by Carolyn Haley
The editing experiment I reported on in Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing I and II offered a unique chance to see the same material not only from both sides — author and editor — but also from multiple editorial viewpoints. As the author of the test material, I was surprised by how many thoughts and emotions the editors’ responses evoked in me, even though the material was decades old and had been replaced by what became successful published novels. I suspect that any author on the receiving end of seven different edits might feel similarly disconcerted.
At the same time, editorial subjectivity is what authors experience whenever they shop for an editor and request or automatically receive sample edits. (The same happens when they solicit feedback from beta readers.) Multiple samples are a good way for authors to select the editor best suited to their work.
During the experiment, I reviewed each volunteer editor’s response from both an editor’s and author’s perspective. I’ve already covered the editor’s angle in the above-referenced essays, so here’s a taste of what the experiment results looked like through an author’s eyes.
A quick review for context
My experiment imitated a common scenario in the industry — publishers or authors who hire copyeditors without giving them instructions, assuming they share the same vocabulary and process. All I told the seven professional volunteers was, “Copyedit according to your own understanding of what copyediting means.” I deliberately didn’t say what copyediting meant to me, or ask them for clarification of their individual approaches. I wanted to see what would happen without guidance.
As part of the test, I inserted errors into both samples. Neither sample resulted in seven takes to compare against each other; instead, six editors chose to edit the first test sample and four chose the second. A handful edited both.
Now that the experiment is complete, I can reveal what I withheld from the volunteers. As an author, I would expect a copyeditor to accept that the story was finished and my narrative style was intentional; and to polish the prose with a light touch, correcting all the technical errors and pointing out anything in question with neutrally phrased comments and queries.
The following examples show how close the editors came to meeting that expectation while working in the dark.
“Her car had a close encounter with a tree” Jona retorted. Linny kept her mouth shut to hide the broken teeth from her close encounter with the steering wheel. The remaining car interior had bashed her head, elbows, and knees.
All six editors caught the technical error — the missing comma before the close-quote in the first line. Then the variations began.
Editor #1 remarked: ‘close encounter’ twice in consecutive sentences is a little distracting. I suggest Jona says “her car met a tree”, or similar, or that she hides the “teeth, broken on the steering wheel”?
Editor #2, after changing all the paragraph breaks in the full dialogue, offered this: Consider recasting to avoid a close repetition of “close encounter” — unless the repetition is intentional.
Editor #3, meanwhile, replaced the second close encounter with collision, then commented: This way avoids repeating “close encounter,” to give the expression more impact the first time; does that work for you?
Editor #4 was fine with the close encounter duplication and body-damage description, but felt a clarification was appropriate elsewhere in the paragraph, changing “to hide the broken teeth from” to “to hide the teeth broken during.”
Editor #5 cared about dialogue tags, changing retorted to said with the query: Change OK? Jona isn’t really retorting, and said is generally your best bet for dialogue attribution.
Editor #6 had nothing to say about any element of the paragraph, though questioned the character’s injury in an earlier paragraph — querying the plausibility of the effects of the injury still showing after the timeframe specified in the story.
Blanche rushed into my silence. “I know, I’m sorry, but — well, the final’s the last chance, and Dru asked . . .”
The trap in this paragraph is final; it’s supposed to be finale, a performance identified as such at the start of the characters’ conversation.
Editor #1 caught the typo and changed the ellipses style.
Editor #2 changed final’s to final performance is then commented on a different sentence (“Blanche rushed into my silence”) with I like this phrase, followed by an explanation of a different edit: New para for new speaker.
Editor #3 also caught the typo then felt obliged to clarify the character’s trail-off speech with added content: Blanche rushed into my silence. “I know, I’m sorry, but — well, the finale’s the last chance, and Dru asked . . . ” Her nerve seemed to break.
Editor #4 corrected the typo and moved on.
I sat holding the phone without seeing for a moment, then smacked it into the cradle. Two points for Blanch for finding a way to get me to New Atlantis! Give her another ten for making it as awkward as possible.
The trap was the misspelled character name: Blanch should be Blanche.
Editor #1 caught the typo and left the rest of the paragraph alone.
Editor #2 suggested deleting “without seeing” then asked: When does this story occur? Rare for people to have home phones these days.
Editor #3 also caught the typo and left the rest of the paragraph alone.
Editor # 4 corrected the error, changed a preposition (“Two points to Blanche”), and added a writing lesson: Exclamation points can lose their effectiveness if you overuse them. I’ve changed to less dramatic punctuation here and elsewhere, retaining only if the speaker really is shouting.
“I guess so. No, not really. Look, I’ve got no time and six people in earshot, but, please, can you do me a huge favor?”
I sighed and placed my brush into a water jar. “What.”
There were no traps in this section.
Editors #1 and #3 changed the period after “What” to a question mark, without comment.
Editor #2 let the period stand, but opined: Technically, this should have a ?, but I like it fine as is because she isn’t asking so much as demanding. J
Editor #4 expressed the same sentiment by leaving the sentence alone.
The front entrance was barricaded not only by gates but also by a hoard of groupies. I had discovered this three years ago when I first visited Blanche and Dru after they moved up from the City for good.
The trap is hoard, which should be horde.
Editor #1 caught the trap and also chose to lower-case “City” (which was capped as a shorthand for New York City and used consistently through the book, but the editor couldn’t know this from the sample).
Editor #2 made the same change to “City” plus corrected the tense in the sentence (“. . . after they’d moved up from the city for good”).
Editor #3 not only lower-cased “City” but also recast the paragraph, resequenced the paragraphs around it, and rewrote half the text to connect the changes together, thereby condensing five paragraphs down to two. It was partly explained by the query: Deleted because (in passage I’ve shifted up from below) she’s adamant about never using the front gate again, so question of choosing. OK?
Editor #4 left everything in the paragraph alone, including the incorrect word.
As an author, I found it simple to choose which editor I could work with comfortably, just from the two samples of approximately 1,600 words each. And I’m sure a different author would make a different choice.
This luxury of choice, however, can only be made by authors who self-publish, or those who directly hire editors to help prepare their novels for submission to traditional publishers. Once authors are under contract with a publishing house, they rarely have control over who edits their manuscript, or any option to change editors if they are dissatisfied with their work. More than one editor might work on the book — a content editor and copyeditor, plus maybe the agent who placed the manuscript with the house — but a contracted author won’t get seven different takes on their book at the same stage at the same time and be free to select their preferred partner. The same holds true for authors who buy editing from an author-services company, which distributes manuscripts internally without author involvement.
The unanswered question
My experiment left an important question dangling: How would the revisions, comments, and queries have differed if I’d told the editors exactly what I wanted for copyediting (i.e., acceptance that the story was finished and my narrative style was intentional; and to polish the prose with a light touch, correcting all the technical errors and pointing out anything in question with neutrally phrased comments and queries)? Or if any of them had asked?
Considering another experiment to test that, I asked a fresh group of ten editors, “How do you define copyediting?” Sure enough, I got ten different answers, which will be discussed in a future essay. For now, the lesson I learned from the subjectivity experiment is: Author, tell the editor what you’re looking for! Editor, tell the author what you intend to do! If your vocabularies and ideas differ, then dig a little deeper before working together. That conversation will go a long way toward preventing misunderstandings during the editing process, and building a mutually positive relationship.
Related essays on An American Editor:
Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.