: a new, five-page prologue to a novel that’s been accepted for publication. I also knew the novel well, having worked on it in its earlier stages, and I believe in it.

I read the author’s five pages through. The plot was solid. It introduced key themes and characters that would be developed later. It segued neatly into chapter 1. Yeah, the point of view jumped around a bit, and there was a chunk of historical context recounted in a narrative voice that didn’t belong to any of the characters, but my rewriterly mind was already in gear, working out possible alternatives.

I called up the file. A 10-year-old boy is stretched out on the roof of his uncle’s house, using his BB gun to keep birds away from the abundant ripening grapes hanging from a trellis. I knew this kid well: the novel is his story. I could hear his older sister playing hopscotch in front of the house. But I couldn’t see what he was seeing because I’ve never been there and never even seen pictures of what this house, this neighborhood, this small town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, might have looked like in 1975, which is when the story begins.

For me as a writer, place is crucial. As I blogged in “The Importance of Place“; “Every story, remembered or made-up, takes place somewhere. Where it takes place affects what takes place, deeply, profoundly, deeply, indelibly. Characters, both fictional and nonfictional, are deeply affected by where they are and where they’ve come from. Images, characters, and whole plots grow out of the soil they take root in.”

Both place and time are critical to this particular novel: Lebanon in the spring of 1975 was on the brink of a bloody civil war that devastated the country for 15 years. That 10-year-old boy’s life will be radically transformed by this war, and the incident in the prologue is a harbinger of things to come. The prologue needed to show readers what he was seeing and hearing. How could that happen if I couldn’t see and hear it myself?

I emailed the author. We talked on the phone. How close together are the houses? How long is the driveway? Are the grapes used for eating or winemaking? What do the birds look like? Where have all the grownups gone? Is the garden in front of the house or in back? How big is the garden pond?

Finally, finally the scene began to play out in my head. My fingers moved on the keyboard and words appeared or rearranged themselves on my laptop screen. The scene stayed in the 10-year-old’s point of view. The historical context can be worked into a later chapter, but I couldn’t help noticing that it is subtly suggested here in the ripening grapes being threatened by birds while a boy tries to scare them off with his BB gun.

At this point I’m rarely surprised when place turns out to be the key to a scene, but I’m awed by writers who routinely bring to life periods they didn’t live in, places they’ve never been, and times and places that never existed. The research, the extrapolation, the imagination, the finessing of details that can’t be known for sure — it all has to be there, and seem so complete and inevitable that most readers barely notice.

Learn the Biggest Secret of Every Good Writer

This is good. No short-cuts. I’d add that growing as a writer means becoming more observant and more attentive to the world around you — and learning how to translate all that into words.

Business in Rhyme

secret_goodwriter

We all know that nobody is born as a good writer. It is a constant process of becoming. And I do believe that the difference between good and bad writers it’s not about the skill or gift. It’s not even about the number of written or published pieces. The key word we are looking for is persistence.

Good writer is writing – no matter how many times he fails or writes crappy work. He is there showing up every day, practicing and trying to improve himself. Not only writing, but everything that goes with writing.

In that sense, I think that biggest secret every good writer knows and we often forget is how good writer treats his bad writing. First, he takes time to write, erase, rewrite, edit, tailor every word to what’s need to be written. And how does he know what’s need to be written? He is…

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Going Public

Recently I critiqued two book-length manuscripts, both novels and both promising. Before the authors contacted me, no one else had read either manuscript all the way through.

I say this not because it’s unusual but because it isn’t. Writing may be a solitary activity, but publishing is not. To publish is, by definition, to make public. (I’m not kidding about this. Look it up.) To many aspiring writers it seems easier to imagine putting their work before hundreds or thousands of strangers than to share it with people they may know personally. Is it surprising that so many writers labor for years on a book-length manuscript and then choke when it comes time to start seeking a publisher?

Puppy Travvy (right) meets Chamois, a mature yellow Lab, spring 2008.

Puppy Travvy (right) meets Chamois, a mature yellow Lab, spring 2008.

Making our work public does not come easily to most of us. It does takes practice. Think of your work in progress as a puppy. Puppies do better when they get to meet other puppies, adult dogs, and people of various sizes. At the same time, their owners learn more about the pup’s personality and maybe what the pup could use in the way of socialization and training.

No, you don’t need to let your work in progress out of the house before it and you are ready, but do get used to putting your words out in public and (if you’re lucky) getting responses from readers. There are lots of ways to do this. Blog. Contribute to the blogs of others. Review the books you read on GoodReads. Write press releases for the organizations you’re active in or occasional stories for the local paper. Join or start a writers’ group. Etc.

