My love for art and the written word began when I was very young. Drawing supplies and storybooks topped the list of my favorite things. Today, if you look in my purse, among packets of “emergency” almond butter and lip balm, you’ll find colored pens and a well-worn paperback—most likely, historical fiction or mystery.
For this installment of How We Edit, I talked with Blake Leyers, a developmental editor specializing in fiction. She’s also, as the quote above from her website shows, an avid reader, which informs her assessments of her clients’ creative works. Like her fellow developmental editor Karen Conlin, Blake alternates her editing time between style/grammar and overall structure. “I evaluate the book’s core intentions and goals: organization, characterization, plotting and pacing, voice and tone,” she told me. “I also look at how things connect, and consider how themes can be reemphasized throughout the book.” Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are part of this work, too, but Blake’s eye is usually focused on “the big picture” of how the piece as a whole is working.
Regardless of whether she’s looking at structure or style, Blake has two cardinal rules:
- Do not interfere with the writer’s voice.
- Use tact and diplomacy when making suggestions and comments.
This part is huge. It’s tough for editors to learn rules like these, because what we want to do to a piece of writing isn’t always what we should do to it. As much as we might like it to be in our more power-trippy moments, the work we’re editing isn’t ours to do whatever we will with. “It’s their story—not mine,” she reiterates about #1.
As a colleague noted in a blog post I did about communicating with your editor, “We’re more than track changes on a document.” It’s also part of the great way Benjamin Dreyer describes a copy editor’s role to “help fulfill an author’s vision and make each book into the idea version of itself.” For Blake, respecting her authors’ work and offering useful, kind feedback starts with a formatting overview:
Whether the project is for a new writer preparing to submit to agents or for a contracted author developing their next novel, this is an important first step. Even the most seasoned writer can make a formatting faux pas—especially if the misstep is a habit that was established long ago—e.g., placing two spaces after a period. Not all who learned to type on typewriters (*raises hand*) have made the transition to putting only one space after a period. But, hey, that’s what editors (and Find and Replace) are for, right?
After getting a lay of the editorial landscape, Blake gets into the weeds. “I prefer to go into a project with no spoilers, discovering the story as a reader would,” she notes. “This allows me to provide genuine first reactions as I move through the manuscript and give unbiased feedback. Knowing ahead of time that the writer wants thoughts on a specific element can cloud my perception, so I read any notes they provide with their WIP after I’ve made my first pass.”
Blake has her go-to resources handy as she’s doing the work: among them, Words into Type, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus, The Chicago Manual of Style Online, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (a new release!). In addition to using track changes and inline notes for comments and suggestions, Blake also jots down chapter summaries, various details, and brainstorming items in a notebook; she uses them during her second pass. “These notes,” she said, “are helpful for the (optional) post-edit conversation or brainstorming session with the writer.” Making a note of details and reactions also helps with the editorial letter we might send to our clients to give them an overview of our feedback and suggestions. I typically start my editorial letter as I begin the project. It’s usually open in a separate window, and I shuttle between it and the document when I need to note something about a specific scene, paragraph, or page. Like Blake, I also have gut reactions when reading a piece of fiction—Can you start a new chapter here? What if you added….? This reminds me of…—so the notes and in-progress editorial letter capture these reactions.
All editors have made mistakes. I’ve talked about mine in the context of what I’ve learned in my time as a freelancer. Handling money—both a clear fee structure and invoicing system—are part of this learning for all of us. Whether you’re charging by the word, page, hour, or project, Blake reminds us, “we all tend to follow the same rough guideline, acknowledging that 250 words is the industry standard for a manuscript page.” This should always be clear to your clients on your website, scopes of work, and anywhere else the money question comes up.
Blake has a fantastic answer about other things she’s learned from mistakes:
Here, I will step onto my soapbox. Never—I repeat, never—go into a project blind. Always ask for sample pages to review before taking on a new client. Those pages will inform you of the scope of the work—the depth of editing needed and how much time it would take to do the job. They also give you something to base a quote on and allow you to provide a sample edit, which enables the writer to get a sense for your editing style. This initial exchange gives both of you the opportunity to determine if you’re a good match.
But wait…there’s more:
A good match? Yes. Whereas mechanical editing can be done with a dispassionate eye, developmental editing requires creativity. Every writer deserves to be matched with an editor who will get excited about and advocate for their work. If the manuscript doesn’t spark interest, chances are you will not do it justice. Regardless of the reason it doesn’t float your boat—subject matter, voice, genre—taking on a project that isn’t a good fit is unfair to the writer and you; their money and your time can be better spent.
Developmental editing, like teaching or coaching, is about more than correcting grammar and making comments. It’s about creating a constructive, two-way relationship with the writer and their work. The writer learns from your expertise and insight on their work, and you’re always learning about yourself as an editor with each project. “Handing over a ‘book baby’ for criticism is a vulnerable act,” Blake says. “Writers put blood, sweat, and tears into their work. Respect that by offering feedback in a kind, constructive manner.”
If you want to participate and show off your editing methods, let me know via Twitter or email (email@example.com).