Redundant Editing?

This blog has an overwhelming preoccupation with book editing. For many, that’s the image of an editor that springs to mind when you hear the word. But for others, the vision can be that of the harried newspaper editor, a la Spiderman’s John Jonah Jameson Jr.

However, the endurance of that vision must be called into question. As we move deeper into the digital age, print newspapers are seeing circulation rates plummet, as consumers increasingly look to the screen for their news.

The result is that newspaper companies have been forced to slash jobs. What is interesting is that these have overwhelmingly been from editorial departments.

On 24th November, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that News Corp, Australia’s largest newspaper and media company, was to axe 55 jobs, all from editorial.

Traditionally, editors, particularly copy-editors, provided vital support to the newspaper publication process. Their job was primarily about being a second pair of eyes to review the article before it was printed. Editors oversaw corrections to spelling and grammar, fact checking, and changing sentences that may have left the newspaper liable to defamation or other legal issues.

With the cuts to editorial, these jobs are being consolidated into the ever-expanding role of the journalist. Increasingly, the onus is on these individuals to not only write, but also to find their own stories and edit them. The journalism process has changed to facilitate even more rapid news reports, by having articles immediately uploaded to the web, then subsequently incorporated into print.

This has significant implications for newspaper quality. As we all know, the benefits of having someone else review your writing are substantial. Most of us quickly grow familiar with our own work, making it more difficult to spot mistakes, or places where improvement is needed.

Inevitably, things slip through the cracks. Editors Victoria demonstrated how a lack of editorial review contributes to even the simplest mistakes, when they posted a photo of the Herald Sun’s December 2 front page. In a blatant typo, the newspaper proclaimed the year to be 2105, transporting its readers 90 years into the future simply through a disordering of the number keys.

Herald Sun

It was a very simple mistake. How many times have any of us hit the wrong keys as we whiz through a document? But this easy fix made it all the way through editorial and print, to appear on shelves across the country. I have to ask, if the Herald Sun had been given adequate editorial support, would this error have still slipped through the cracks? I consider that unlikely.

Many people, those in control of staffing decisions across News Corp and Fairfax in particular it seems, consider the role of an editor to be superfluous – desirable, not necessary. After all, anyone can proofread, right? While I won’t comment on the average person’s ability to fix their own grammatical issues (Youtube comments section anyone?) editors provide a level of quality control that our newspapers are currently floundering without.

Those in charge may think that axing editorial staff is the most efficient way to cut costs and have the waning print newspaper format survive in the digital age. I can assure them that it isn’t. The increased production of poor quality work that we see when the position of editor is devalued will only accelerate the decline of the medium, as consumers search for a medium that can at least get the date right.

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Demanding Publishing

The place of the print book in an increasingly technological society has been debated again and again, with both sides having a multitude of arguments to put forward. One of the strongest arguments against continuing traditional print books, especially in the volume that we currently do, is due to its environmental impact.

Undeniably, the publishing industry is not one with a major focus on the environment. Publishing takes up A LOT of paper. It’s unavoidable. Not only do books themselves need it, but so does the editing process itself. As Brendan noted in his blog post Give Me Paper or Give Me Death, a few weeks ago, many editors, including us young ones, often prefer to edit on hard copies. Computers may have streamlined the process, and allowed us to create lots of coloured notes all over the manuscript, but there’s really nothing like boldly crossing something out with your plain old red pen (or blue pencil if you’re a traditionalist).

Yet another area of publishing in which our treatment of the environment is less than perfect is in the destruction of books that don’t sell. Arrangements between publishers and bookstores are often such that unsold books can be stripped of their covers and returned to publishers. As they have already demonstrated that they won’t sell, usually these books are discarded and pulped. Although the practice of stripping covers has largely diminished due to the insides being used for bootleg copies, pulping is still practiced, particularly for paperbacks.

The numbers of pulped books can get extremely high, and it’s not something the industry likes to admit. In an effort to combat the problem, smaller print runs are offered to authors who don’t sell well, and sometimes these authors are even dropped altogether.

Particularly in small publishing, businesses can’t afford the losses that come with being forced to destroy so many books. That’s why, in the past, their print runs have been very small.

However, with the advent of digital publishing, comes a development that has changed the industry, in particular for the small presses, taking the focus off print runs. It’s called print-on-demand publishing.