I’ve been taking Wolfie, my novel in progress, to my writers’ group scene by scene since early on. This has been good practice for me because I’m perfectionist enough to be uncomfortable letting anything out of my sight before it’s done. Once I was well into draft 3, I decided chapter 1 was ready to go out before a public that hadn’t heard any of it before.

Fortunately the ideal venue for such forays exists at my town’s library. Writers Read, as it’s called, meets roughly once a month. Unlike the usual writers’ group, regular attendance is not expected, but it’s developed a core of regulars that offer stability while others drop in from time to time. Six or seven writers read at each gathering. To avoid listener fatigue, the time limit of nine minutes is firmly enforced by the moderator. This presents a challenge for writers of longer works, but even novels and memoirs generally include scenes that can stand on their own without too much explanation (which is included in the nine minutes).

Personal responses from listeners are encouraged, but this is not a critique group. “I was confused by this bit” is OK; “this is confusing” is not. The moderator enforces this too. It often happens that one listener loves what another listener is confused by. This might be the most valuable lesson any writer can learn from taking her work out in public: different readers may have wildly different reactions to the same passage, which means it’s up to the writer to decide what to do about it.

Most of the participants in Writers Read are writers, but non-writers and future writers are more than welcome. I suspect that venues like Writers Read help novice writers get their courage up, first to write and then to share their work.

If nothing like this exists in your area, try starting something yourself. All you need is a space, a bunch of writers interested in sharing their work, and a few ground rules to keep the gatherings friendly and fruitful.

Writers Read, November 2016, West Tisbury (Mass.) Free Public Library

Writers Read, November 2016, West Tisbury (Mass.) Free Public Library

Be Brave

Writing does take courage.

blank paper

The challenge of the blank page

It takes courage to sit down (or stand up, if you use one of those newfangled standing desks) expecting words to appear on the screen or sheet of paper in front of you, hoping that those words will be worth keeping or will lead to something that is.

It takes courage to set out on a journey not knowing whether it’s worth making (probably yes, though maybe not in the ways you expect) and whether you’re equal to the task (probably not, but if you keep going you will very likely become so).

Revision is a key to this process, especially for those of us who don’t plan everything out in advance, and for those of us who do but are willing to go along when the material has other ideas. (More about planners, seat-of-the-pantsers, and improvisation in “Whatever Works,” “Notes and More Notes,” and “Backstory Happens.”)

With nonfiction, I usually know where I’m going at the start but often I don’t end up in quite that place. With fiction, my usual is to put a few actors onstage, give them a task, and see what they do with it. I write it all down and sometimes give direction, which sometimes the actors ignore.

In “When Chitchat Takes the Wheel” I blogged about critiques I did recently of two first-novel manuscripts. Both were full of promise — vivid settings, interesting characters — but both bogged down in dialogue that went on forever and didn’t develop the characters or move the plot forward.

In one case, several characters held differing views about issues crucial to them and to the plot, but they never discussed them with each other. You and I both know how that works, right? When you strenuously disagree with someone you want to get along with, you skirt the contested territory and talk about other things. This makes for amiable relations but it does not make for interesting fiction. Be brave, I told the writer. Let them go at it and see what happens.

In the other case, the endless chitchat had a different cause: the protagonist had no memories from before her mid-teens, but her traumatic early years were key to the plot. Survivors of traumatic events do repress their memories,  but giving this character complete amnesia about her upbringing did not serve the novel well. Other people remembered what she did not, so (1) she was a sitting duck for the villain, and (2) she didn’t know enough to go in search of her own past. Be brave, I told this writer too. Let your protagonist have some of her life back.

I just finished reading a novel with a promising premise: a family’s determination to avoid dealing with a tragic event leads to problems down the road. This premise is common for good reason: it often happens in real life, and there’s so much a writer can do with it. But this writer made choice after choice that kept the tragic event at arm’s length, both for the characters and for the reader. For instance —

  • Everyone affected by the event is warned not to talk about it, ostensibly to protect the one who is supposedly too fragile to handle it.
  • They actually obey the warning.
  • The novel’s sole point-of-view (POV) character is fearful and not given to thinking too hard about the past or anything else.
  • The characters rarely interact on any but the most superficial level.

As a result, the characters don’t develop and neither does the plot. Each character has a shtick, and the dialogue is often clever, but the novel came across more as sitcom than as family drama. Not surprisingly, the writer had to resort to melodrama and last-minute surprises to tie everything together. The result is less than satisfying.

