What Does an Editor Actually Do? (Insights & Tips for Writers)

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As a writer, I know that editing is a crucial part of the writing process. Also as a writer, I’d like to say I know a thing or two about editing because naturally, I edit as part of my own process. But “edit” is a vague term. Everyone knows its general meaning, but what does the process exactly involve?

I attended a workshop recently (“So You Want to be an Editor?”) that shed some light on what an editor actually does. Learning about the editing process from an editor’s perspective was insightful for two reasons:

  1. It helped me better appreciate the role of an editor.
  2. It helped me understand the lens through which an editor edits.

I learned about the different levels of editing, the kinds of services an editor can provide, and the proper way to prepare a manuscript before sending it to an editor.

So read on for the insights! I’ll be sharing from a fiction writer’s point of view.

Editing in 3 Parts

  • Part 1. Developmental Editing – big picture

Developmental editing happens while the manuscript is being written or directly after it’s been completed. Developmental editors make critical evaluations of the content as a whole, asking questions like: does the story work? Is it believable and satisfying? Are there holes in the plot? Does the story make sense from a reader’s point of view?

It’s in this stage that major revisions take place and cuts to the word count are made. Does this section move the plot forward? No? Cut it. (So as you might guess, it’s in this stage that a writer might cry tears of pain over lost darlings, or challenge the editor on revision suggestions all together, which can make this process strained and difficult depending on the stubbornness/ receptivity of the writer.)  

Developmental editors work hand in hand with the writer to transform the manuscript into the best version of itself that it can be. Developmental editors play a vital role in the writing process, especially if a writer isn’t trained on the craft.

  • Part 2. Copy Editing – mechanics

Copy editing happens after the content has been finalized. It’s often referred to as line editing because it deals with improving sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It’s concerned with coherency as well as style consistency. Copy editors fact check if the writer requests it, but that usually comes at an additional cost (unless it’s already built into the editor’s pay rate).

  • Part 3. Proofreading – final check

Proofreading happens after the book has been formatted. It’s the polishing phase, the last chance to check for errors before the manuscript is sent to the printer. Proofreaders do the final read-through, they iron and wax the final product, checking for errors that may have slipped past the copy editor. If you’ve ever seen a typo in a novel, it’s because the proofreader didn’t catch it. (They’re only human after all!)

Other Services an Editor Might Provide

Most editors will specialize in only one of the above levels of editing. Or if they do all three, they will likely charge a separate fee for each one. Below is a list of other services an editor might provide:

  • Writing coaching
  • Manuscript evaluation
  • Ghost writing
  • Research
  • Fact checking
  • Indexing

Apparently an editor will rarely work on book design and formatting. That’s the role of the publisher.

Standard Publishing Protocol for Manuscripts

When you’ve finally settled on your book’s final draft and are looking for an editor to review your work, it’s good to know that editors expect the following:

  • Your manuscript should be in Microsoft Word, 12-point Times New Roman font, and double-spaced.
  • You should know how to use Word’s Track Changes feature because that’s what editors use to perform corrections; it’s the primary method of communication between writer and editor during the back-and-forth feedback process. Some editors will agree to teach you how to use Track Changes, but the lesson might not be free.

Other Good Things to Know:

  • Editors use the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a standard for spelling and the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style for style (unless a style guide is provided by the writer). In some cases, depending on the kind of book, the editor and writer work together to create a style guide.
  • A novel manuscript should be at least 40,000 words. Anything below would make it a novella or short story. Manuscripts over 140,000 words (with some exceptions, depending on the kind of book) are considered too long. It doesn’t mean an editor won’t work with you, it just means your manuscript will require more time and work—and your word count will experience some major cuts in the process.

Do Writers Need Editors?

If your goal is to publish, then the short answer to this question is yes.

But editors cost money, and unless you have a day job that pays handsomely, I’m guessing your bank account isn’t bursting at the seams because, well, you’re a writer. So you might ask yourself: do I really need an editor? If money is an issue, you might say you can manage without one. You might have a trusted friend who can review and provide feedback on your manuscript, or you might commit doing the editing yourself.

There is one inherent problem, however, with the business of editing your own work: it’s your work, so you can’t help but view your work through your lens as the writer—and the whole point of editing is to critically examine the writing through the lens of the reader.

Regardless of how skilled and talented you are as a writer, you need an objective perspective on your work—someone without any emotional attachments to the words, someone who can lend a fresh pair of eyes on words you’ve practically memorized by now.

