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Editor Abigail Nathan Interview – Part One

“There is no good writing, only good rewriting.”

The writers among you will have heard this many times. Likely you’ve heard different variations of it, but the message is the same: First drafts are about getting something down on paper. It will be rough. It will probably stink. But it’s simply part of the process. The craft of writing comes afterwards—in rewriting, and revising, and editing. Whittling the words on the page into something of beauty. This is where the editor comes in.

A professional editor, Abigail Nathan of Bothersome Words Writing and Editing Services works with clients ranging from large publishers to individual authors looking to improve their manuscripts. She’s also worked on a whole heap of terrific fantasy works so far (and at least one that aspires to be great—*cough*), and is a big fan of the genre. So who better to bring in to Fantasy-Faction to talk about all things editing!

So what led you to becoming an editor?

I loved reading from the very first moment it “clicked” in my head that shapes and words on a page could string together into a story. I think I was lost to a life happily sandwiched inside a book cover from that moment. I spent so much time recreating other people’s worlds in my imagination, I guess it was inevitable that I’d want to be an editor as soon as I learned there was a job where people paid you not just to read, but to tinker about with other people’s stories.

For those new to the game—or simply have the wrong end of the stick—what IS editing and how does the role fit within publishing?

I think a lot of people think editing is just this tedious exercise of checking spelling and correcting grammar. But I believe it’s physically impossible to write without editing. There can’t be many people who just sit down and write exactly what they mean with no rethinking necessary on the first go of their first draft. Any time you’ve read back over what you’ve written and crossed out a line or even a plot point, or you’ve changed a character’s eye colour or occupation or, hell, checked for typos or swapped one word for a better sounding one…that’s editing. Writing more than one draft? That’s editing.

Editing is really just the process of refining and perfecting your idea.

In terms of how it fits within publishing, well, the sort of editing I do – which is structural editing, copy editing and proofreading – is all about the book. There is a perspective shift, depending whether I am working for a publisher or an author, but my role is always to make sure the book is the best it can be.

If I am working for a publisher, it might be a case of ensuring that the book meets their needs in terms of audience expectations, marketability, etc. as well as making sure the quality is high and style needs are met. If I am working for the author the focus is often less about the marketability and audience (although I do keep those in mind) and more about making sure that what they had in their head is what’s on the page and that they’re telling the “right” story the best way possible.

So how does editing differ from something like proofreading?

Proofreading is what most people think of when they hear the word editing. In theory it is the very last step before you go to print or hit the publish button. You are supposed to be looking at the final, cleaned-up document and just picking out the last few typos and any formatting problems.

Proofreading really is more about error checking. It’s the final polish. Whereas editing is more about developing and refining and story and flow. Proofreading doesn’t (or shouldn’t) worry about plot or character.

Are there different types of editing?

Not only are there different types of editing, but the definitions are not all unanimous. Different publishers, especially in different countries, have varying expectations of editing types. Some of the terms cross over, but they don’t necessarily mean the same thing if you are in the US rather than Australia or the UK. It is important to clarify what you mean by a term when you are working with someone new.

With that in mind, these are some of the terms you tend to hear:

Manuscript Assessment
Usually something newer writers want, to check whether their manuscript is ready to submit to agents or publishers. It used to be done right at the end of the process when an author had done all the editing and polishing they thought was necessary and just wanted a hint as to whether or not it was ready and what its chances might be. These days, assessments are often also done at much earlier stages, so authors, especially those self-publishing, can get an idea of how much more work is necessary. Sometimes it’s to check whether someone from the industry thinks they have the talent or the basis of a story to make it worthwhile chasing their dream; sometimes they want to get an idea how much editing they are likely to need to do/pay for! It’s generally just a report that summarises the key storylines and outlines significant plot/story/character/style concerns or successes.

Substantive or developmental editing
This is the big picture edit. Often it takes the form of a detailed report or letter, rather than a hands-on edit. This will analyse, and suggest changes or adjustments for, any issues with plot; characterisation (do motivations and reactions make sense? Do the characters “work” and are they believable?); structure (does it start in the right place? Focus on the right characters?); style (do we head hop too much? Is the writing too complicated to make sense?); worldbuilding (do we know where we are and how the magic works? Does the geography work? How do people live in this place?) And so on. It’s all the big stuff that goes into making your story a story. It can result in major rewrites, which is why it is ideally completed prior to a copyedit.

Copyediting
This is a closer, more micro view than structural editing. Likely plot, tone, characterisation and worldbuilding will come into this, but copyediting is more about sentence construction, spelling, grammar, readability, etc. This is where your dangling modifiers, confusing segues, misused words, and awkward phrasing get sorted out. But because it’s a tighter view, the editor will also check for sense (why are we in a different tense now?) motivation (why would she steal that car?) continuity (that character is wandering the streets naked – should he have got dressed after his bath?) and so on. This is marked up on the manuscript. Sometimes on paper but usually using the track changes function in a word processor. An edit letter or report usually accompanies this edit to expand on any complicated issues or repeated errors – and to reinforce what works as well!

In the US particularly (in my experience, at least) some of the terminology and expectations are a bit different…

Content editing
Is a bit like a mix of developmental and copyediting. This is a really deep, hard clean-up of the manuscript. As above, anything to do with plot and character and worldbuilding is worked on, but by the end of a content edit – which may take several rounds – the manuscript should be pretty clean for the copy editor or line editor.

Line editing
Is pretty much what it sounds like. The editor will go through the manuscript line by line checking for spelling and grammar issues, ensuring house style and preferred dictionary/style guide rules are followed, as well as checking every line for sense.

Readers’ reports
Are not quite manuscript assessments but rather short reports giving readers’ feedback to an author. These might be done by a publisher or agent, or a writer may have critique partners that complete these for them. Such a report usually lists the things that did and didn’t work for the reader, what they liked and what they didn’t. It’s a bit like getting a report from a test audience.

That’s it for part one. In the next instalment we talk about working with writers and dishing out critiques.

Title image by kparks.

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  1. […] Welcome back to part two of our interview with professional editor Abigail Nathan of Bothersome Words Writing and Editing Services. In this section we talk more about working with writers and publishers. If you missed Part One, you can read it here. […]

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