Simple Tools of a Freelance Editor

Simple Tools of Freelance Editors
Used with permission. Originally appearing on September 18, 2009 at kvbwrites.

Michelle Levigne has over a dozen years experience in the editorial department at a community newspaper. She also has over 40 short stories and poems in fandom, over 40 novels and novellas published with small presses. She is the editor/publisher of a fanzine and a short fiction magazine.

On top of all of this, she has years experience working for a business publisher, changing transcripts into book chapters, 10 years proofreading for a national advertising agency, 10 years editing for various small press publishers, a BA in theater and English, and an MA in film/writing.

Your first question is probably, "What's a freelance editor?"

The simple answer is: Someone who's going to help you with the final polish of your book before you send it to an agent or an editor at a publishing house.

Because face it - editors are so overwhelmed with work loads and submissions and wading through truly wretched slush piles that they need "excuses" to reject. That's why a lot of publishing houses nowadays will only take submissions from agents - who act as a filter for them by going through the mountains of submissions that fill the slush piles.

The fact that you can follow the rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation and formatting - or can't/won't do so - will be the first watchful dragon at the gate that you have to get past.

I ran a very short-lived quarterly short fiction magazine (more years ago than I care to remember), and it taught me a valuable lesson on what editors go through. I was appalled and frustrated by how people couldn't be bothered to follow guidelines or couldn't be bothered to ask for guidelines, and had no idea what standard manuscript submission format meant.

People sent me stories typed single-spaced, 10pt font, on onion-skin paper - front and back! - and 20 pages folded up four times and jammed into a #10 envelope, with no SASE. Or they sent an addressed envelope with no stamp. Or they told me how much they expected to be paid for the story, and what issue they wanted it to appear in. Lack of SASE got them tossed into the garbage can without being read. I learned after the 1st issue not to deal with egos or ignorance of the rules, and NOT to waste my paper and stamps (and ulcer medicine) educating them.

And worst of all - this was a short fiction magazine, but people sent me Bible studies, testimonies, book reviews, and proposals for theology books they wanted me to publish. What part of SHORT FICTION didn't they understand?

Why am I telling you all this? To make a point: Editors get lambasted with so much stupidity from people who imagine themselves to be "artistes," that with a little common sense and effort, you will stand out from the crowd. Or as one published author at a writing workshop said about my chapter: Like a diamond in the manure pile.

And you know what made my story stand out from everyone else's? Not that it was good - it was wretched! - but because I used standard submission format, and I demonstrated I knew how to use standard grammar, spelling and punctuation.

You're here, you're serious about writing, so let's assume you understand the basics of grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure. Here are some simple "tricks" or "keys" you can use to smooth out your story, make it easier for the editor to read, and flow faster.

Wordy! "John wanted to win the soapbox derby in order to impress the guys in his new school." Know what? In Order To = To. Read the above sentence and take out "in order." Trim the wordiness. Nine times out of ten, you can use "to" in place of "in order to" and the sentence reads
just fine.

Your sentence is two words shorter. The sentence flows a second faster. How many times can you cut those two words out of every page, every chapter? Trimming a few seconds from every page adds up, so the story moves a little faster for your reader. Picking up the pace carries her
along, holds her interest.

So try to trim wordiness whenever possible.

"Wendy started to pack for her Hawaii vacation." Umm, how long can someone start to do something before they're actually doing it? Think about it. You can't continue to start doing something. Make sense? Why not just say "Wendy packed for her Hawaii vacation"?

There are only two times you can get away with saying "He started to/She began to." The first time is when you qualify what/where someone started - "He began packing by making a list of events on the cruise." "She started her lecture with an introduction to."

The other time is when there is an interruption: "Wendy started to pack, but a phone call stopped her with only her socks and sneakers pulled out of the closet."

The dreaded was/ing combination. It's weak. It puts distance between the reader and the character. It feels passive. "He was walking down the road." Why not just say, "He walked down the road"? It's stronger. It's more active. And, All together now: It trims wordiness, making the pace faster. Notice a pattern here?

Impossible Body Parts Movements.

"His eyes roamed the room." Umm, NO! His eyes did not pop out of his head and roll around on the floor and up the walls. His GAZE roamed the room.

Nine times out of ten, when someone says the character's eyes did something, it was the character's gaze, not her eyeballs. His attention or his thoughts wandered, not his brain. Her sense of smell picked up something, not her nose. <G> I read this in a published novel: "The
squire's nose told him there was meat stew." Um, no, his nose can't speak, so how can it tell him? His sense of smell caught the aroma of meat stew. So THINK about what a body part is supposedly doing, and if it normally can't - His eyes danced. Really? - then have something else convey the image you want. I know people use such phrasing all the time, but that doesn't mean it's right, does it?