As a writer, your ability to be 100 percent objective is nearly impossible. You know all the ins and outs. You know your own intentions. You know all the “hidden” meanings. You think your symbolism is ingenious and your metaphors all wonderful and perfectly clear.

Writing Is Hard (and Editing Is Hard, Too)

As if writing wasn’t already difficult, sometimes editing can feel even more so. Why? Because it’s the process of dissecting your hard work, of holding it under a microscope and prodding it until the loose parts fall out (even if those loose parts are your favorite).

You don’t want to prod. You hesitate to change the words because you worked so hard to get them on the page in the first place. It hurts to have someone tell you (someone you may have only just met, someone who may have only just met your story and who therefore doesn’t “get it”)—that your story needs some alterations.

A writer needs thick skin like a polar bear needs thick fur.

In the workshop, they talked about “difficult” writers (usually fiction writers, by the way). Difficult writers are the writers who aren’t receptive to feedback, challenge the editor too much, are too defensive, too sensitive, too overly attached to the original version of their manuscript, too unwilling to see the greater vision. So another lesson I took away from the workshop is that a writer should learn to trust their editor, and keep an open mind during the editing process.

Don’t be a difficult writer.

And don’t despair, either. As the writer, you hold the power to make all final decisions—a good editor will always respect and adhere to that.

Bottom Line

If your goal is to publish, your goal is to be read. That being your goal, it’s important to keep in mind, throughout the editing process, that your editor’s goal is to transform your book into the best possible version of itself that it can be—to make sure your story ultimately moves your reader.

That’s right, even though the editor technically works for you, he or she actually represents the reader, like a lawyer represents a client. But at the end of the day, the end-goal of both editor and writer is, or at least should be, the same. The end-goal is for the work—the story—to come alive.

Because the story, as you know, is its own entity. It always has been, from the moment it was first planted in your brain as a tiny idea with gigantic potential. Sure, your story is a reflection and an extension of you; but once you release it into the world, it becomes a reflection and extension of the world, and of every person who reads it. And how magical is that?

I hope you found these insights helpful. Do you have any others you would like to share? I would love to know!

Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell

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Before dusting this book off my shelf, the only dystopian novels I’d read were Fahrenheit 451  by Ray Bradbury and the YA trilogy, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, both of which I’d enjoyed thoroughly. Though they’re both thought-provoking and impactful in their own ways, nothing compares to the chilling power that is 1984. 

If you’ve ever heard the terms Big Brother, Double Think, Newspeak… these were all coined from this haunting dystopian novel written in 1949.

This book wasn’t meant to be a prophecy of the then near-future, but a warning on how our world could — or would — transform if we continue on our path of destruction and lose our humanity. If the world ceases to be a place of thought and wonder and imagination, and sinks into a dark realm in which freedom is no longer a concept understood by the masses, let alone a word in the dictionary.

And it makes sense that Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair (George Orwell was a pen name), would write such a book. Not only was he a political essayist and novelist living during a war-torn era, he despised totalitarianism, which makes 1984 then a hyperbole of government domination. The heavy, dark tone of the book was most likely a reflection of attitudes and moods after World War II.

“It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same — everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same — people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.” George Orwell, 1984

This is a book that creeps up on you. It starts at the micro level and widens with each chapter, before jolting you into a wave of emotion. Orwell takes his time setting up the stage, intimately introducing us to his protagonist, Winston Smith, and the world in which he… exists.

I was disturbed, yet very much intrigued, by the eerie world that Orwell gradually reveals. From the very first line it’s clear that the world of the book is unlike ours (a great thing to note for writers; crafting time and place is not always easy). The details of Orwell’s world in the year 1984 dance right out of the page.

Orwell covers the type of food and drink that’s consumed, the clothing, the living quarters, the buildings, the streets, the expressions or lack-thereof on people’s faces, people’s mannerisms and moods, the lyrics of songs that are sung, even the language that’s used, and its direct translations. Leaving barely any specifics to the imagination, his precision serves a very keen purpose.

Towards the end I felt like I had been immersed in a nightmare, and that’s exactly what 1984 sets out to portray.

The third-person narrative follows the story of middle-aged Winston Smith. We learn about Orwell’s vision of 1984 through Smith’s eyes and internal monologues. He is our guide through this unfamiliar world that ends up resembling certain aspects of our current day: the feeling of being constantly watched, monitored, and contained — the struggle between wanting to fit in and wanting to be free from that pressure. (And indeed with each year that goes by, 1984 becomes more and more relevant.)

