As I prepare to meet new students in October, The Editor’s Eye keeps rising to the top of my recently read pile as a useful resource. There are so many ‘How To Write’ books but few that turn such a forensic eye on the editing process.
This book stands out because of the way in which the author shows that editing is a series of stages, integral to the writing process, “… taking place before a book is written, while writing, after the first draft, and before and after a book is sent to book design.” Editing is far more than checking spelling and punctuation.
In my experience there are two common ways in which beginning writers misunderstand editing, especially with their first book-length project. There are those who have cripplingly high expectations, believing that the first draft should come out near perfect, bar a few typos. On the other hand, there are those who say, “Oh, an editor will sort out my work once it’s finished.” These writers tend to rush to send a first messy draft to an agent who, they feel sure, will spot its potential and sell it to an editor who will clean it all up. This is so unlikely to happen, especially in the current climate. The more polished a manuscript the more likely it is to rise to the top of the pile, but that polishing does not happen on the first draft. If you’ve caught yourself thinking in either of these ways and you’re serious about putting your work out there, then this book could be for you.
Part of developing as a writer part is to become more skilled at being your own editor. That is, to know when to let yourself play and become lost in the creative exploration of your material and when to standing back to assess what you have.
The author breaks down the processes that get lumped together in the word Editing, suggesting there are four stages:
- Developmental, which can occur before you start to write: brainstorming; testing out the concept for non-fiction; character studies or backstories for fiction; identifying holes in your outline; identifying research you might need.
- Substantive, this is most likely to occur when you have a good chunk of manuscript written in a first draft. It involves working at a structural level: order of chapters; pacing; voice/tone; identifying missing content. This is standing back to see if the whole is hanging together.
- Copyediting, attends to house style, spelling, punctuation, etc.
- Proofreading, your last chance to get it fixed.
Many beginning writers think that editing is just 3 and 4. What’s really useful about this book are the chapters on 1 and 2. That said, to talk of stages and numbering things 1-4 suggests that all it takes to write a book is to be systematic. We all know it’s messier than that and Stacy Ennis is careful to acknowledge that. Writing is all about going back and forth between order and chaos. This book will really help you when you need to be in ‘order’ mode and to decide what kind of order you might require.
The book is likely to be most useful to those writing non-fiction, but there is useful stuff for fiction writers too, such as making an outline to clarify your story either before you write or maybe when you have a few chapters but aren’t sure how they work together.
Any writer keen to understand and to strengthen their own writing process could benefit from reading The Editor’s Eye. It offers a space in which each writer can take time to reflect on what might work for them, to take a fresh look at how to work productively with spontaneity and planning.