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I enjoy blogging about editing.  It’s fun for me, but at the same time, I find that I don’t have as much to say on the topic as I thought.  This is due partly, I’m certain, to simply not having a few more years’ experience under my belt.  So goes blogging on occasion: You think you’ve got enough to push forward, and you find that you don’t quite have what you expected.  It’s part of the learning process to come up short occasionally.

Instead, I’m launching a blog that’s a bit more generalized and a bit more focused on me rather than the field I’m entering.  I’ve decided, in a sudden burst of determination I can’t ignore, that my most recent attempt at a novel deserves at least one rousing edit and that I have other things I’ve written that are in good shape for publishing (or, at least, attempting to publish).  The highs and lows and occasional embarrassment at some of my turns of phrase will be carried on in a different blog, which you can find here:

Gayle Francis Moffet

I’m going to commit the cardinal sin of writing about writing.  And I’ll throw in some editing along the way, just for fun.

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You may be thinking at this point that I’ve no skills at time management, given the sudden loss of posts on this blog.  You’re both wrong and right.  My time management tends to run as follows:

  1. Realize I have seven or eight tasks that need to be accomplished.
  2. List those tasks so that they’re staring me right in the face, and I can’t forget something.
  3. Work down the list until it’s all crossed out.

Fairly simple, yes?  Definitely. But the trick to that list and those tasks and a good portion of completion is to remember that no matter the length of the list, there’s something else going on.  Maybe I was supposed to have movie night with my husband, or maybe I had planned to get to the gym, but I’m the type that if there’s a to-do list and something major on the line (say, my GPA), then that list and I are the best of friends until it’s been properly wiped out.  Do I get my work completed? Yes. Do I get it completed on time? You bet.  Do I get stressed out and mildly wild-eyed because I forget to take a break?

Hoo-boy.

Here’s the trick: If you’ve got a hundred things to do and only half the time you want to do them, you still need to plan a few minutes’ rest in the midst of it all.  You’re no good to anyone if your brain’s gone to mush because all you’ve done for days and days is work without a break.  If you can work for four or five hours, go right ahead, but then take a half hour and watch something goofy.  Or read something that isn’t connected to your workload. Or call a friend.  Multi-tasking is all well and good, but it’s useless if, in the end, you’re more worried and stressed and sleep-deprived than when you started.

Tell you what, I’ll get you going.  Meet Tom Lehrer:

Now, take fifteen minutes, go to YouTube, and look him up.  Watch three videos, then get back to work.  I promise it works.  One of these days, I may take my own good advice.

This is a movie premise*. It was written for the film that became “Batman Begins.” In no more than 5 pages, it explains to possibly interested executives everything that will happen in the film. The final cut of “Batman Begins” came in at 2 hours and 20 minutes. How is it possible that someone sold the idea of the film to a studio with 5 pages of brief explanation?

Someone got trained, and you can too.

There’s both a screenwriting minor and a screenwriting certificate offered through Missouri State University (my soon-to-be alma mater), and the first class you take in the process is called “Genre Writing for Television and Film.” It will kick your butt. I picked it up as a general media elective to finish the hours in my minor, and I’ve spent the semester alternately interested, entertained, and scared half to death. I’m a good writer. On certain days, I’m a great writer. I am not, however, a premise writer. I’d never done it before (nor had anyone else in the class), and it’s been an uphill climb to learn how to do it right.

I have not, for the record, managed to do it exactly right, yet. I just turned in my second assignment. It was a movie premise (for the first assignment, I did a television premise). It was a romantic comedy idea. I was told it was funny (good!), and then I was told that I needed a third act, a good chunk of world-building, and some more character development. I was also told that I had a good concept that could make a good script, and that I needed to stop writing like an English major (a common complaint amongst Media profs who have taught me Media writing).

Reviewing the notes from the critique, and rereading my premise, I realized that I probably won’t be turning it into a script any time soon. For one, I don’t have the time to take the necessary courses to learn how to write a good script. For another, reading through it again I saw, in a sudden burst of late realization, that my movie premise could easily be the outline for a novel. And not only that, but I knew how everything started and carried on and ended, and thanks to the critique, I knew where I needed to start working on the overall story.