Orwell’s precise prose make Winston’s desires our own; his fear, distrust, and desperation we come to understand as though we were born in his world. As a writer, I appreciated this accomplishment because it’s so hard to create the circumstances by which your reader can completely understand the high stakes of a world they’ve never experienced. This begs for the book to be read again as a writer.

One of my favorite aspects of 1984 is that it tackles the essence of Truth. Orwell challenges us to question what Truth is — if it’s a figment of our own making that can be altered and erased, or an eternally rooted reality. He makes you think about how society may be brainwashing you, or striving to mold you, your thoughts and ideals, in ways you were previously unaware, simply because you perceive what’s around you as the norm. You are made to question the norm and your role in perpetuating certain perceptions.

As applied to our world today, this case in Saudi Arabia where a blogger was prosecuted for speaking his mind, for speaking out against what is deemed as definitive truth in that society, came to mind. This article too made me think about some of the concepts that Orwell dissects in his book.

“It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you — something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses.” George Orwell, 1984

1984 is a struggle between the individual and the larger entity that is government and society. It’s about power, oppression, and control — and the role technology can play in all of these. It challenges us to think about what makes us human, what can happen if we don’t live our lives, and rule our world, in accordance with those values. And it presents to us two important questions:

Can human beings lose their humanity to the point of no return?

Can we handle the enormous responsibility that comes from achieving great power, without shattering the moral compass?

In short, this is a book that stays with you. You begin to find traces of its allusions all around as you go about your day. It’s a book you could read over and over and discover new meanings and symbols each time… no wonder its significance has endured throughout the decades.

So if you’re in the mood for a fun, light read, I’d encourage you to look elsewhere. But if you’re interested in a psychological horror story, one that will analyze human thought, society, and behavior, that will nudge you into asking philosophical questions about man’s innate nature and the structure of our world, then this book will take you on a memorable ride. One that will inevitably tilt the lens through which you view the world, if only slightly.

Have you read 1984?

Review: ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

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This book has been on my shelf for years. I’d never known what it was about, but I knew it was the only novel written by famed poet Sylvia Plath, therefore I knew I had to read it. I’m a fan of Plath’s poetry, though you don’t have to be to enjoy this book (I use the word enjoy lightly).

This book is in one word insightful. Sharp, personal, and emotionally charged— her poetry leaves an impression on you in its willingness to be vulnerable, and this book is no different. If you’re familiar with Plath, you know that her poetry strikes a raw chord because she wrote from a deep and painful place in the heart and mind. She suffered from depression for many years before ending her life at the age of 30, leaving two children, a boy and a girl, behind.

Though a work of fiction, The Bell Jar, like Plath’s poetry, is considered autobiographical because of its deeply personal perspective on life behind the veil of depression. The central themes in the novel, I found out later, parallel those in Plath’s early life. In fact, she is said to have referred to The Bell Jar as “an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past.” As a writer, I truly connect with the desire to purge your pain through writing, or at least, to seek to understand it.

But The Bell Jar is not outward with its purpose. It doesn’t come out and say, hey, this is what depression is about! This is what it feels like! Nor is this book explicitly about Plath herself. It doesn’t seek pity. It does, however, whether you’ve suffered from depression or not, challenge you. It most certainly makes you question— whether it’s Esther, the protagonist, her reasons for doing, thinking, and saying the things that she does— or yourself, and your own deepest, darkest human moments.

The first-person narrative, brutally honest and morbidly critical, grips you immediately. And I could see as I read why 19 year-old Esther Greenwood has been compared to The Catcher in the Rye’s 16 year-old Holden Caulfield. I won’t go into an in-depth comparison, but I will say that like Holden, Esther is not immediately likable. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her and her seemingly judgmental observations at first. She raised my eyebrow many times, especially in the beginning as I was just getting to know her, and only until I read further did I realize that her perspective was muddied by something else…

“A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death.” Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

This book is about perception. About disconnectedness and alienation, with very subtle threads of hope. The tone is never melodramatic; poignant in its straight-forwardness, in its matter-of-fact attitude towards death, it drips with despair but not obviously. Written by a poet, the prose is unsurprisingly fluid and the figurative language is wonderful and plenty. Plath was a word smith indeed. The way she so easily weaved tender and difficult emotions into a needle’s eye was a pleasure to study!

