When editing another artist’s work, the most important thing is to respect and preserve is voice. Each story will have a unique flow. Every character will have a particular habit and manner of speech. Each author’s style, composition, and quirks are details that must be honored regardless of technical issues.
An editor is expected to find spelling errors, word echoes, broken structure, inconsistencies in story line, dropped characters, mistakes, mistakes, mistakes.* We are given copy in various stages ranging from rough first drafts to polished manuscripts simply needing a second glance.
It is difficult to read another person’s work and not notice things that go against the methods I would use were I the one writing. Once noticed, I place these standouts into three categories of editing.
Correction is simply that; I correct and note the error. Obvious instances for correction are misspellings and incorrect punctuation, but certainly do not stop there. Suggestion is a notation that the author should take a second look at the section and reconsider the structure, style, or word-choice. Suggestion is often used when a character suddenly uses unexpected language than I’ve grown accustomed to. For instance, if character-Sally says “gonna” every time she speaks for the first 15 chapters, my editor bells are going to start screeching when she begins dialogue in Chapter 16 with “I am going to…” – it would be inconsistent and therefore Sally becomes less believable. Celebration is pointing out a strength, regardless of the way it is written, even if that means it goes against my preference. The first few times I read Sally saying “gonna” I may make a correction or a suggestion. But by the end of Chapter 1, it becomes clear this is intended by the author to define Sally’s voice.
But if a manuscript is full of “gonna’s” spoken by kid-in-the-street-characters as well as professional characters teaching literature, then I need to decide if it is the author’s voice or the author’s laziness I should address.
I like to use To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee as an example of perfected character voice. Each page of that story is rich with the particular intonation and resonance of every inhabitant of Maycomb, Alabama. If Tay Hohoff, the editor reading Lee’s manuscript, had heard the same words and cadence from every character, the story would have been vastly different and it’s accomplishment unlikely. If Atticus Finch spoke of Tom Robinson in the same drawl and slur that Bob Ewell did, the story would have lost all believability.
If Hohoff and Lee opted to push aside Scout as the narrating character, the humor and innocence in delivery would have been lost. That approach signified Lee’s writing voice. A voice with the unique ability to bring tragic and timely issues to the reading rooms of America and beyond.
Something with which all editors struggle: At what point does editing become re-writing? I’ve written pages on, and discussed often with other industry types, this topic. Ultimately my sentiment is, the integrity of an editor and the proficiency of an editor are distinct qualities, and the success of an editor lies in the ability to recognize them as such.
* Personally, I like to point out the strengths I find in an author’s manuscript as well. Only pointing out mistakes seems like such a negative and stodgy approach to editing.