The Art of Editing

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 11 2007

I was directed recently to this post on Salon and it made me think of an experience I had while I was still an editor with Berkley.

As I’m sure many of you can relate to, whenever I visit family back in Minnesota, I find myself led around from event to event so parents and grandparents can show off who they’ve been talking about for so long. Yes, it’s a little like being a show pony, but it keeps the troops happy, and let’s face it, that’s what it’s all about. Well, at one of these events I ran into one of my high school’s English teachers. While I had never personally had a class with Ms. X, I had been referred to her my sophomore year (I think) for help with my previously confessed horrendous grammar skills. Let me just clarify that it’s not that I can’t speak and it’s not that I can’t write. I think I do both quite sufficiently. It’s that I can’t diagram a sentence, I don’t have the first clue when it comes to direct objects, and when forced to think about grammar while writing, I’m guaranteed to make a mess of things.

Anyway, back to my story. Ms. X was very excited to see me and wanted to pick my brain because, not surprisingly, “she’s always wanted to write a book.” So she took me to a quiet corner to talk about my job, at which point she said something along the lines of, “it’s amazing to me that you can become an editor when you don’t know anything about grammar.”


When it comes to publishing there are people who have the job of making sure your grammar is in tip top shape (your copyeditors) and then there are editors.

What I said to Ms. X was that my job wasn’t about grammar and punctuation, but about what makes a really good book and what can make that book shine. And then came the zinger. I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Truthfully, I think schools spend far too much time teaching things like how to diagram a sentence and not nearly enough time teaching kids how to actually write.”

At least I shut her up.

Like the author of the Salon article, I have the utmost respect for editors, both copyeditors and acquisition editors, but it’s the acquisition editors who really are amazing people. With one read of a manuscript they can pinpoint exactly what you’ve been struggling with for months and give you a boatload of ideas on how to fix it. A really good author/editor relationship is a true collaboration. The editor has the ability to take your book, an already great book, and make it truly amazing. She’s not at all worried about commas (that’s someone else’s job) but wants to make sure that your characters are true to themselves, your plotting is strong and tight, and that this book is even better than your last.

When asked how I got my job I always say that I don’t think editing is something that you can be taught. Certainly it’s like any talent you can learn and improve, but good editors also have an instinct. They know in their guts what a good book is and they get a niggling in their stomach when something is wrong.

So what exactly do editors do? They make books shine.


37 responses to “The Art of Editing”

  1. At least I shut her up.

    Oh, yeah, that’s real nice. Did you learn that in Minnesota?

    (I’m teasing you, of course, as I recall that post you wrote on “Minnesota nice.” I feel that way a lot of the time. And I can’t diagram a sentence, either.)

  2. Avatar jfaust says:

    Actually Souther Writer, that one I learned in Brooklyn 😉

  3. I can diagram a sentence. You learn it fast at the knee of a nun weilding a ruler.
    That said, I’m stumped by commas. Because I talk so fast in real life that I don’t make those natural pauses so I don’t hear where the commas should be.
    And I’ve heard so many people say that kids aren’t learning to write. Not sure about other school districts, but mine 12 yo writes in every class. He loves math because 2+2 is always 4. But he hates that he has to write something about it.

  4. Avatar Tammie says:

    I’ve read authors acknowledgement pages and many times I see comments about how agents/editors helped make the book richer or deeper – now I understand how that happens.

  5. Avatar Petrina says:

    Great post, Jessica.

    This really underscores the importance of working with the right agent and the right editor. A book may be the creation of the author, but it’s the team that puts it successfully on the bookshelf.


  6. Jessica,

    Great post. From another southern woman, the only thing you could have done better was to have patted this person on the hand and said, “Bless your heart.”

    Christie Craig

  7. Actually, as the wife of a high school teacher, I don’t think enough schools teach adequate writing OR grammar. My husband routinely gets papers which, even if you can get through the poor spelling and grammar, never progress toward a logical argument or even effectively recount historical events. The kids know how to regurgitate information (poorly). They just don’t know how to present it.

    I blame too much emphasis on “creative spelling/grammar” at lower grade levels, too much emphasis on “projects” at the middle school level, and too much emphasis on teaching to XYZ standardized test at the high school level (OK, at all levels).

  8. Avatar Solidus says:

    Good post – the distinction among different types of editor (and indeed between different activities carried out by a single editor) is hard to understand to those outside the business. Even “copyeditor” can mean a wide range of different things.

    But that high-level view of a book is invaluable. The ability to see the whole thing and see how it can be improved is golden.

