When I was in college, I worked in the Writing Lab. Common wisdom had it that students who were floundering came to the lab to be nursemaided along by geeks in glasses who actually understood how to diagram a sentence. And we did get a lot of struggling freshmen, drowning in the concept of the Well-Constructed Five-Sentence Paragraph.
But as the year progressed, I noticed something interesting. A lot of the people who came in for “tutoring” really didn’t need tutoring. They came in for a fresh set of eyes. These were the seniors, the biology majors, the engineering students. One memorable student went on to become an anesthesiologist, and administer my epidural when I was having my son. I was happy to remember that he had been very, very smart. I was equally glad to remember that I had been nice to him. We all know what Payback can be.
As the year wore on I found myself hiring tutors not because I couldn’t write–I was, after all, a tutor myself–but because I, like my smartest clients, realized that there are two groups of people who need that fresh set of eyes. The first is the struggling writer. The second is the successful writer who understands that no matter how good you are, you can not adequately edit your own work.
The reason is simple. Writing is a recursive process. Things get added in. Things get taken out. After just so many trips through a piece (or worse, a novel) it’s impossible to maintain the clarity that notices things like a character’s name change, a faulty parallelism, a dropped line of dialog that throws everything off, or even an out-of-sequence chapter number.
For that, you need an editor. I need two, because I ask for editing at two steps in my writing process. I ask for it the first time when I think I have a polished draft, just about the time that I’m first starting to see publication as a foreseeable event. Instead of googling publishers or booting up my layout program, though, I send my draft to my content editor, and I ask her to read it for continuity, to flag places where the story jumps or drags, to note places where I seem to be making unwarranted assumptions, or where a narrative line relies too heavily on coincidence–in other words, I ask her to read for the story, and note any place that the story just doesn’t hold up.
When I get her comments back I generally realize I still have a lot of work to do. I have to clarify motives. I have to develop characters. I have to flesh out scenes–or in my case, cut unnecessary description.
I write again. In the case of my most recent novel, Good on Paper, I ended up writing the whole thing four times, from the viewpoints of each of the four narrators, and that was after I thought I had a finished book. I was concerned about having so many speakers, and wanted to see if any one character could really do the story justice. And so I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And in the end, I wound up where I started–with four narrators. But I understood each of them far better, and the book is far better for it. That’s the value of a content editor.
The problem is, though, that a good content editor sees your book a lot. She can develop blind spots, just like yours. She can no more be a really effective proof reader than you can, and for exactly the same reason. Like you, she has too much history with the book to see it clearly.
And that’s why before I submit a book for publication I ask a second editor to do my line edits. And, even though I am an excellent writer, and my content editor is both an excellent writer and editor, my line editor still finds things. Because she is not familiar with my book, because she has not been involved in all the wrangling over character and plot development, she can see the book the way my readers will see it–fresh, new, and, once she’s done with it, error-free.
Everybody needs at least one good editor. The best writers know it.
Have a specific editing question? Check out the Blood-Red Pencil‘s Ask the Editor Tuesday Free-For-All.