What would I have said if I’d been hired to critique this novel as a second or third draft? Let your characters have their memories and their voices back. Instead of one POV character, try it with three: the three who experience the tragic event as children and then grow up with the memories, the questions, and the silences. And don’t lock them in their closets, impervious to the world and each other. Challenge them! Challenge yourself!

Be brave.

When Chitchat Takes the Wheel

Dialogue is a challenge. It’s got to sound real, but it can’t be too real because in real life people often go on at great length without saying much of anything. If your characters go on at great length without moving the plot forward in some way, your readers will zone out. (For some tips about writing dialogue, see “4 Ways to Write Better Dialogue” and “Monologue About Dialogue.“)

I recently critiqued two first-novel manuscripts. Both were rich with promising material, and both bogged down in endless stretches of what I can only call chitchat: the protagonist talking with friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances about things that had nothing to do with plot or subplot.

What to do when you come upon long rambling dialogue while revising your own work or critiquing someone else’s? Here’s an idea: Ask what the writer is avoiding. (The writer, need I say, can be you.)

In one of the manuscripts I was working on, the chitchat was occasionally interrupted by passionate monologues by different characters (rarely the protagonist). These monologues had plenty to do with the plot, but they read like position papers, not fiction.

Travvy tries to persuade a tractor to move.

Travvy carries on a one-sided dialogue with an offstage tractor.

These monologues did serve an important purpose, however: they made it clear that the characters disagreed with each other strenuously and eloquently on issues that were not only important in themselves but closely related to major themes in the novel. I knew that this material could fuel riveting, even dramatic dialogue — if only the writer would let the characters engage with each other.

It wasn’t hard to see why this writer was reluctant to do this. Both she and her protagonist are dealing with explosive issues that people have a hard time talking about without blowing up.

Writing takes courage. Often when we set out on a journey we don’t know how much will be asked of us. If we did know, we might not take the first step. But as we travel, we become braver, more willing to open closed doors and break new trail. Revision works the same way: in revision, we develop not only the skill but the courage to grapple with the questions we’re asking of ourselves and our characters.

In the other manuscript I was critiquing, the same symptom — endless chitchat on topics peripheral to the novel — had a different cause. The protagonist remembered nothing of her traumatic childhood and early adolescence, and she was so ashamed of her later adolescence and young womanhood that she wouldn’t talk about it even to her husband and closest friends. This gave her little to talk about besides chitchat.

Worse, because her repressive upbringing was key to the plot, it made her a sitting duck for the villain, who wasn’t hampered by amnesia or reticence.

Survivors of violent and traumatic events often repress memories of those events, but though it’s possible that someone might have no memories of her first 15 years, it’s certainly not inevitable. Most important, it wasn’t an interesting choice for this particular character in this particular novel. Interesting choices open up possibilities. This particular choice closed them off.

I suggested that this writer give her protagonist increased access to her own past and the willingness to share some of the grim details with those she trusts. At the very least, it will give the protagonist something to talk about, and greatly cut down on the chitchat.

Dead Air

I seem to have taken up semi-permanent residence in Revisionland. Not only am I working on draft 3 of Wolfie, my own novel in progress, my recent jobs have included two critiques of first novels and a line edit whose structure needs a little tweaking. Editor that I am, with a fair amount of reviewing experience under my belt, I love revising and rewriting and recommending what other writers might do to improve their current drafts.

Most mornings I begin my writing session by lighting a candle or two, then picking The Writer’s Chapbook* from the table on my right, opening it at random, and reading the first quote that catches my eye. This morning the book opened to the “On Films” section, and my eye fell on a lengthy quote by novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. After noting that in the novels of William Faulkner (“who frequently had his shit detector dialed down to zero”) “wonderful streaks” often alternate with “muddy bogs” that need to be slogged through, he continues:

Everyone agrees that Faulkner produced the greatest streaks in American literature from 1929 to 1935 but, depending on how you feel about this, you either admit that there’s a lot of dead air in his works or you don’t. After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

From the mid-1980s till the end of the 1990s, I was very involved in community theater, mostly as a stage manager, actor, or reviewer. (No, I did not review plays I was involved in. However, I often reviewed plays directed or acted in by people I knew. This taught me tact. Whole other subject. I’ve written about reviewing before — see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy” — and surely will again.) No surprise, then, that when I’m writing fiction, I often feel like I’m blocking scenes or directing them and that my characters are doing improv up on stage.