  9. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Jessica, you’re absolutely right about the focus in schools being misdirected. Certainly the rules of grammar need to be taught, but then students need to know how to break them for more effective writing. To your other point, good agents and editors are worth their weight in gold.

  10. Avatar spyscribbler says:

    LOL! I love that. I somehow got through whatever grade that was with an A, but I never understood diagramming sentences. I was just a good guesser. It wasn’t until I took German that I even understood what a direct object was.

    I teach piano, and I just had a little eight year old tell me about a writing assignment. She doesn’t know I’m a writer, but I swear, out of the mouths of babes …

    She said, “A story’s easy! You start with a girl who has a problem, then you make it worse, and then she fixes it.”

    Some schools are teaching writing, at least!

  11. Avatar Jenny says:

    I was persecuted through high school by teachers who didn’t understand that the reason I couldn’t spell wasn’t that I was lazy, it was that I have no visual memory.

    They’d take a grade off for bad spelling and snarl, “Look it up!”–not understanding that it is impossible to look up the wrongly spelled word when you have no idea which of the hundreds of words you have written aren’t spelled right.

    There was only one teacher who saw past my problem and encouraged me to write based on my content.

    When my first book was published, I made a special trip home to attend my high school reunion because I’d heard that teacher was retiring and would attend. I gave her a copy of my book and was thrilled to learn that I was the first of her students ever to be published.

    It was a peak moments in my life.

  12. Avatar Alli says:

    So what exactly do editors do? They make books shine.

    That’s a great summary and oh, so true! Great post, Jessica.

    Jenny, what a great feeling you must have had. No doubt you had to work hard to get where you were. Well deserved moment of glory!

  13. Avatar Phoenix says:

    I love your answer, Jessica! I’m an editor in the corporate world, and am forever having to distinguish what I do — I call it content editing — from copy editing (although at times I function as a copy editor, too, which just confuses the issue even more).

    Usually, if I do my job well and make a piece of prose shine, I’m labeled a good writer, not a good editor. Trying to educate people on the differences is weary work :o)

  14. Avatar getitwritten_guy says:

    Having the right agent and the right editor are clearly as important as good writing.

    Just one more thing for us to aspire to. OK – – maybe two.

  15. Great post. I started a comment but realized it was long enough for a post, which is here

    Essentially, I think school’s do teach writing – academic writing. They do not teach fiction writing, which would make a fabulous elective but isn’t as essential to the masses as academic writing is.

  16. Avatar Chumplet says:

    Grammar gave me stomach aches in grade school. Oooh, is that a dangling participle?

  17. Avatar Liz says:

    Even though I could write, I couldn’t diagram a sentence to save my life and was deemed worthless by several teachers.

    I wish I could run into some of those teachers and tell them that I am now a published author and made something of myself.

  18. Avatar serious writer says:

    Please excuse me while I get angry, though not at you, Jessica. (Both types of editors are invaluable, in my mind.)

    I was horrible at spelling, but I worked really hard at it. I even learned how to look up words I didn’t know how to spell in the dictionary. I wasn’t good at grammar, but I wanted to be a good writer. Since grammar helps you communicate effectively, I worked very hard and learned how to do it well.

    Sorry, but it ticks me off that I worked so hard to be good at the mechanics of writing so that my stories could be clearly understood only to repeatedly have writers laugh off trying to learn these things because it’s too difficult. It’s not too difficult if you care enough to really make the effort.

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Cool Jessica. I understand that knowing how things get put together is invaluable for proper communication (spoken and written)but many times it seems that the true character of the writer is lost in the need to be correct. We teach our kids the mechanics and take away the fantasy and what do we replace it all with? It seems that we replace it with folks that are anal about having to be right or in control all the time. No freedom in that. I think that a truly good editor that not only makes it shine but also when I read it I should be able to hear the voice behind the story and not just the story. Get me?

  20. Avatar claud says:

    This is really exciting, Jessica. Great post.

  21. Avatar C.J. says:

    You didn’t go to Hopkins High in MN, did you Jessica? I’d like to think that was one of my old English teachers : )
    I don’t think people realize that Minnesotans are masters of the back-handed compliment.

  22. Avatar Erik says:

    This reminds me of my largest complaint about the “Harry Potter” series. Somewhere around the fourth book or so JK Rowling’s star power or some other mystical force appears to have caused the books to be edited with a very light hand.

    If you take the first one or two (maybe three) and open them up and random, and compare to a random page in, say, the sixth, you’ll see what I mean.

    There was a wonderful collaboration there, but it appears to have broken. I think that this is the best contemporary example of the importance of an editor.

