Monday, August 10, 2009

What to do

In early June, I worked a shift on the sports copy desk at the local newspaper. Years ago, I did that almost daily; it had been so long, nearly four years, and I was nervous.

But I dove in. I edited local and wire copy; I wrote headlines; I wrote cutlines (they're called captions by non-newspaper folk). We had a guy who was taking stories off the wire and getting a first look at local copy; he's the "slot man" at most papers; here, he's the night editor. We had a guy who handled "agate," the tiny type that takes up a lot of space in sports sections. Another guy was putting together baseball roundups and reading stories.

I handled everything else. I edited the briefs package, tennis stories, golf stories, auto-racing stuff. I battled dull copy, trying to spiff it up. I looked for a good headline that would set a story off. In the last half hour, I fought the clock. I "heard" a timer in my head as I raced to meet the midnight deadline. Sometimes you do more stories in the last 45 minutes than you do in the six hours leading up.

At the end of the night, I'd edited more stories than anyone there. Did I get a compliment? Well, I was reminded that I didn't edit two stories exactly the way they wanted them. Nice try, ace; do better next time. He was very nice about it; he wants me back.

When I'm not making cameo appearances at the newspaper, I'm doing other editing and proofreading, including a few novels and a bunch of non-fiction books. I do the obvious: I look for typos, misspellings and factual errors. But it goes far beyond that.

While editing and vetting a novel last year, I quickly realized that the author had an Army general using a rifle to kill snipers. I told her that it was her business, but a general would never be put in that situation. A colonel? Maybe, but not likely. A major? Possibly.

She laughed. It turns out that she knew that a general would never be caught with a rifle shooting snipers. She hoped that no one would catch it. If I caught it, she said, someone else would; so she turned the general into a major. The storyline immediately became more believable.

One of her characters was a double agent, and she'd use one name part of the time and the other name at other times. I found it confusing, and I told her so. I also reminded her to occasionally add that Joe is a colleague and Jim is a relative; in fact, it wouldn't hurt to give the full name, Joe Martin and Jim Bronson, or whatever the names are. In a 300-page novel, the reader needs help in remembering characters.

In another book, this one about ancient Egypt, she had a character whose name didn't seem to fit the time and place. She changed it.

Most of my work is grunt work, whether it's in fiction or non-fiction books, letters, web sites, term papers or whatever. I look for parallel construction, changes of tense, tangled sentences. If I find a 50-word sentence, I'll look for ways to convert it to a least two and preferably three or more sentences.

I look for the quickest and simplest way to say something.

I ask questions: Does the writer need "utilize" when "use" will do? Can we say this in 50 or 100 fewer words? Is this sentence clear? Can we make it crystal clear?

Is this comma necessary? Should it be a semicolon or a dash? On further review, would this sentence be better with a comma? Is the writer using too many exclamation and question marks? Don't think that I take hours doing this. Most decisions are instantaneous; hey, I've been doing this for 30-some years.

The author mentioned above had trouble with punctuation. She'd have a quote with a question or exclamation mark AND a comma -- "We never eat out anymore. Why is that?," Martha asked. She didn't need the comma.

I've been pleased with her improvement. I find fewer typos and outright mistakes. Her copy's cleaner and easier to read. Today, she sent me another chapter to the Egypt manuscript, and I was pleased; she's getting better.

Recently, I was "Americanizing" British non-fiction books for sale in the Americas. I change "favour" to "favor," "maximise" to "maximize," and "behaviour" to "behavior." "Loo" becomes "toilet"; "solicitor" turns into "lawyer", and "lift" becomes "elevator." With the help of Google, British slang is translated, and when I can, I change soccer analogies to baseball, basketball and American football. It works better for U.S., or even Canadian, audiences.

I do more than that, of course, but you get a flavour, no, flavor of what I do.

I remind the writer to proofread and edit his/her work a few minutes and a few days later, time permitting. I tell writers to always get a second or third pair of eyes on your work, and don't trust Aunt Jane or Uncle Bernie. A professional editor can make your writing sparkle and make you look good.

The first thing people usually ask is price. I charge $25 an hour, unless it would be better to charge by the project. For editing of books, I charge one cent US per word.

Editing is rarely easy. Whether I'm editing a book, rewriting a web site or working the sports copy desk, my job is to help the writer and the reader. I can make the writer's writing shine. My headline, if it's good, can draw in the reader. And my editing will help the reader get the most information in the easiest manner.

It's an invisible job, but the writer can't do his job well without me.

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