Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

Ruth E. Walker

Jacob took one look at our dying tree and agreed, it had to come down.

As cottagers, we’re always in that delicate balance between celebrating the beauty of nature and needing to keep it manageable. On two acres of riverside property, we have a lovely mix of conifers (majestic white pine, balsam, spruce and fir trees) and deciduous (delicate birch, maples, black cherry, poplar, beech and a few I-Don’t-Know-Whats.) Safety is always a consideration, as in “If that 30′ spruce fell on the cottage, it wouldn’t be pretty.”

So bringing in Jacob Outram and his tree service was the right thing to do. The spruce had to go.

Jacob wasn’t finished. He listened to us and our concerns about another tree. And then, like the certified arborist he is, Jacob walked the property.

“This will need trimming on one side so if it falls, the weight is away from the building.” Check.

“One half of this birch is dead. It’s next to the gazebo. The dead part has to go.” Check.

“Those branches are over the roof. Winter snow weighs them down, right?” Check.

“This one is losing its needles on the lower branches from lack of light. Trim here and it will be fine.” Check.

By the time he was finished, our one dead tree wasn’t the only one slated for removal or trimming. And as he pointed out the issue with each one, I thought how is it he saw so much of what we didn’t? Then one second later, I thought, Jacob is my tree editor!

Trim Trees, Tighten Text

Think about it. We love our forest (manuscript) so much and look at it so often that we failed to notice pressing issues (spelling, grammar, plot, pacing) and future issues (reader expectations, marketability) that Jacob (editor) saw with his fresh eyes and professional experience. His assessment (feedback) gave us insights to our surrounding forest. And while we will pay for his expertise and work, I don’t begrudge a cent of it. We’ll sleep better at night.

A good editor does for your manuscript what a good arborist is doing for my cottage property. We found Jacob through recommendations. But how do you know when an editor is the right one for you?

Expert Advice

I asked professional editor Frances Peck of West Coast Editorial Associates in B.C. about qualities of a good editor.

“For many people, the qualities that first spring to mind are things like meticulousness and perfectionism, being detail-oriented and able to memorize spellings and grammar rules, having the kind of eye that jumps to the error on the page. While those are certainly desirable qualities for the copyeditors and proofreaders of the world, they carry with them the sharp, unpleasant whiff of negativity.

Good editors must recognize the risks of being forever in critique-and-correction mode, and must balance that orientation with healthy doses of understanding, patience, diplomacy and—yes—empathy.

In the Editors Canada document Professional Editorial Standards, the “hard” skills and practices for each level are always accompanied by softer skills related to communication and judgment. All the knowledge and critical skills in the world won’t help an editor who takes an “I’m right and you’re wrong” approach to a project. We must be collaborators, not antagonists.

The editor as midwife has become a favourite metaphor in Canadian editing circles. We are there to advise and prepare, to smooth and reassure, to massage and adjust, so that authors can deliver the healthiest, most nearly perfect offspring that they’re capable of producing.”

Frances gave a Writescape workshop a few years ago on editing and it was a smashing success. It might be a good time to invite her back.

Editing Skills Checklist

Next, I turned to a local colleague and professional editor, Sherry Hinman of The Write Angle, for her opinion on what skills a good editor needs. Sherry works with a variety of writers and corporate clients, and she says:

Editing skills do relate to the kind of job an editor is working on. No matter what the task, there are Seven Must Haves for any editor:

  1. Author/Editor relationship: The connection between you and the editor should feel respectful and collaborative. (This one’s #1 for good reason.)
  2. Knowledge of the process: The editor should have a good understanding of the steps involved in editing your project, and preferably beyond that.
  3. Style guides: The editor should have access to a variety of style guides and know how to use them.
  4. Technology: The editor should be able to explain what program(s) will be used to edit your project (editing is almost always done on screen) and how you will exchange versions of your document.
  5. Types of editing: The editor should be able to speak easily about the different types of editing (though not necessarily offer services in them all) and to describe what each type includes.
  6. Understanding of your needs: The editor should know what type(s) of editing your project requires and either offer to edit your work or suggest you seek an editor that offers that type of editing.
  7. References: The editor should be prepared to provide references, preferably from clients with similar projects.

So writer, now you have some ideas about what to expect from a professional editor and what you need to look for. But have you thought about what you, as the writer, need to offer an editor?

Hold that thought. I’ll be exploring your role in all that next week.

Did You Know?

Writescape’s Ruth E. Walker and Gwynn Scheltema have happily served as editors for both fiction and non-fiction writers. They honed their editing skills as senior editors/writers for the Ontario government and as founding editors for the Canadian literary journal, LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview

It’s been their pleasure to work with writers at all stages of the editing process: from a general reader’s report and feedback to copyediting, and intensive, substantive editing. They are also excellent coaches for writers who need support on their way to a polished manuscript.

