How We Edit: Emily Ruth Mace

“I enjoy the intellectual effort of reading through a text to see how it hangs together, which is almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”

Emily Ruth Mace is an editor and writer who runs Words With Care. Emily and I connected on Twitter, and we share the belief that editing is a kind of puzzle-solving. Like my previous How We Edit(ors), Emily is dedicated to her editing work—both the big picture of developing her writers and the nuts & bolts of mechanics and usage. “As an editor and writing coach,” she notes on her website, “my goal is to help people use words with care. Care to better understand their own lives and our shared lives, through story, prose, history, analysis, all the words we bring to the page and screen.”

What is your ideal kind of project to edit? How do you handle this type of project differently compared to a more “basic” or utilitarian one?

I have a couple kinds of ideal projects. First, I love learning from the manuscripts I read, whether those are academic articles, dissertations, book manuscripts, or other documents like creative nonfiction. Although it’s easier when the manuscript is a more basic edit and only needs a final read-through for any last remaining errors, I enjoy the challenge of helping to shape a project. Sometimes this means developmental editing, and sometimes it’s simply a matter of heavier copy editing. When I encounter a manuscript that isn’t as well organized as it could be, I try to figure out what the implicit organization could be. What’s the author trying to say, even if that message isn’t yet apparent in the text? What’s working well in the way it’s organized? What’s not working for me as a reader, and is leaving me confused instead?

Second, I really like working with application essays such as personal statements for graduate school or college application essays. I enjoy finding out what moves a person to pursue a particular career path, whether that’s business school, humanities graduate school, or other programs. When I’m reading an application essay draft, I often find they’re telling the admissions committee that they want to pursue a particular program and that they are a perfect fit. They’ll follow this statement with a personal story about why this is true. I help applicants retool their words so that they’re showing, rather than telling, the admissions committee why a school is a perfect fit. Often this kind of work requires a more “coach-like” approach than a strictly editorial approach, and I find myself rooting for the applicant to get into as many schools as they can!

In both cases, I enjoy reading back and forth in a manuscript, as I confirm my initial impressions about where a writer is going with the text. Sometimes, it’s a pretty straightforward read and the text is clean, but that’s rare.

Bring us into your process. How do you start work on (1) a book (2) an article or essay and (3) an early- or mid-process draft vs. a near-final one? What are the first few things you do?

  1. A book.  I edit primarily academic books now. I appreciate getting an overview of the work and its intended audience before I start reading. It helps to know who the proposed audience will be—experts? undergraduates? the general public?—so that I’m not editing in ways that don’t help the eventual readers.  Depending on what the author is looking for, I may give a general read-through first, perhaps making some notes as I go, and then go back with a more editorial eye for a second read. Other times, I find it helpful to jump into the editing process, so that I’m coming at the text fresh, as a reader would. Since I’m working primarily with academic materials, what I say below about editing an essay also applies to books: “every word should support your thesis.”
  1. An article or essay. When I’m editing a shorter work like an academic article, I usually keep in mind what a former professor said, and which sent several of my classmates’ heads spinning: “Every word you use should support your thesis.” This sounds, perhaps, like a tall order, and for a writer, it can be. When writing, we fall in love with particular case studies, or quotations, or stories, and there’s a temptation to include all the examples that make our point or further the story. There’s a reason that writers and editors use the phrase “kill your darlings.” It hurts to get rid of material you love, but it can be helpful to polish the final project so it shines. An editor can help a writer realize where darlings need to be killed, and where they need to be put on center stage, like the divas they are. An editor isn’t as close to the material as the writer is, and we’ll note where you’re making your point in the clearest or most straightforward way, where you’ve wandered off track, and where you’re being redundant. Resolving these difficulties almost always helps further the main point or key idea that an essay is trying to get across. I find that this principle—every word supports the thesis—translates to other genres than academic writing, too. It should all hang together. That’s why on my website I quote T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “And every phrase / And sentence that is right (where every word is at home, / Taking its place to support the others, / […] The complete consort dancing together).”
  2. Early or mid- vs. final one. Editing an early draft represents one area where communication with a client is so important. (It’s always important, but here more so.) It helps to know what kind of assistance the writer needs, especially if it’s being presented as a sketch or has holes left to fill. I have to imagine my way into the eventual finished project as the client wants it to be. In those cases, it helps to step into the writer’s thinking, asking what the writer ultimately wants to say with the work and how my input can best help them get there. At this stage, fixing punctuation isn’t going to matter if the paragraph might be deleted or merged with another paragraph that says essentially the same thing.

In both cases (for an early or later stage draft), it’s important to point out what’s working well, in addition to fixing problems. In this way, editing can often bleed over into coaching: the role in both cases is about encouragement and keeping the writing process moving in a positive direction.

Editing a near-final draft presents a different kind of reading than copy editing. Here, the basic bones or structure is in place (or should be), so I’m only looking for typos, extra spaces, misspellings, incorrect citations, or other similar, surface-level errors. I read in a more aerial-view way, since I am not so much trying to comprehend material at this point, but trying to spot glaring errors. It feels more like scanning than actual reading, to some extent.

What kinds of editing tools do you use regularly? Find and replace? Specific macros or software? Spellcheck and/or custom dictionaries?

I use the track changes features in both Google Docs and MS Word most often. As for other tricks, many of the contributors to your blog series have had some useful tips and tricks about how to use find and replace, which are great to know about! I leave the auto-correct features on, as these can be helpful, but I don’t rely on them without checking other sources, too.  

I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to formatting. Little details such as font size changes, shifts in typography, or weird header formatting jump out at me. Even a double space vs. a single space. Little details like this matter on an unconscious level to readers; they help us navigate through the text, even if we’re not thinking about them. We’re conditioned to understand quoted material differently from headings, which are still different from the main body text. Each of these communicates something about how we should understand the information, so when the formatting is off, the reader can misunderstand the text.

I’m a big fan of learning from mistakes, so: What have you had to learn the hard way about the editing process, about freelancing, and about yourself as an editor?

The primary thing I’ve learned—and am still learning, really— is when to offer suggestions about writing style, and when to be quiet and let the author’s voice speak. Letting the author’s writing voice speak as well as it can is the goal of all good editing, I think, but that still requires walking a fine line between encouraging, improving, and correcting. The emphasis will vary for different writers and different projects, and part of the learning process is knowing when to emphasize which. In each case, editing is primarily about facilitating or assisting a project to become the best version of itself that it can be.

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If you want to participate and show off your editing methods, let me know via Twitter or email (joe@jfruscione.com).

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