Sunday, May 2, 2010

An editor at work

SOME PEOPLE AREN'T SURE they need an editor. One "professional" writer told me that she didn't need an editor. She could spell and write, she said. That's frightening to me; everyone — everyone from Joe Schmoe to a great writer like William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway — needs an editor. I doubt that this woman is a Schmoe, but she's probably not a Faulkner or Hemingway, either.

And people wonder if I'm the kind of editor they're seeking. You don't edit books about spirituality, do you? Well, yes. I edited a novel on spirituality last year, and I edited a non-fiction book about spirituality earlier this year.

You don't edit books about cosmetics and nail / toenail care, do you? I edited an ebook about nail / toenail care, and she seemed very happy.

Do you edit for businessmen? Yes, I've done editing for a restaurateur and a lawyer, plus a businessman in Australia who is looking to change the world.

I've even edited individual articles before they were sent to online magazines.

I've also done other editing and proofreading, including novels, non-fiction books and one ebook.

If you're not sure, just ask. One novelist wasn't sure, so I suggested that she pay for one chapter. If she liked my work, we'd continue. I've edited most of two of her novels, and I was pleased to learn that my editing skills work well with fiction.

Another writer wasn't sure, so she asked for references. I gave two names and email addresses, and she came back the next day; she wanted me to edit her book. I think it went well.

I DO THE OBVIOUS: I look for typos, misspellings and factual errors, but there's much, much more.

While editing and vetting a novel, I quickly realized that the writer had an Army general shooting snipers. It was her business, but a general would never get in that situation. A colonel? Maybe, but not likely. A major? Possibly.

She laughed. She already 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 story became a bit more believable (a lieutenant would be more believable).

One of her characters was a double agent, and she'd use a real name part of the time and her code name at other times. I found it confusing, and I told her so. Hey, this wasn't James Bond one time and 007 another. This was Jade (or whatever) one time and Jasmine (or whatever) another. 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. Who's married to whom?

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 novels 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 more sentences.

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

I ask questions: Does the writer need this long, detailed explanation? 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-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. She's getting better by the chapter.

Last year, I was "Americanizing" British non-fiction books for sale in the Americas. I changed "favour" to "favor," "maximise" to "maximize," and "behaviour" to "behavior." "Loo" became "toilet"; "solicitor" turned into "lawyer", and "lift" became "elevator." With the help of Google, British slang was translated, and when I could, I changed 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, or did.

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.

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. That's quicker, and I don't charge as much. Whether I'm editing a book or working the sports copy desk, 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.

My job is invisible, but it's necessary. And I'm darned good at it.


(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie


  1. 'And I'm darned good at it.'

    Ain't you just. Thanks Tom. I don't know if my writing will ever get better, but I know it'll never get worse if I keep on reading you.