Both of the first-novel manuscripts I critiqued recently hold plenty of promise, but both are currently weighed down with loaded with dead air. In both cases, much of the dead air is dialogue. To both authors I suggested: “Imagine you’re watching these scenes on a stage. Read them out loud. How long before you start to doze off, fidget, or throw tomatoes?”

A novel might survive “twenty mediocre pages,” as McGuane suggests, but five pages of dead air might well be fatal, especially if they come near the beginning, and especially if you’re a first-novelist trying to get past one of the gatekeepers: agent, publisher, reviewer, or even readers willing to give unknown writers a chance.

Put your talking, puttering-about characters up on stage or on a movie screen. How long would you sit still?

* * * * *

*The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers, ed. George Plimpton (New York: Penguin, 1989). I’ve got the revised, expanded version of the first edition. A completely overhauled edition was published in 1999, including some of the original excerpts but also more quotes from more recent and more diverse writers. Both editions are out of print but used copies can be found. That’s how I got mine. Highly recommended.

Revisionist

You bet I’ve got revision on the brain. There are books and websites a-plenty that will tell you how to go about revising your novel, memoir, essay, or whatever, but here’s what I’m doing. I can’t tell you what to do, but maybe this will give you some ideas.

Scribbles on the printout

Scribbles on the printout

In my writing time each morning I’m reading through draft #2 of the novel in progress, making notes on the printout and also preparing a longhand synopsis. In the synopsis, I go chapter by chapter, describing what happens in each scene in black cherry ink (a rather disappointing color, by the way: I was hoping for something that was more cherry and less black), then in red I scribble whatever occurs to me about where something might lead, what it reminds me of, or whether it might be better off somewhere else.

After a couple of hours of this, Travvy — on whom Wolfie, the title character of this novel, is based — and I go for a long walk. While I walk, scenes and fragments are usually churning, swirling, composting in my head. Sometimes an idea or insight will swoop in out of nowhere — or maybe they’ve been there all along waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

Synopsis in progress, with commentary

Synopsis in progress, with commentary

Re-vision: To see again, to see with new eyes, to see new possibilities.

A few months ago I blogged “Simplify: A Key to Revision.” My later drafts are mostly about simplifying — pruning whatever doesn’t enhance the story in some way. I’ll be doing some of that in draft #3, but at this point “the story” is still expanding and deepening so it’s often not clear what’s essential and what’s extraneous. Some of the latter bits turn out to be hidden doorways or the glinting of sunlight off something that needs exploring.

At this point Wolfie is still evolving. It’s a will o’ the wisp, out of reach but still reachable. Revision brings me closer to it.

My response to anyone who asks what Wolfie is about has been “It’s about a girl and a dog who need rescuing and how they rescue each other.” The very first scene I wrote brings together Glory (the girl), Wolfie (the dog), and Shannon (the rescuer). That scene, currently chapter 3, has changed very little since I wrote it, and it’s not likely to change in draft #3.

In the course of draft #2, however, Glory, a smart, artistically gifted sixth-grader who loves dogs and hates her stepfather, has become more guarded, more calculating. Felicia, her mother, has evolved from a two-dimensional figure whom I didn’t much like into a more complex and much more interesting character who may hold the key to the whole book. Shannon, who as an advocate for women and children in crisis is an old hand at rescuing, is contacted by the one person she couldn’t rescue: her younger sister, long-estranged refugee from the same violent, alcoholic family, now sober and wanting to make contact.

Rereading the early chapters of draft #2, I’m surprised to see that much prep work and foreshadowing for these themes is already there. It just took me a while to figure out where it was going.

I still don’t know how the novel ends, by the way. Draft #1 didn’t tell me, and draft #2 hasn’t either. Each draft has come closer, though, so maybe by the time I get close to the end of draft #3 I’ll know.

How will I know? That’s the question. I’m always saying “Your writing will teach you what you need to know,” which can sound terribly glib when your writing is staring you in the face and not saying anything. Mine does that too. Sometimes you just need to walk away and ignore it for a while.

Other times — well, learning to listen to your writing is part of the process too. Since I’m an editor as well as a writer, it probably won’t surprise anybody that I like revising more than first-drafting. First-drafting is like breaking trail. Revising is working with something that’s already there — and that’s what I do for a living. I’ve come to expect each new manuscript, be it academic paper or memoir or novel, to tell me what it needs, and it nearly always does. Same goes for my own stuff.