I’ve never outlined a novel. It’s not my style, and the bare, roman numeral outlines I’ve always been told to lay out have always struck me as too bland for something as large-scale and detail-oriented as a novel. But the movie premise formula, the layout and explanation, this is something I can use, and I think it’s something you could use too. If you’ve got something like “Genre Writing” on your campus, and you want to learn to write better, take the class. You’ll get your butt handed to you, but that’s the point. To be a better writer, you have to be ready to be told what you’re doing now isn’t good enough. I will probably not end up writing premises for television or movies, but now I have a way to figure out how to write just about everything else.

*For more premises (as well as scripts), see simplyscripts.com.

When I get bored I look up job openings for tech writers. I also surf craigslist for apartments. I do this because it’s a good idea to know where I can work and what it would cost to live there. For example, an editorial assistant in New York City doesn’t make enough to live alone in Manhattan. If I were going to work there (and since I’m going into book publishing, it’s a viable option), I’d need to live outside of Manhattan, and that would mean a morning commute that would need to be factored into the workday.

I also do these kinds of searches to see what skills I need for various companies. I was looking at job openings at Google (because all those pictures of their offices intrigue me), and they require tech writers with an understanding of various computer languages. I know HTML and some CSS. I understand how to use almost the entirety of the Adobe suite. To work for Google, I’m going to need to know C++ and Python and Java. I know none of these. Luckily, I don’t actually want to work for Google, but knowing what’s required lets me see what I could learn to make me a more well-rounded technical communicator.

The more you know, the more you can do, and the more you can do, the better you’ll get paid. Which means that with the right combination of skills, I could afford an apartment in Manhattan at some point.

The next time you get bored, don’t hit the StumbleUpon button. Pick through the want ads and browse through apartment listings. Take twenty minutes and figure out what it takes in skills and cash to work at a job you want in a city you want. Plan further ahead than a security deposit. Plan far enough ahead that what you have to offer is what’s being looked for in the first place.

The role of an editor depends entirely on the document being edited.  A cover letter usually requires no more than a quick copy edit (reading for general spelling, grammar, and structure errors).  An employee manual could require weeks of careful combing and debating over word usage (some of that legalese you find in employee manuals is there by requirement of law and can’t be removed).

Novels, as I’ve had the pleasure to learn, are an entity of their own.

Katherine Gilraine is the author of “The Index” series (The first book can be found here; her twitter is here).  We happened to run into each other on the internet a while back, and I helped her proof the first book in the series. This was a true proofreading; I was checking for basic errors that had been overlooked in previous read-throughs and dropping her little notes as I found them.  Katherine offered me book two, we agreed on a fee, and I went to work.  Shortly after, Katherine followed, taking my edits and adjusting it as I had specified (and sometimes, how I hadn’t).

I don’t think there is any author/editor relationship that works entirely the same, but here’s what we did:

I chose to edit three chapters a week.  One on Mondays and two over the weekends. I  sent Katherine the chapters as I finished them, my notes littering the pages of the Adobe Acrobat Pro file in a fun splash of red, blue, and yellow.  Katherine e-mailed, IMed, texted, or called me if she needed clarifications or wanted to run a revision by me.  We spent two days arguing over the use of Oxford commas (also known as the serial comma), and when my schoolwork suddenly leaped to the point of nearly-unmanageable, she was nice enough to wait for me to catch up (by luck, her muse bounced back into action at the same time, so she was not without distractions).

Every editing experience is different.  I’ve had experience editing creative work before, but this was my first full-length novel.  The rules, however, are generally the same for all creative work, and I see them as follows:

Know your author
— Being friends with Katherine, I knew I could get snarky in some of my comments.  This is not true for all authors.  If you’re on purely professional terms with your author, keep it that way.  Humor only translates on the page if the other person knows you’re joking.

Only snark with good reason — If you can get snarky with your author, don’t be snarky just for the sake of it.  The job of an editor is to provide constructive feedback, not wisecracks.  Wisecracks are the bonus after you’ve made your point.  Every snarky comment should be attached to a good point.

Defend your choices — If you suggest a change and your author tells you no, defend yourself.  Pull out the style guide and show some examples of why the change is necessary.  Whenever possible while editing, give some possibilities for making changes.  Don’t just say a sentence is awkward; give an example of how to make it less awkward.  If you can’t figure out a way to rephrase a sentence or phrase, it’s still okay to say it needs work, but be honest about not knowing exactly how to change it.