It does exactly what its name suggests it will. Instead of having a set number of copies required to produce the book, you only need to print what you need, when you need it. It was a system I first experienced when I visited the Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark factory (The Cave Where Dreams Are Made). Lightning Source offers such a print-on-demand service, and one that Odyssey, among other small publishing houses, takes advantage of.

The benefits of this are enormous. Smaller publishers, for whom every penny counts, are not burdened with ordering a set number of copies that may never sell. Ordering is simple, when an order for a book is received, it is put through the print-on-demand service, printed, and dispatched to the recipient. This has been enthusiastically taken up by self-publishers as well. For those just getting started in the market, it’s a great way to get your book out on as many websites as possible, without having to worry about being burdened with 500 copies in your garage if your venture never takes off.

For larger publishers, print-on-demand can be a less viable option. When you’re producing print runs of thousands of copies, traditional printing is still more cost effective. But there is scope for them to incorporate it into their production processes. Particularly with books that have been in print for a while, using print on demand allows access to books that may not otherwise get a second or third print run.

The system allows both readers and authors to tailor the publishing production process to more accurately fit their demands. Not only does it provide a future for reducing the environmental impact created by the publishing industry, it makes the book market more accessible. Print-on-demand is just one advent of digital publishing that has allowed the industry to make significant leaps forward.

Publication Day Jitters

It’s crazy. In just three days, a book I found in the slush pile will be published. I’m nervous as all hell. Probably not as nervous as the author, Belinda, but still bloody nervous.

My main worry is whether I have done a good job with the editing. Have I allowed the author’s voice to cut through? At the end of the day, my thoughts as an editor rest with whether I’ve enabled the author to tell their story in the best way possible. That’s a very nerve-racking concern, particularly for one’s first-time fully editing a manuscript for publication. Did I mention that I’m nervous? Probably. This is a huge moment and will remain important to me for the rest of my life. I will always remember Hero as the first book, and that’s really special. (Thanks Belinda, for writing a story that moved me to do this.)

This kind of privilege – to acquire a book and see it through is such a huge thing to take on at a junior level. And yet, this is common in the US industry. Low level editors in most houses spend their time acquiring books at a fairly steady rate. In the Australian industry, acquiring titles is the field of senior editors (commissioning editors) and publishers. Below that, editors work on the books that their house has acquired, and may occasionally pass things up the chain.

These two distinct models of editorial careers are interesting, but do they change the content of what is published? If low-level editors acquire books as well as the upper-levels, would that not encourage more diversity? I believe so, and I also think that it represents a significantly different caliber of on-the-job training for editors. It would be more about creating a confident, individual professional over a competent, focused operative. While both systems have their merits, perhaps it’s better to have editors working on acquisition from the early stage of their careers. I know I certainly don’t want to stop picking something from the slush and running with it because I believe in it.

Hero very much fits that description. I first knew it was a good book because when I picked it up, I had been going through one of those awful phases where everything I picked up might have been a good book but it wasn’t grabbing me. Hero grabbed me immediately. I was skeptical at first glance, but then I read the first page, and the second, and then I couldn’t stop. They say there are books that you literally cannot put down and I always thought that was a weird or silly statement.

But now I get it.

There are books that, regardless of your capacity for reading at the time, sink their claws into you and pull you through them. They are the books that make reading as natural as breathing.

Hero is just that sort of book.

Back to my nerves. In a recent book about editing, the author stated that confidence was an editor’s “stock in trade”. Whoops. Though the larger part of me is very confident that we’ve got a good read, there is always the self-doubt at my own choices. But I know this is a good book, I’m just a mess of nerves. So perhaps I could be an okay editor and maybe I’m just a rubbish stock broker. But I think I can live with that.

Traversing the Thorny Thicket

One of the most typical intern jobs around is being assigned to the slush pile, as both I and Brendan have been at different times.

In layman’s terms, the slush pile is the collection of all the new submissions a publisher receives. Part of my job is to sift through the hopeful cover letters and (often) ambitious manuscripts, and divide them into two groups, the ‘Don’t Bother’ and the ‘Worth Consideration’. It’s a job commonly assigned to interns and newbies because it’s intensive, with often little to no reward. However, ploughing through the slush pile is an important step in any intern’s journey for a number of reasons. It allows you to hone your critical thinking skills, as you learn to look for certain signs that a book may have what it takes.

