Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.

An Editor’s Job

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

An editor’s job is to make you sound great. It’s that simple. Editors do this by applying the rules of grammar, by wielding punctuation to best advantage, and by making sure that your prose makes sense. I can’t talk too much about how other editors work, so I’ll talk about what I do when I get some text to edit. Remember, I am a developmental (or substantive) editor; a copyeditor’s involvement with your text is considerably less. I make several passes: the first is mainly for context, the second is for grammar and punctuation (copyediting), and the third is to edit my own comments and make the text itself pretty. Sometimes I need more passes than that.

The Context Pass

If I can get an outline that was approved by the publishing entity, that’s great. If I can’t, the first thing I do is pull an outline out of the piece by creating another document and copying all the headings and their levels into it. I look for some obvious organization to the piece and that all the headings seem to point toward the conclusion promised by the title. Out of context of the text like this, I can also tell whether or not the headings are overly clever and don’t reveal the content of the section. (I’m not anti-clever, I’m just pro- clear.) If I find that an approved outline has been reorganized, I don’t worry as long as all the topics are represented. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell where you’ll need to explain things until you’re actually writing it. I also flag manufacturer’s outline items that didn’t rate a heading, to make sure they’re included in the text somewhere. Uncovered material gets a comment from me to the author. Perhaps the feature was obvious or unnecessary, or perhaps even not relevant, once the writing was under way. It’s my job to make sure that it wasn’t an inadvertent omission. If I find that the outline I pull out of the text doesn’t have a linear order, I keep my outline document handy, doodle all over it about where I think things might go, and then make notes in the actual text as I edit the actual text. Next, I read through any style sheets. (A future blog will cover creating and using these.) Knowing how the publisher wants numbers, commas, and product names before I begin can save a lot of re-editing. Then I turn on my Track Changes feature (if it’s a Microsoft Word document) and enable Comments. It’s time to start through the text. As I begin reading the Introduction, I look for a clear explanation of what readers will learn. If it’s necessary to explain what products are needed to follow along any code or construction activities, I check the manufacturer’s Web site to see if they agree. I also look for how the manufacturer refers to the product (is it MS Word, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Word for Windows, or Microsoft Word 2003, for example?). In an introduction, I hope to find a semblance of the outline for the piece (the steps we’ll take to get to the conclusion), which should pretty much repeat the promise of the title. I absolutely look for some announcement (implicit or literal) of the organization principle (see my blog on Organizing Principles). If I don’t, I know I’m in for a bumpy ride because the author may have—gasp—written the introduction first and then not revised to accommodate the actual work. Or maybe even worse, the introduction DOES reflect the construction of the piece and I’ll have to impose some order on everything. As I read through the rest of the text, I try to find holes in the logic. If you mention a product that you didn’t name in the introduction or if you say “click on X” without telling me where I am when I click, I’ll notice. If you say something is a certain way on screen and then provide an image of that screen that doesn’t agree, I’ll notice. If you say there are three and then list five, I’ll notice. To some degree, I look at your code and step lists, and make sure that you can actually get there from here. I don’t claim any technical expertise (unless you want to talk about Gregorian Chant), but I know logic when I trip over it. (The late Rudy Langer said, “I don’t have to be able to lay an egg to know a bad one.”) I also look for clarity of language in this first pass. It’s true that I can’t help myself; I tend to repair a fair amount of grammar and punctuation on this first pass because I find it hard to read past. (You don’t want to borrow books from me unless you’re a big fan of marked-up pages. Even fiction. I haven’t found the off switch for this feature yet.) Basically, the context pass is to see that you have made sense and that you take us where you promised to take us in the title. If your work was convoluted or didn’t follow any clear organizing principle, I might make several trips through your text trying to impose some order. I can call four or five trips through “the first pass” if your work needs a heavy developmental edit.

The Copyediting Pass

Now that I’ve brutally maimed your prose into answering questions, keeping promises, and following a clear organizing principle, it’s time to look at the details. If I haven’t already done it, I check the number of words at this point. Many grammatical decisions can be made to influence text quantities. I read through this time correcting my corrections (once I’ve worked my way through a piece, I may have new opinions on whether the introduction and other parts are adequate or over the top), and specifically looking for grammar, punctuation, and word choices. This is a copyediting task, and, for the most part, is what you get when you pass your work through a copyeditor. This pass corrects the mechanics of what you wrote but doesn’t look for logic. (A copyeditor also checks facts and product spelling and is the primary contributor to a style sheet.) Because I can’t help myself and did a fair amount of this in the first pass, this pass doesn’t usually take very long, perhaps a fourth of the time the first pass took.

The Tidying Pass

At this point, I believe that I’ve caught any logic lapses or grammar slip-ups, so I just read through and make sure that everything is pretty. I look at how your work will read when all the comments and questions are dealt with, and smooth over any remaining rough edges. I also edit my own comments, to make sure that I have been tactful, or at least humorous in the face of adversity. When it’s ready, I send it back to the author. This pass takes a little less time than the copyediting pass.

The Next Steps

The author, after recoiling in horror at all the colorful marks on the text, goes through item by item, agreeing or disagreeing, and responding to questions by changing the text. After the author has made a clean-up pass (the good ones make several passes), the text is sent back to me. It’s possible that the text will go through a tech editor at this point. If the text is reasonably organized, I prefer that the tech editor work with the text before I make a first pass. If the text needs more manipulation than usual, a tech edit is necessary at this point as well. I make two final passes before the work is publishable or ready for a copyeditor (depending on the publishing process). The first pass cleans out the comments and tracked changes. The second pass makes sure that everything is pretty and that no unanswered questions or inadvertent comments remain. Of course, there are often reasons to abbreviate this process. I might accept the majority of my own grammatical or word choice changes, leaving only the comments and anything controversial for the author to approve if we are really crunched for time, or if the author’s writing skills need more explanation than not, and I’d have to write an equal number of pages to clarify. Occasionally, I have sent work to an author after only the first pass. So far, I haven’t been able to make only a second pass—just as I can’t turn off the little grammar checker in my head, I also can’t turn off that little logic checker.