Reviewing other people’s books can be useful too: It focuses your attention on the big picture and how the pieces fit together. Trouble is, really good books often seem inevitable, and you don’t see any of the drafts that got them to that point. With works in progress or less accomplished works, it’s easier to see the gaps and the missed opportunities. This is why I heartily recommend writers’ groups, if you can find or start one that works for you, and sharing work in progress informally with other writers. Reviewing, evaluating, and critiquing other writers’ work will make you better able to hear what your own writing is trying to tell you.

Sturgis’s Law #7

ink blot 2Last 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 #7:

It’s hard to see the whole when you’re up too close, and easy to see unity when you’re too far away.

Notice how some people will make sweeping generalizations about huge groups of people they know very little about, then call you on every generalization you make about their people?

That’s what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about. This is a presidential election year in the United States — lucky you if you haven’t noticed — and generalizations are running amok. Generalizations are often made about groups of people the generalizer doesn’t particularly like. Conservatives generalize about liberals, liberals about conservatives, Democrats about Trump supporters, Sanders supporters about Clinton supporters, gun control advocates about gun owners . . .

When anyone generalizes about “Americans,” all 320 million of us, I look around my town of fewer than 3,000 souls and realize I’d have a hard time making a generalization about us, other than “we all live in West Tisbury.”

Sturgis’s Law #7 has several applications for writers and editors. Here’s one: You’ve got a grand idea for a story or novel or essay. You map it out in your head. Then you sit down to write it — and you immediately realize how little you know about the details necessary to create images in the reader’s mind.

Here’s another: You’re so fascinated by the research you’re doing for your project that you lose sight of, and maybe interest in, the project itself.

And here’s yet another, this time from the editorial side: When I’m copyediting — reading line by line watching for typos, pronouns with unclear referents, sentences that swallow their own tails — I probably won’t notice that a compelling scene in chapter 4 really needs to come earlier. But if I’m critiquing, considering the work as a whole, I’ll probably skip over the typos or even miss them completely. In fact, if I’m too conscious of typos, it’s either because I’m not paying enough attention to the big picture or because the typos are so numerous they’re distracting me from my job.

Many editors specialize in either “big picture” structural editing or sentence-by-sentence language editing, but even those who do both won’t try to do both at the same time. Wise writers do likewise. When you start revising, don’t obsess about typos and subject-verb agreement. Deal with those when the work’s structure is solid. If you share your near-final drafts with volunteer readers, make it clear that you want them to read, not proofread — unless one of them is a crackerjack speller, in which case you may want to let him or her have at it.

In traditional publishing, a manuscript passed through several editors on its way to becoming a book. Once the structure was sound, the focus moved on to the paragraphs and sentences, then to the words, and finally the proofreader went hunting for the details that had eluded everyone else. The result probably wasn’t error-free, but it came pretty close.

Such attentiveness, however, is time-consuming and expensive, beyond the reach of most self-publishers and many small and not-so-small presses. Still, it’s possible to get excellent results by keeping Sturgis’s Law #7 in mind. Both distance vision and tight focus are important, but don’t expect yourself or your editor to catch everything on one pass through your manuscript.

***********

Serendipitously, I just came across this passage in The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century’s Preeminent Writers, edited by George Plimpton (New York: Random House, 1999). It’s full of pithy comments by all sorts of writers on all sorts of writing-related subjects. It’s also out of print, alas. I got it on interlibrary loan. Anyway, this bit from novelist Michael Crichton illustrates what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about:

In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room, and you have to assume the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

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.

What Is Editing Worth?

Ask a bunch of editors what good editing is worth and they’ll probably reply that it’s invaluable, priceless, and indispensable.

Listen to us talk for a while and we’ll probably get around to the books we’ve read that were either abysmally edited or (probably) not edited at all. What’s the matter with those writers? we wonder. How can they put their names on something that’s so disorganized or riddled with typos and grammatical errors?

Being both a writer and an editor, I think about this a lot. “Value” is a shifty word in English. “Valuable” and “invaluable” mean more or less the same thing. Plenty of value can’t be measured in money, but when you have to pay for it, money has to be considered. Editing has monetary value to me as an editor because it pays the rent. For me as a writer, whatever I spend on editing is money I can’t spend on book design, cover illustration, and marketing. Besides, I can do it pretty well myself.

The inescapable fact is that editing can’t be automated. If some outfit promises to “edit” your 300-page manuscript for a dollar a page, you can be sure that they’re not doing much more than running a spellchecker and a grammar checker through it, and maybe cleaning up the formatting. In my book that’s not editing: it’s word-processing.