It’s prompted me to think more deeply about why I approve or reject a certain manuscript. Not only do I suggest certain manuscripts for our publisher’s consideration, but for every manuscript I read, I’m required to do up a summary document, where I provide a short synopsis, pick out the elements that are good and/or bad about the manuscript, and justify why I would or would not publish it. It’s quite a lot of power, which has the potential to easily swell this small intern’s head!

Before I even read the manuscript, I’m looking at the cover letter, the biography, the marketing plan, and the way the author sells their work. And so, before we’ve even made it to your manuscript, we’ve made a lot of assumptions about you. One of the most important, and often overlooked is: can you follow our submission instructions? Someone who hasn’t bothered to add in their pitch, or whose cover letter leaves out relevant details automatically needs their manuscript to work harder for them.

The process of turning manuscript into finished product sees an editor and author working very closely. So when we consider your book, we’re also considering what you will be like to work with. These things come out very easily in cover letters, and will definitely make us reconsider you, even if your manuscript is out of this world. The relationship between a publisher and an author is very much a partnership. The work doesn’t stop once we agree to publish. So, ideally, you want to come across as interesting, enthusiastic, and willing to work with us, to be in the best possible position for us to accept your manuscript.

Now on to the fun part: reading the actual text! At Odyssey, we usually ask for the first four chapters, to give us a sense of the work. When I’m reviewing the slush pile, rarely will I read all four of those chapters. From discussions with various editors and slush pile enthusiasts I’ve met through my work, I’ve discovered that everyone has their own rule of thumb. For me, it’s the first twenty pages. What I’m looking for, first and foremost, is a text that can capture me in those first twenty pages. Even better than that, if I end up wanting to read more than the four chapters an author has sent, that’s usually when I send excitable emails to the publisher, demanding that we request a full manuscript, just so I can know what happens!

How does an author capture my attention and keep it? Well, that’s the part that’s hard to quantify, and is different for every book. Readers today are more spoiled for choice than ever. A novel that can make readers connected to their characters, absorbed in the action and excited to see what comes next, just in the first twenty pages, is going to be one that has a much better chance of succeeding in the market. So I can’t highlight what I want. But I can give you some ideas of what I don’t want.

  • Poor Editing – Oh wow! As editors, we know that typos slip through all the time. We do it too! (only sometimes) But a manuscript that’s full of typos just seems lazy. If an author can’t be bothered to edit their manuscript properly before submission, how are we supposed to think they are at all dedicated to making sure their book does as well as possible?
  • Over-Detailed Introductory Material – This is guaranteed to make me stop reading a manuscript very quickly. The best novels catapult you right into the world you have created. Backstory comes later! It trickles out and keeps you hanging on for more. If you load it all in at the beginning, no one will be hanging around for the middle, let alone the end.

As I’m rapidly running out of space, I’ll leave it there. My adventures in the slush pile have made me one of the pickiest readers around. Every manuscript I work with allows me to better understand what it is that makes a novel stand out as publishable amongst the mountain of slush that never will be.

The Big Picture: Structure and Flow

Happy Friday! You may have read Jen’s excellent piece on Monday about editing sweet, sweet copy. If not, there was a link back in that last sentence and you ought to click it. Now it’s time for the second blog of the week, by me! As Jen covered copyediting, we thought it would be swell if I talked about the bigger picture: structural editing. Here are some choice shower thoughts I had about this blog, that became this blog.

A disjointed novel, much like a disjointed limb, can be pretty useless. It goes without saying, but there’s a reason that people find short story collections without a very tied-in theme difficult to read in smooth succession. It’s because it’s hard to jump from world to world so quickly because you’ve only just established a connection with the previous story. You need that cool down time, where you dwell in the spaces the author created. You fit yourself into the world’s nooks and wonder about the characters and the plot. (You might wonder why it is that Gandalf didn’t want to go through Moria, but wouldn’t tell the fellowship his fears? Was Gandalf deliberately keeping the truth from Gimli? That bastard!(This was indeed a shower thought.))

Similarly in a novel, disjointed chapters or voices can have the same effect. If the author has created what feels like two different worlds that have no connection, then it can become very difficult to invest as a reader. It becomes more difficult then for the author to impart their story, to build characters and share emotions with their readers.

The job of the structural editor here is to ensure a sense of consistency, or provide suggestions of where to put the glue in the cracks. One of the many things a structural editor will do is called “chunking” where the parts of the story are categorised or chunked into groups. This allows both the editor and the author to get a better sense of the story and character development, what’s happening and when. Often a structural editor may even suggest the scalpel for a voice or chapter, as it brings nothing to the story and is hurting rather than helping. We do the same with paragraphs, but that’s on my next point.

