What I do: Sometimes I edit or vette novels, and I edit or proofread non-fiction books, plus the occasional ebook or academic piece. I do the obvious: I look for typos, misspellings and factual errors, but there's much, much more.
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 her 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 or 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?
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 these decisions take forever; they're almost instantaneous (I've been doing this 30 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. In fact, I'm still reading her work, and she's getting better by the chapter.
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. 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 their work, and don't trust Aunt Jane or Uncle Bernie. A professional editor can make your writing sparkle and make you look good.
It's all part of editing. Some writing is so muddled that I need a Rosetta Stone. Other times, I don't have much to do. Whether I'm editing a book or rewriting a web site, my job is to help the writer and the reader. I work to 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 it's necessary.
More EDITOR@WORK blog entries
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More blog entries by Tom Gillispie
Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie