Saturday, March 31, 2012

New words, old words, different words -- Editing vs. Proofreading

The past couple of weeks I've been working on minor edits and revisions to one of my previously print published books with the intention of putting a digital version up on Amazon.  Because the current digital file was spliced together from a variety of sources, I knew it would have to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb to make sure everything was as clean as possible before I began the actual conversion and then publication.

It's a tedious process.  The story is familiar and I know what I want to have written, so it's easy to see what should be there instead of what is there. 

It's also a complex process, because editing is not the same thing as proofreading.  As I found out when talking to a friend about it the other night, not everyone understands that difference.

Proofreading is a very simple, uncontroversial task.  The proofreader goes through the manuscript carefully looking for typographical errors, word usage errors, punctuation errors, grammatical mistakes, and other mechanical errors (and sometimes, but not always, ambiguities).  The proofreader does not look for factual errors, internal inconsistencies, or plot holes.

Here's a hypothetical segment from a hypothetical novel:

"Your not going to wear that dress are you"? Caitlin asked in exaxperation.

"I'll wear whatever I want to wear.  It's my party, not your's so don't tell me what I can and can't wear to it."  her younger sister declaired.

The two girls faced each other across the expance of the bed upon which the garment in question was spread in all it's crimson glory.

"Your just jealous," Vanessa said, "Because Mama made you wear pink for you birthday ball."

The older girl leaned to her left and punked her sister with her elbow.
A proofreader will fix the you/your/you're/yours errors, correct the punctuation and spelling, and will maybe ask if that "punked" should have been either "punched" or "poked" instead.  But there's no guarantee on that last one, because "punked" is a real word and maybe that's what the author intended to use.

A proofreader probably will not ask the author, "If the girls are on opposite sides of the bed, how did Caitlin poke Vanessa?"

That's a task for an editor.

From what I can tell, most of the "editing" that's done on self-published digital novels these days is proofreading, not editing.  (And frankly, some of the proofreading doesn't appear to be top-notch either.)

What an editor -- a good one, that is -- will do is spot the structural and composition errors and help the author turn the sow's ear of a rough draft into a final silk purse.  An editor looks at the whole package of the novel; the proofreader deals with the minute details of individual words and rarely looks at anything larger than a sentence.

A good proofreader can clean up a novel, even a messy one, in a day or two.  And when she's done, she's done.  Proofreading does not require the author to make any major changes to her work.  She in fact has asked the proofreader to fix mistakes, and that's it.  The proofreader's service is to correct errors; her job is not to make suggestions that the author has the option of following or not following.  Maybe she charges $100 or $300, but when she completes the task, she hands the manuscript -- or digital file -- back to the author and that's it.  Her job is done.

An editor's job is far more complex and if done properly, editing is process that involves both the author and the editor in at least some back-and-forth exchange involving creative issues of story-building and story-telling.  These issues may be as minor as changing the spelling of a character's name so it's more recognizable to the reader or as major as altering the ending.

Here's another example, again a very hypothetical passage from a hypothetical novel:

Jessikah stood in the cabin's doorway and looked around.  She saw a plain room with a fireplace and some furniture.  It was empty.

She closed the door.  She wondered if the roof leaked.  She was already wet from the storm.  She hadn't intended to walk all the way from town and hadn't expected rain.
An editor might suggest to the author, "I'm not sure readers are going to be able to skim over that spelling for the heroine's name.  It's going to stop them, make them think too long about how to mentally pronounce it."  Maybe there are reasons for the odd spelling, or maybe not.  And that can be an easy thing to fix if the author decides to take the editor's advice, either by changing the spelling or by providing an explanation so the reader can recognize and "hear" the name.

But looking at that scene, the editor may also say, "Give me more description of the cabin.  How big is it?  What kind of furniture?  Is it warm or cold?  Why do you say it's empty when you've just said it has some furniture?  Do you mean no one was there, or is the 'empty' a kind of comparative term?  Why not have Jessikah/Jessica wonder about the roof in her own thoughts rather than narration?"

Now again, this is a tiny passage, and this hypothetical editor is focusing in on a very small section.  But assuming the author agrees with her editor, maybe the author rewrites the passage:

Jessica stood in the cabin's doorway and took in every detail of her surroundings.  The small space seemed larger than it really was because a crude table just large enough for one person to dine and a narrow bed in the corner comprised the only furnishings.  Ashes lay black and cold in the fireplace.  The very air smelled of damp and emptiness and abandonment.

She closed the door behind her, shutting out the storm.  With a nervous glance upward, she whispered, "Please don't leak, roof."  The last thing she needed after the long, unexpected walk from town was more water falling on her already soaked clothing. 
Editing, then, is something the editor does and then the author has to respond to and act.  The editor's job isn't the end of the process, the way the proofreader's is.

Here's another hypothetical example of how an editor works:

By the time they had loaded everything in the wagons, Melody ached everywhere.  She couldn't remember when she had felt so completely exhausted.  Back in Boston she had worked hard, scrubbing floors and toting water for the laundry and waiting on the various old ladies who had hired her.  Like old Mrs. Cleeford who added the task of caring for her miserable old cat to Melody's chores.  Melody hadn't liked cats since then.
And the editor adds a note regarding the highlighted section:  "Is this really necessary?  Nothing else in the book references Melody not liking cats. . . . or Mrs. Cleeford."

So sometimes an editor suggests that something be removed from the book.  This may be due to length restrictions -- which is more a concern for print publication than digital -- or because it just doesn't add anything to what may be an already rambling narrative.

The original version of one of my published books included a lengthy scene in which the heroine has a particularly vivid nightmare that seems to foretell events that unfold later on in the novel.  I felt it was a very well written scene and it depicted some of this character's fears at being in a situation over which she had virtually no control and which offered a lot of threats to her safety.  The book's editor, however, said the scene was too long and really didn't add anything to the story.  I was very reluctant to include that scene in the cuts that had to be made to reach a publishable word count.  As I realized later, however, I could convey the character's fears and even her apprehension that something terrible will happen in a few lines of dialogue with other characters, and thus leave the actual development of events for dramatic, on-stage action rather than duplicate what had already been portrayed in the dream or, far worse, relegate the on-stage action to a brief "everything happened exactly as she had dreamt in her nightmare." 

I was asked a few days ago why I spend time reading and evaluating other people's books.  My answer was, of course, that if I hope to sell my books in an increasingly crowded digital marketplace, I need to know what my competition is.  And then I have to figure out ways to give myself and my books a competitive edge.

Do I believe that good writing, solid story-telling, and clean formatting are enough of an edge in the digital marketplace?  The truth is, no, I don't.  It wasn't enough in the days of print-only, and it certainly isn't enough now.  Twenty years ago, no one was defending and/or dismissing "published" books that were so filled with grammatical errors that they were virtually unreadable, mainly because "published" books weren't filled with grammatical errors.  Now we have authors, their friends, their husbands, their mothers, posting glowing reviews of books that independent reviewers assess as so poorly written that the books are difficult to read.  How can any author who doesn't have a huge fan base or a publisher's promotional apparatus even hope to compete with that, short of doing the same?

I don't  know for sure.  Yet.

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