Flow is often one of those annoying buzzwords that people use. But I am people, and I will use it because it’s the right word for the situation. It also literally means flow, as in the same way water flows. Why is it important to a structural editor and also to an author? Flow is vital to the creating a good reading experience of the book overall but also for each individual chapter. Something structural editors look to ensure is that voices, moods or scenes don’t chop and change (unless of course, that is achieving something deliberately). An important part of flow is ensuring that chapters don’t run up against each other and cause people to need a break from the book. Within those chapters, flow is about ensuring that people don’t switch off. That each paragraph pulls the reader to the next like a current. Sometimes to create flow in a chapter, we use the scalpel. Sometimes we move things about. Sometimes we ask for more. That’s what we do. We help put things in place, words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. All for the long view.

At some point a manuscript becomes a book, and the job of a structural editor is build and mentor, to pester and worry, and ultimately to make sure that an author’s words connect with the reader. We’re for good stories, written well and read even better. We are the big picture people, and as many editors will tell you, the bigger picture is often in the details, which is why structural and copy editing work together to create good books.

They’re Their: Copy Editing and Its Importance to the Finished Product

Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of you are feeling a bit ripped off. In our introductions, and most of our discussions about what we do, Brendan and I have both said time and time again that the majority of our work centres around editing. But so far, a lot of our blog posts have focused on other topics. We hear you, loyal readers! You want to know about the ins and outs of editing, and we plan to bring it to you.

Today this post is all about copy-editing, the often confusing, mostly frustrating, and frequently overlooked aspect of editing that many authors forget they need. Copy editing does not concern itself with major plot holes, aspects of drama or action that need livening up, or even fixing those incredibly annoying characters that you just cannot stand. In a nutshell, copy-editing involves editing a text to make sure it is clear, easy to read, and most of all, consistent.

When I talk about copy-editing’s concerns with being clear, I am mostly taking about issues of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Misspellings, an over abundance of semicolons, or passive voice are all concerns of the copy-editor. This also ties into making the text as easy to read as possible. Copy-editors scan your manuscript line by line, just waiting to find those devious little sentences that are too long, too verbose, or just plainly too confusing. Like a tiny little word ninja, they swoop in and cut those sentences down, making them pleasing and simple to read.

One of the absolutely key jobs of a copy-editor is to make sure the manuscript is consistent. There are many out there, mostly frustrated writers banging their head against battered keyboards, who would love the writing process to be simple and straightforward. The reality, of course, is that it is a highly creative and organic process. As such, characters undergo major identity changes, settings are moved, and events are scrapped and written again. This means that your average manuscript can often be full of inconsistencies that the author has overlooked or simply forgotten to fix. When your Hobbits begin by marching through the Misty Mountains, and end up at Hogwarts, that’s when you know you need a copy-editor.

Most inconsistencies aren’t usually as drastic as all that (although, now I think about it, Bilbo Baggins’ sorting would make some awesome fanfic). Usually checking for consistency involves fixing characters who were redheads in one scene and brunettes in the next, or whose names have mysteriously changed halfway through. Not only that, consistency with word choice is also important. How many times have you Aussie writers battled frustratingly with a Microsoft Word that insists on changing your ‘s’ to a ‘z’. Small issues like these occur frequently throughout a manuscript, and finding and fixing them is an important part of the copy-editing process.

I can see the cogs whirring in your brain from here, even though none of you have yet read this article as I’m writing it. This sounds like proofreading! Proofreading is easy, I do it all the time in my essays, why have you gone and given it a fancy name? I should note, before our publisher reads this and then decides to hunt me down for my factual inaccuracies, that there IS a difference between the two. Although proofreading and copy-editing have several things in common, they are different parts of the editing process. Proofreading is generally the final stage of editing, where we look for errors that have been overlooked in previous edits. These are usually small spelling mistakes and typos. Copy-editing is a far more intensive edit, and aims to make the text as cohesive as possible, in order to provide the most pleasure for you, the reader.

It’s very easy to think that editing is just the one process, rather than the many-layered beast it is in reality. Manuscripts go through a number of edits before they are even proofread, and a major part of this is the copy-editing. We’ve all been frustrated by a sudden change in a character’s appearance or name that shouldn’t be there, but the sign of a solid editing process is when that never happens. And as someone who wants to be an editor, boy is that a lot of pressure!