And, possibly, most important:  Be prepared to suck it up and let the author overrule you.  There are certain usage rules in the English language that can be adjusted as an author sees fit.  Katherine and I, as I mentioned earlier, spent two days arguing over the Oxford comma.  I love it, and the Chicago Manual of Style (the bible of the publishing community) says to embrace it.  Given the chance, I think Katherine would set it on fire.  Then burn the ashes.  I spent an entire chapter placing it in every instance of a series in a sentence.  Katherine told me no.  She preferred the flow without it, and she wanted it gone.  We ended up striking a deal; I would do my best to only mark it when I felt the series of items or ideas absolutely required it (when three or more obviously separate things or ideas needed to be marked), and I would leave alone the rest of them.  Katherine agreed to try it out, and it worked, but if she’d turned me down, I’d have sucked it up and kept editing.  My job is to tell her where to fix things, and her job is to know her style well enough to tell me no.

This whole entry is an editor’s job in a nutshell as I see it:  I offer a service that will improve your writing.  I am willing to negotiate both my fee and the general usage rules of the English language (because some of those rules are different depending on your style guide), and I will trust that you, the author, know enough about your own style to stop me if I do something that you think makes your work sound funny.  If I snark, I do it with constructive reasons (and only if I know you), and if I defend the style choice I suggest, I will do it with a stack of style guides next to me.

At the end of the day, at the end of the edit, it’s still your work and your call.  I’m paid to make you sound better as you, not make you sound like someone else.

There are a variety of simple reasons any person could use an editor.  I could probably link you to twenty articles from talented, knowledgeable people who could explain (using science) about how your brain fills in missing words because you know what’s supposed to be on the page.  Your brain filling in gaps is the same reason reading a document backwards doesn’t always allow you to catch mistakes, and it’s the same reason that causes you to turn in an assignment with bad subject-verb agreement. Your brain knows it should be there, so your brain puts it there.

But forget the links, and forget the science (for now). You know why you need an editor? Because I need an editor. And I work as an editor.

I once spelled “grammar” with an “e.” Seriously. In fact, I did it more than once.

I have been trained–really and truly trained–not to do these things. And I do them anyway. Because my brain is your brain, and an “e,” when you expect an “a” will fool your brain.

“Writing Worth Reading” will be an ongoing feature of this blog wherein I will link to or recommend a piece of writing that I think showcases someone writing very well.

To start off this feature, I’m recommending two pieces.  The first is a piece from “Esquire” magazine about Roger Ebert, the film critic.  It was written by a man named Chris Jones.  The second selection is Mr. Ebert’s response to the piece.

Roger Ebert: The Essential Man is an observational interview piece based on Chris Jones spending two days with Mr. Ebert and the people close to him.  The point of Mr. Jones’s interview was to show people what Mr. Ebert has been doing in the four years since a sudden medical emergency robbed Mr. Ebert of his ability to speak.  Jones starts out giving us a view of Mr. Ebert as we know him: sitting in a movie theater making notes on a film he plans to review, and then he slowly unwinds the last four years so that we readers can understand how Mr. Ebert has become a man with no lower jaw, no ability to speak, fed from a GI-tube but still, essentially, the man people can recall clearly when they know the name Roger Ebert.

Roger Ebert’s response is a short blog entry, commenting on Mr. Jones’s version of events and where he agrees and disagrees.

I’m recommending these pieces because Chris Jones shows a strong talent for writing a biographical piece with an emotional heart that does not become saccharine or over-wrought.  The hope he shows the reader is real and strong, and his imagery presents a multi-faceted man in Roger Ebert, not just the known film critic, and not just the man who is now without his voice.  Roger Ebert’s response I’m recommending because it’s a prime example of how to respond to someone else’s version of your own story (whether biographical or otherwise).  He is understanding of Jones’s view, honest about his reaction, but never, ever rude or dismissive of how Jones views the events.

You can see how to write a piece with sadness and happiness on an even keel by reading Jones’s piece, and you can learn how to handle feedback and critique by reading Ebert’s response.

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