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

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