The Bell Jar is a vivid, intelligent, and disturbing portrait of a determined, witty young woman whose perception of herself and the world around her is blurred by something she can’t quite place. It gives voice to an uncomfortable subject, a human experience that, especially at the time of its publication in 1963, was not widely and openly talked about— let alone from a woman’s perspective.

In fact, Plath didn’t want the novel published in the U.S. for fear that it would cause pain to those close to her (many of the characters were apparently inspired by people in her own life). So it was published first in London (where she lived at the time) under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and not released in the U.S. until 1972.

I think Plath intrigues us because she was a mind too heavy for herself, too deep for her own good. And the Why in her life’s off-course, tragic end, and the bleeding words she left behind, haunt us.

In a way, this book— a fleeting peek into a mind off kilter — sheds some light, though it doesn’t promise to answer any questions. What it does do, however, just as it did when it was first published, is spark conversation and foster awareness around mental health.

Have you read The Bell Jar?

Review: ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini

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I finished this book three days ago, yet I still find my mind wandering over hills and streets in Afghanistan that I have never seen with my eyes.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a gripping tale of female heroism set against the backdrop of war-stricken, Taliban-ruling Afghanistan. It is a tale that brings to light the grimy details of war and female oppression, but most importantly, one that illuminates the strength and endurance of the human spirit.

Hosseini seamlessly weaves together the first-person narratives of two female characters, Mariam and Laila, whose lives inadvertently intersect in a world that seeks to divide. They form a bond, this unlikely pair, as strong as mother and daughter, one that is underlined by relentless fear and abuse.

As a woman, I couldn’t help but reflect on the phrase… It’s a man’s world. The sufferings of Mariam and Laila swelled that phrase into a whole new meaning for me, transforming it into a real face with very ugly features. This book may be a work of fiction, but the injustices faced by women in Afghanistan and many other places around the globe—in our modern era—are anything but.

The narrative moves quickly with its fluid, straight-to-the-point prose and a pace that never misses a beat. The details Hosseini provides are carefully selected, never overly descriptive or sympathetic, transporting us to an unfamiliar world that ends up feeling rather familiar. In the end, when the stage is stripped away and all the costumes are hung up, we find that no matter where our place in the world, pain is pain, need is need, and love is love.

With this book, Hosseini has painted a beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of life behind an Afghani woman’s burqa veil, all within the intriguing context of Afghanistan’s turbulent history, changing seasons, and various landscapes. This is not a simple tale of hardship and triumph. It is one of love, endurance, hope, and forgiveness. In Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, the power of love in an anguished world truly shines.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear what you think!

Why I write fiction

“Fiction is the art form of human yearning.”- Robert Olen Butler, American author

It wasn’t until I came across the above quote that I realized, yes — that is why I love to read and write fiction. I want to explore the human condition. The yearnings that pull at the human heart. Some yearnings are live wires, bursting, causing trouble or inspiring great change; others are dormant, not yet realized.

At the core of every beating heart is a raw desire, a painful need, a helplessness, a joy, a hope, a love, a passion, a fear, a secret. I’m fascinated by these complexities that make up who we are as human beings. By the eccentricities of our human nature, by the good and evil that battles in our hearts, by the intricate relationships we forge and release in our lives. By the choices we make. By how those choices follow us.

Why do we do the things that we do? What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to be evil? What does it mean to be human? Is there hope for us?

We all have unique stories and truths that shape our lives. Fiction is a reflection of those stories and truths. Sometimes the reflection is bright, sometimes it’s dark, but fiction — good fiction — is always true in that it always seeks to express or reveal what is true. That is why we connect with characters, why they become real to us — because in the characters, in their flaws, strengths, and motivations, we recognize a piece of ourselves or a piece of someone we know.

When I write fiction I get to analyze the various depths of human emotions. I get to be, feel, see anything I choose… I get to dive into the wondrous world of the everyday, seek beauty in the most unlikely of places, find the amazing in the mundane. Writing fiction allows me to step outside of myself, and it helps me find some understanding in a world that is becoming increasingly fearful, cynical, and unfeeling.

When I write fiction I discover. I practice reflection. You must look inwards as much as outwards when writing. You must trust your instincts and draw from what you don’t know as much as from what you do. You must question. You must observe. You must be sincere. I write fiction because I want to explore and bridge perspectives. I want to feel the other side of things. I want to play with the “what ifs”. I want to let others know, as many books have let me know time and time again:

You are not alone in this beautiful mess called the human experience. You are not alone. I too have braved this battle and felt this feeling and found this joy in the nothing.