Recently I had the opportunity to get some perspective on a novel project from an honest-to-goodness editor who’s recently launched her own freelance business, Story-Driven Editorial.
Jessica Barnes brings years of experience to the table, knows the publishing industry, has an instinct for storytelling, and has a great bedside manner as she dissects authors’ work. In addiction to providing me with invaluable feedback about how to improve my book and make it more marketable, she generously gave more of her time so I could interview her about the ins and outs of editing fiction. I hope you’ll find her responses as informative as I did.
LR: First off, do you do any writing yourself?
Jessica: I dabble a bit, and I do enjoy writing, but I realized a couple years ago that I’m a much better editor than I am a writer. As a famous fiction editor named Ellen Seligman once said, “What I am is the ideal reader, not the ideal imaginer.” That describes me to a T. So yes, I do write. Just not with what you’d call purpose.
LR: Why did you decide to become an editor?
Jessica: I’ve always been a reader, a lover of fiction. I wanted to be involved in the making of stories, because story and fiction is so important to culture and society–there’s a reason morality and wisdom has been passed down through storytelling since the beginning of civilization.
Wow. That sounded really pretentious. Mostly, I just love books and wanted to work with books. Editor seemed to be the way to go.
LR: How did you become one?
Jessica: I was an English major in college, and I had this vague idea that editing books would be a cool job, but I didn’t really know how one went about it or what it involved.I took creative writing classes, where I learned about good writing and how to put a story together, and then after college I went to this mini-grad school / summer course called the Denver Publishing Institute. There, in a month, you learn about all the different aspects of publishing, try your hand at some editing and marketing, and meet a lot of industry people. I somehow managed to land a job at a publishing company as an assistant after that, and it turned out all my reading and my writing courses had given me an instinct for good story and good writing.
LR: So you can get a job with an English major. Good to know!
Was an English or writing major required for the Denver Publishing Institute? Are there other such programs available to would-be editors?
Jessica: No, you didn’t have to be an English major to apply for the Publishing Institute. There were people there from other countries, people making career changes, people in related fields that wanted some background in publishing, and, of course, a ton of college students dying to get into the publishing field. The Denver Publishing Institute at Denver University and the Summer Publishing Institute at New York University are the only two summer publishing courses that I know of, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more.
LR: What’s your typical editing process?
Jessica: Editing is an incredibly subjective, gut-instinct kind of process. It’s reading a book, saying “I don’t like this” about an element, figuring out what isn’t working and then how to fix it. There are some black-and-white rules, but in writing, the rules get broken just as often as they get followed, so you can’t rely on them. It’s more about evaluating the experience of the book, making sure it’s as strong and has as great an impact on the reader as possible.
Generally when working with a manuscript, I start big and work my way down to the details. I usually read the manuscript all the way through first, perhaps making some notes on my initial impressions about plot elements or character interactions. Then I read it through again, more slowly and carefully, looking at the plot and structure of the book as a whole, identifying the weak spots, and brainstorming ways to make them stronger. At that point, usually, I give the author my notes and suggestions so they can make some revisions to the book, strengthen those weak spots. Then, on my third pass, I look at the nitty-gritty details and the actual writing. This is the stage where the manuscript gets marked up so that it “bleeds red”–trimming unnecessary words, rephrasing passive voice or clunky passages, making sure all the details are consistent. The author gets it back, goes over my changes, makes any changes they’d like, and then the manuscript is ready for the copy editors!
LR: And how does the copy editing process differ from what you do?
Jessica: Copy editing is the nitty-gritty detailed editing work–punctuation, spelling, formatting, those obscure grammar rules that most of us don’t even know exist. They check facts, making sure everything is accurate and correct. They catch consistency mistakes, they question details that might not, under scrutiny, make sense. Copy editors are amazing and undervalued. They make the author (and the editor) look good, and they rarely ever get credit for their efforts.
LR: How do publishers assign editors to authors?
Jessica: Every publishing house does this a little differently, but in most of them, an editor acquires their own authors. They read the author’s proposal, liked it, bought the book, and take it from there. So in a sense, the editors assign themselves to authors.
LR: So are editors the people who actually field book proposals from agents and read and accept manuscripts for a publisher?
Jessica: Usually, at least in the houses I’m familiar with. The agents communicate directly with the editors on what they’re looking for and pass them proposals. Sometimes these might go through the editorial assistants, but the assistants are more usually digging through the “slush pile” of unsolicitied submissions. But because the editors and agents have a relationship, they work directly with each other. Editors read the submissions from agents and decide which proposals they like enough to take to the acquisition committee, where the rest of the company editors along with some sales and marketing folks evaluate proposals and decide which ones to buy and publish, based on quality, marketability, and how many copies they think they can sell.
LR: How different is a manuscript after you’ve worked on it? Do authors have much input on the editing process?
Jessica: How different a manuscript is after I’m done with it compared to when it came in really depends on the project. I’ve had books on which I did very little–just polished it up, mostly–and I’ve had books in which I gave the author an entire new outline for the latter half of their book. Most of the time, it falls somewhere in the middle. Maybe 25% of the book changes significantly.
For me, editing is a very collaborative process. I’m very aware, as I work, that this is not MY book. It’s the author’s. The author is trusting me to look at it objectively and make suggestions for how to make it better. Most authors understand this as well, so it’s a very rewarding experience, working hand-in-hand with someone to shape their vision into the best possible version. I love brainstorming with authors, trying to figure out a sticky point in the plot or a way to rewrite this scene so that it accomplishes everything it needs to. In the end, however, the book is the author’s work, and they have the final word. (Doesn’t mean I won’t argue with them a little, but in the end, it’s their call.)
LR: How do authors typically respond to your feedback? Have you ever encountered a really stubborn author who refused your advice and then reception of the book suffered for it?
Jessica: Most of the authors I’ve worked with are favorable to editorial feedback, because they understand I’m helping them, not attacking them. I’ve been lucky that the situation in which a book suffers because an author and I couldn’t work together hasn’t happened to me. Though I’m sure other editors would have a different story for you.