Depending on what level of editing is called for, editing involves going through your manuscript page by page, line by line, even word by word. This is not like reading for pleasure. It takes time. For a book-length work, it takes a lot of time. Hypothetical example: Take a 300-page,  75,000-word manuscript. (In publishing, a page is conventionally reckoned at 250 words.) If the ms. is well written and has no structural problems, a good copyeditor might be able to clock 10 pages per hour. That’s 30 hours’ worth of work. Say the copyeditor is charging $30 an hour. (Some charge more, some charge less, but you can get a good copyeditor for $30/hour.) That’s $900 right there.

A manuscript that, as we say in the trade, “has problems” will take longer to edit. At 5 pages/hour, that’s 60 hours. At $30/hour, that’s $1,800. If the problems are serious enough, you may have trouble finding an editor who’ll work for only $30/hour. There are few things more frustrating than being asked to copyedit a manuscript that has structural problems. It’s like frosting a cake that’s collapsed in the middle and didn’t taste all that good to start with.

I don’t know about you, but $1,800 would put a huge dent in my budget, even if I could pay it off over time. I’m never surprised when a writer has sticker shock at an estimate for editing. Editors can say that editing is “priceless” and “invaluable” because we’re not paying for it. When a service costs that much, “priceless” and “invaluable” go out the window. Writers who are paying out of pocket — and this includes me — are up against a harder question: “What is editing worth to me?”

It depends. It really is OK to say “not much” or “I’d love to hire an editor but I have to win the lottery first.” Here are some things to think about:

  • Do you want your work to be read by people who don’t have to read it? Do you want them to spend their hard-earned money on your book?

If the answer to these questions is no, you don’t need an editor, so editing may not be worth all that much to you. On the other hand, it might be. I spend my hard-earned money on things I don’t need. (Ask me about the two fountain pens I just scored off eBay. And don’t ask me how much money I’ve spent over the years on training and competing with my dog.)

If the answer is yes, or maybe, or “I’m not sure,” consider the following questions.

  • How good are you at spelling and punctuation?
  • How much experience have you got? How good are you, period? (Be honest now.)
  • Are you in a good writers’ group or otherwise sharing your work with competent and honest writers?
  • What are your plans for your work?
  • Is your work likely to bring in any money? Enough money to make editing worthwhile from a financial standpoint? (Be realistic here. If you’re writing fiction or poetry, the answer is probably no.)
  • What are your goals and priorities as a writer?

And here are some strongly held personal opinions on the subject:

If you aren’t a crackerjack speller and/or you aren’t confident with punctuation, you need help — especially if you plan to submit work to journals, agents, or publishers. These gatekeepers are swamped with far more submissions than they can use. They are looking for reasons to reject incoming manuscripts. Sloppy spelling and punctuation is painfully easy for a competent editor or agent to spot. You might be able to get the help you need from a talented amateur who won’t charge for her time. It depends on how talented and how generous your friends are.

An old printer’s adage: “Cost, speed, quality: Pick any two.” This means, for example, that if you spring for a low price and a fast turn-around time, the quality will probably be less than stellar. If you want a high-quality job done ASAP, expect to pay a premium price for it. This applies to writing too. If you the writer are willing to put in the time, in classes, writers’ groups, and/or self-study, you can get by with less editing. You will also be better able to choose the right editor for your work if you decide to hire one. Just sayin’ . . .

And here’s some free advice for anyone working solo on a book-length manuscript, fiction or nonfiction. Even if you’re cheap, even if your disposable income is barely in positive numbers — think seriously about hiring a pro to critique it. Critiquing costs a lot less than editing because the critiquer is reading your manuscript the way a reviewer might, not going through it line by line. The critiquer will identify both strengths and problems. She’ll probably have suggestions about fixing the problems — but it’s up to you to do the work.

I’ve read several novels in the last year or so that read like good first drafts. Lots of good raw material, but plot holes abounded. Characters did implausible things just because the author said so. Backstory was dumped here, there, and anywhere. Tantalizing leads were introduced — and then dropped. And so on. These are things that can be dealt with in revision, but these novels all went to press in various states of disarray. One of these novels, by the way, was published by a major trade publisher, probably on the strength of the author’s reputation in nonfiction.

Maybe that’s “good enough”? Maybe it is. But ask yourself: When you start reading a book and realize that the author has cut corners, do you keep reading? If you get through to the end, do you recommend the book to a friend? Do you write a glowing online review?

Good editing is expensive, but sometimes it really is worth the money. Your call.