Saturday, April 30, 2011

What I do

As an editor, I do the obvious, of course: 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, of course, but a general would never get in that situation. A colonel? Maybe, but not likely. A major? Possibly. The lower the rank, the more plausible this would be.

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 immediately became more believable. Not a lot, but some. A gunny sergeant would make sense.

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.

In another book, this one about ancient Egypt, she had a character whose name didn't seem to fit the time and place. She thought that name might have been used at that time and place, but she changed it. I think the story became a little more plausible.

While editing another book, I noticed that the writer wrote Phillipians when he meant Philippines. Slight difference.

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 more sentences.

I check for redundancies or words left out. I look for the quickest and simplest way to say something. And I check as many facts as I can.

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 the writer just saying the same thing over and over?

Even in the doctoral dissertation, I found ways to combine redundant sentences to make it simpler and easier to read. I even broke up a few long sentences and paragraphs for his professor's benefit.

When I edit, I think, is this comma necessary? Should it be a semicolon or a dash? 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-plus years).

The novelist 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.

Two years ago, 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 did more than that, of course, but you get a flavour, no, flavor of what I did in this case.

I always 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; 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 working for a newspaper (I've worked at nine), my job is to help the writer and the reader. I work to make the writer's writing shine. My editing will help the reader insert the most information in the easiest manner.

I may cost a little more than some copy editors (and less than many others), but I'm worth it. And your writing's worth it, too.

Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

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

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie

Friday, April 29, 2011

More eyes on your stories

It was always obvious to me; get as many sets of eyes as possible on every story. But many "professionals" don't do that.

I worked at two non-daily newspapers with small staffs. Someone would backread my page, I guess for libel, but stories didn't get a good once-over. (I later realized that I needed to hear what an editor thought of my writing. When I later got that editing, I improved.)

That changed when I moved to my first daily newspaper, one with 18,000 six-day-a-week circulation. The sports editor would read my stories, and I'd read his. We also had two former sports editors on the news copy desk, and they'd often backread our local copy. A huge improvement. And I got better as a writer while I was there.

My next newspaper, one with about 45,000 seven-day-a-week circulation, had one man who laid out the sports section. He read everything, and at least one other person would backread him. At least I did. When I took his place on his days off, I had less help; I wasn't there to help me. And my writing slumped. I didn't have anyone to point out the flaws in my writing.

My fifth newspaper, one with about 100,000 daily circulation, did it right on some days. We'd have as many people read a story as we could. We had one careless writer who needed as many eyes as possible. We might have six people read his stories, and the sixth person was still finding two or three mistakes.

There were days, though, when I'd lay out a page with my own story or column on it, and I'd have to beg my friends on news side to read it for me. I did not want to send out one of my stories without someone else reading it. As many someones as possible. If I got better as a writer during that period, and I did, it was because I was freelancing with magazines. It was good to hear their critiques.
The best thing about this paper editing-wise was the "fly." Someone would stay late to check final, and he'd look for errors. If one deserved fixing (this was an expensive proposition), he'd make the change on the fly. (It was called that because the press wasn't stopped.) I probably did a fly eight or 10 times in 10-plus years there.

It seems ironic now, but the worst paper I've ever worked for had the best idea. We had a small staff (eight or 10 men), but we'd have four to six people read every locally-produced story. No exceptions. We found most of our mistakes.

My other two newspapers, one large one and one small one, were hit-or-miss on editing. If a story came in early at the larger paper, the sports editor or his assistant would read it. Otherwise, one person might read a local story, and there were nights when we had to shovel copy. If a story came in late enough, only one person would read a story, and all he did was to catch anything obvious, cut it to fit, avoid widow lines and put a headline on it. There was no real editing.

With my ninth paper, we had a terrific editor. If he could backread my stories, I felt safe. Sometimes a young man would edit my stuff, and he did a nice job, too. But there probably were times when my pages went to the printer with only me seeing them. That's frightening.

The biggest problem with this terrific editor is that I couldn't convince him that he needed more sets of eyes on stories. The more the merrier.

And much, much safer.

Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

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

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie