When I’m not writing, or acting, or blogging, I earn a living as a freelance editor. Novels, sourcebooks for role-playing games, comic-book scripts… you name it, I’ve probably edited it. I’ve always been kind of Zen about my job—the text is there and I dive in, letting the rhythm and shape of it show me where the trouble spots are. I am blessed (?) in that typos and spelling errors walk up and slap me; you want a copy editor with a 99.99 percent accuracy rate, I’m your girl. (This odd little talent makes Chinese restaurant menus an endless source of amusement—or stress, depending on how my day is going.) But editors do more than play spot-the-typo. We see the line of dialogue that falls flat, the word clutter that bogs down an image, the verb choices or sentence structure that slows down a whiz-bang action sequence and leaves the reader getting bored without knowing why. And bigger things: the character whose actions or motives don’t ring true, the emotional moment that needs more oomph, the scene that may be well written but does nothing to drive the story. How does an editor spot all that when the author missed it? After all, doesn’t the author know her own story best?
Well, yes and no. You, the author, do know your own story best—except when you don’t. Which is where I come in.
A good editor is an outside eye on your manuscript. You carry your story in your head; you eat, sleep and breathe your characters and their situation; you know an awful lot about them that never makes it onto the page. Your readers don’t have all that. All they know is what you put into words. Editors don’t have all those extras, either—so we’re more like your reader than you are. Like a director in a play, our job is to let you know whether your intentions are getting across.
Writing and acting are a lot alike; both involve creating a temporary reality for an audience. What differs is the medium. Actors use their faces, bodies and voices on a stage set; writers use words on a page. An editor helps make sure that your words do their utmost to create the reality of your story. A writer cannot do this solo, any more than an actor can play Lady Macbeth while watching herself do it. Many writers I know can edit their own work just fine, up to a point… but they still need the outside eye, to see what they can’t precisely because they’re looking from within.
At best, author and editor work together; the editor respecting the author’s vision, the author valuing the editor’s expertise. Often, discussing a trouble spot with an editor can show a way out of it that solves the problem and makes the book a better read. And isn’t that what we all want—a thumping good read for that rainy Sunday afternoon?