“Somehow, great editors ask the right questions or pose things to you that get you to write better. It’s a dance between you, your characters, and your editor.” – Patricia MacLachlan
I’ve been thinking about how I like to be edited, which made me think about how I edit for others. I thought I’d share a bit about my process.
Step 1 – Figuring Out What Story We Are Trying to Tell
When I read a client manuscript, I’m always thinking about what story the author is trying to tell.
Sometimes the intention is stated in the paratext, like the email that comes with the manuscript. For example, “This is a picture book about a girl making friends,” or “This is a middle grade mystery.”
Most times you’ll find intention woven throughout the manuscript. The actions, dialogue and motivation of the characters; the world building and setting; the format and pacing – all of these attributes are pieces that tell the reader what kind of story they are reading.
To be clear, I’m not trying to write your story the way I would write it. I’m trying to figure out what the actual text of the manuscript is saying, and if that’s what the author intends.
Step 2 – Identifying What’s Working and Not Working
As I read through a manuscript, I’m taking notes on the things that I think work and don’t work. This might be (but is not limited to) problems of:
- character: a character does or says something out of context or out of character
- clarity: places where I have to stop and reread because I am confused about where we are or what just happened
- motivation and logical construction: a character’s motivation is unclear, or they decide to do X when the most logical next step is Y
- dialogue: places where dialogue isn’t working as hard as it could to push the story forward
- intention: a passage seems to be working against the authorial intention
Step 3 – Asking the Right Questions
When I write an editorial letter, I identify what is working and what’s not. Then, I ask a series of questions designed to illuminate what’s not working, show why the reader might be confused or have an undesired reaction, and to give the author direction in terms of how to strengthen the work.
So, instead of saying something too prescriptive – “The character needs a best friend who hates dogs as much as the protag loves them in order to cause a fight in the relationship” – or unhelpful – “The friendship plot is boring” – I ask questions that the author can use to strengthen their manuscript and stay true to the story they are ultimately trying to tell.
In the case of the example above, feedback might be:
“I’m having trouble understanding why the protagonist and her best friend are at odds about the dog show. How can you make it clear to the reader just how important the dog show is to the protagonist, while also showing us why the best friend doesn’t want to go. Is the best friend afraid? Does she not like dog shows (or any animal shows)? Why does she feel this way? What fear or feeling would be strong enough that the best friend would do everything possible not to go to the dog show, even if it risks hurting (or even losing) the friendship?”
I ask questions because maybe my solution isn’t the best solution. Sure, having the protagonist’s best friend hate dogs would explain why she wouldn’t want to go to the dog show. But that alone is not enough, and it’s likely that the author – who has even more knowledge of these characters than what might be on the page – has an even better solution than I could come up with.
Ultimately, this is the author’s story, and my job as an editor to make sure that the author is telling the story they want to tell, to the best of their ability.
With every project, I hope my clients come away from the experience not only with a stronger manuscript — but as a stronger writer.