Both Gwynn and Ruth benefited from having an excellent editor at various times in their writing lives.

Paging Dr. Edit: Line or copy edit?

Paging Dr. Edit: Line or copy edit?

Ruth E. Walker. When I first started writing, I didn’t know the difference between a line edit and a copy edit. After some workshops and lots of reading, I learned there’s similarity between the two. Which is good to know because not only do I edit my own work, I edit other people’s work.

Both line editing and copyediting skills zero in on how you are using words. When done properly, they both give you helpful notes and editing marks on your manuscript. Check out some of those marks with a free download from Writer’s Digest of 11 Editing Symbols All Writers Should Know.

It’s so easy to miss errors in your own writing. That’s why I’m immensely grateful to have a consistent critique group. Even so, my editor at Seraphim Editions caught things my colleague writers missed. But he commented that mine was a cleaner manuscript than he often sees. Yay critique group! Yay me!

EditingMy editor, George Down at The Book Band, still asked some tough questions and challenged some of my choices. But a good editor is supposed to make you think hard about your work. I was pleased that he didn’t have to spend too much energy on copyediting and line edits. Instead, it was more about substantive editing: he pointed out missed opportunities in the manuscript — areas where I needed important connections, transitions or back story. More on substantive editing in a future post.

So what is the difference between a line edit and copy edit?

A line edit focuses on the creative side of writing: your style, how you use language in each sentence and paragraph. A line edit helps you achieve clear meaning that helps you connect with your reader.

Line edits eliminate unnecessary words, phrases, sentences:

          • weak modifiers (such as: very, really, so)
          • adverbs (such as: suddenly, slowly, allegedly, terribly, utterly)
          • vague references (such as: this, that, those)
          • repetitions (such as: saying the same thing in different ways)
          • clichés (such as: straight as an arrow, dead as a doornail)

Line edits identify weak verbs that could be more active:

• she walked by
becomes
• she sauntered; she ambled, she strode…etc.

Line edits alert you to awkward sentence structure and unnecessary details:

• He looked up into her face above him, for a moment.
becomes
• For just a moment, he looked up at her face.

Look closely at your own work. Is there clarity in how you’ve constructed those sentences? Are you connecting with your reader in the way you intend? Have you avoided tired, overused clichés?binoculars-1015265_640

Copy edits zero in on the technical aspects of all writing:

  • grammar
  • punctuation
  • spelling
  • typos
  • syntax.

Are you correct and consistent in when and where you capitalize words? Have you missed hyphenations, quotation marks or commas?

If you’re writing non-fiction, a copy edit should catch where you don’t have your facts straight. Accuracy and consistency is important for fiction too: If the moon is out in the beginning of the scene, how come it’s snowing at the end of the paragraph?

I have a confession to make.
I cannot keep my editor’s eye on only one kind of edit. If I’m doing a line edit on someone’s manuscript and I notice a typo, I’m going to point it out. I’ve tried to look the other way, but I want the work to be as good as possible, so I mark the error. Similarly, when asked for a copy edit, well, if the sentences are stumbling over clichés and characters are moving through physical impossibilities, I will mark that too.

But my first pass on my own work is to bring a line edit focus. And it should be the same for your work: focus on the craft, on the language you’ve used, on the images you’ve included, on the mood you want to convey. This focus strengthens your creative voice. You are the chef, so help your sentences offer the kind of magic that swallows your reader’s imagination whole.Imagined Book in Paris cemetary

Don’t spend your energy (or editing budget) on just getting the spelling perfect. That won’t matter if your story doesn’t hold anyone’s attention. And it won’t reflect what you want it to: a great story that connects with the imaginations of readers, editors and publishers.

At our Spring Thaw writers’ retreat, we kick off the weekend with a feedback session. Both Gwynn and I receive, in advance, up to ten manuscript pages from the writers attending the retreat. We each review those ten pages and make line and copy edit notes for the writers. And then we meet with them for a one-on-one chat about their work. We love hearing more about each writer’s plans. We talk about plot, about character development, about markets and agents. And sometimes, writers use that one-on-one to discuss an outline or query letter.

I think Gwynn and I enjoy it so much because we have both benefited whenever an editor or mentor met with either of us to comment on our work. It can make all the difference to be able to ask a question and feel safe in doing so.

Dr. Edit has the answers.radiation-33438

If you have any editing questions, why not write to Dr. Edit? The Doctor is always “IN” and ready to take your questions. Send an email to info@writescape.ca with Dr. Edit in the subject line; the Doctor will answer you directly and we’ll feature your questions and our answers in upcoming posts.