When you're talking about people, use WHO. When you're talking about things, use THAT. Yes, I know we read all over the place, "The people that wanted." But the proper way to say/write it is, "The people WHO wanted."

Otherwise known as subject and object confusion.
"They gave an award to Terri and I." "Me and Terri had a vacation last week." WRONG! My Sunday school teacher does this so often, and I want to stand up and correct him, but that would be disrespectful, and unfortunately, so many people don't notice it.

"They gave an award to Terri and ME." How do you know that's right? Take out the other person - would you say, "They gave an award to I"? No, you'd say, "They gave an award to me."

In the other example sentence, you wouldn't say "Me had a vacation," would you? No, you would say "I had a vacation," so the correct form of the sentence is "Terri and I had a vacation last week."

"I" is the subject - the one doing the acting.
"Me" is the object - the one being acted on.

The simplest way of checking if the subject or the object is correct is to take the other person out of the sentence. If it sounds wrong when you're the only one there, then it's still wrong when someone else is with you. Got it?

I hate this! Unless this is a fantasy or science fiction novel, where people communicate telepathically, who ELSE is the POV character going to think to, except himself?

Just think about this! (Notice I didn't say "Think to yourself about this"?

Of course, someone is going to say, "Yeah, but what about someone speaking to himself?" That's different. When your character speaks, and especially if there are other people in the room, you have to indicate who is being spoken to. And quite frankly, it shows something about a person's character if she's talking to herself, rather than the guy across the aisle or on the other side of the room. Make sense?

"Your reader needs to understand what you're saying to them, so they can go out and apply the principles you've been teaching." If you start the sentence talking about ONE reader, then the rest of the sentence needs to be in the singular. I know a lot of people use "them" and "they" as sort of a gender-neutral singular, rather than "it," but it's so inconsistent and ugly. Either refer to your subjects in plural all the time, or switch back and forth between "he" and "she." I edited a book where an entire chapter referred to "the baby in Christ" and then went to on to talk about "them." I kept having to tell the author - change it to "babies" so there's agreement! If you want the gender-neutral "them," then everything has to be in plurals: "Your READERS NEED" rather than "Your READER NEEDS." Make sense?

Try and win the race. Try and understand. Umm, are there two verbs at work here? NO! Are you trying something, then doing something? NO!

No, no, a thousand times no! You do not "try and," you "try TO" do something. Try TO win the race. Try TO understand. Try to remember this rule, okay? Especially if you're going to ask me to edit your book before you submit it to a publisher.

See Struck & White's "Elements of Style." If you're using three words to say what one word will do, use the one word. Keep things as concise, as simple, and as short as possible. Unless you need long, convoluted, poetic sentences to convey a feeling or rhythm or subconscious idea. Are you trying to create a word picture, or impress your reader with your vocabulary? Sketch a setting, don't make the reader sit for half an hour noticing every petal on a flower and every leaf on a tree and catalog every scent, every sound. Only list the details that are necessary to the story itself. Michener can get away with this - you're not Michener! At least, not yet. <G>

I was involved in a long-running Easter drama at my church, as the scriptwriter and back stage manager. A woman involved in making costumes was so protective of "her" costumes, shrieking at people if they used too much makeup, because it would damage "her" costumes, even though the costumes were mostly church property, she made herself miserable. People didn't want to work with her. She used gorgeous materials for her costumes, but they were totally inappropriate to the time period, or she insisted on using materials that required dry cleaning or other special treatment. In essence, whether she was aware of it or not, she wanted the drama to revolve around her costumes. She never learned what I learned in theater class - it's a group effort. I could have tied myself up in knots every year when the actors mangled my script and insisted on using King James English when the rest of the dialogue was "modern." But I had to let go and let my contribution become absorbed in the whole. I was there as part of the team, not the star.

In the same way, you have to let your vocabulary and imagery become absorbed by the story, as support for the composite of the "movie" you want to put in the reader's imagination. If anything stands out, it will jar the whole and ruin the experience for the reader - just like an emerald green silken robe in the middle of a stage full of earth-colored robes jarred the audience.

A basic rule is to make your language secondary to the story. You want the reader caught up in the WHOLE of the story. If the reader has to keep stopping every couple of pages to untangle your words and images, you're going to lose her. The reader should be blissfully unaware of you, the narrator - and so carried along by your story that when she closes the book, she turns it over, reads your name on the cover and says, "I have to find more books by this author!"