  23. Avatar sruble says:

    Great post! I think that reading lots of books helped me to be able to get through English class because I could write a sentence even if I couldn’t diagram it.

    It didn’t help me in Spanish though. Once we got to grammar I had to drop the class.

    BTW, I’m from MN, can’t diagram a sentence, and I used to be an editor too …

  24. Avatar Anne-Marie says:

    Interesting post. It was informative to read about what editors do, so thank you.

    As a teacher of grade 5/6, I tend to see teachers around me who over-emphasize story-writing instead of showing students how to write outside of the narrative form. Since very few of them will become novelists, and many of them will likely use writing as a form of work communication, it seems to me the other aspects of writing are much more important.

    I can break down sentences, but I think that’s mostly because I spoke 3 languages as a child and ended up comparing and dissecting them.

  25. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    Hmmm, I always thought editors spilled coffee on manuscripts while stuffing them back into SASEs with a little slip of paper that says: does not meet our current needs.

    Who knew?


  26. Avatar Anonymous says:

    heheh Great story. I wish I could have seen her face. 🙂

    And thanks for writing about the different editors. In a crit group, a small press editor changed one word in a writer’s manuscript, and it made all the difference in the world. One word. I’m so impressed with that kind of talent and I think you’re right: it can’t be taught in schools.


    (Totally unrelated to the above, but the Word Verification I’m never going to be able to it in. I mean, are those really letters? 🙂

  27. English was the one subject I aced. I loved the rules (and exceptions). However, its been along time since I’ve done that basic grammer stuff. . .
    I think your post brings home how important the editor/author “partnership” is to a successful book.

    SW: “At least I shut her up.” I think thats the Jersey that rubbed off on her.

  28. I hate commas and their bastard cousin the apostrophe. Let’s not mention their butt-ugly step sister, the semi colon. *shudder*

    One of my editors told me once, “Kimberly, uh…how ’bout you just focus on keeping it hot and sexy and write the best story you can… we’ll take care of the rest.”

    Thank God. THANK. GOD. LOL

  29. Not only are you nice, you can take a ribbing, and have a good sense of humor. Whew. *wipes brow*

  30. Avatar Deanna says:

    As a writer (who had an amazing experience with my first editor) and a high school English teacher (who struggled with a horrific University class in linguistics), I’m sad that you can’t say that English class wasn’t the uber catalyst that unlocked all your creative fire… ! There’s definitely a balance between all the little stuff we’re supposed to teach students and all the real-life and creative stuff that we’re compelled to no matter what the time constraints may be…
    (And kimberly kaye terry – you make me howl! I’m going to have to seriously refrain from using your lingo with my students… Thanks!)

  31. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I feel like the odd man out here, but I loved diagramming sentences, thoroughly enjoyed every moment of my English classes through high school and college and had some really great creative writing teachers. I honestly believe that when a writer has the technical tools totally ingrained into their writing, it makes the creative process that much easier. On the other hand, thank GOODNESS for my critique group, editor and copy editor who regularly keep me from looking like more of a fool than I am!

  32. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Jessica said, “The editor has the ability to take your book, an already great book, and make it truly amazing.”

    I feel cheated. My “current” editor didn’t have time to give me any feedback. This editor didn’t even have time to say, “I like it,” when I turned it in (and then it took three months for it to even get read). It hasn’t even been published and already it’s lost in the shuffle. I have a feeling when my contract is done, I’ll be done, too. Not because my work isn’t good, but I’m sure it could be better. And a better book will sell better.

    But I got no direction at all, and I’m worried about my career future. I feel if I complain to my agent, I’ll be looked at as ungrateful. And yet…I feel that I (and the book) deserved some kind of acknowledgment from my editor.

  33. Avatar Chumplet says:

    I also loved English class, Kate. I loved literature, I loved deconstructing a novel. I loved doing essays and always received high marks. It was grammar that gave me the stomach aches. I just couldn’t memorize all those terms. However, I think some of it sunk in although I’m still overly fond of commas.

  34. Avatar Mary Witzl says:

    I agree in part — but I disagree too.

    While I loathed transformational grammar (if you dislike traditional sentence diagramming, take a look at Chomsky’s deep structures and you’ll run away screaming), I think it’s useful for everyone to learn grammar and the basic mechanics of writing. I’ve spent time editing the work of people who clearly never learned the rudiments of grammar and punctuation, and however creatively something is written, if the reader can’t understand it, there’s a problem.

    There seems to be an unfortunate tendency to divide writers into two camps: ‘creative writers’ and those who work to produce prose that is lucid and structurally sound. It’s as though people who aim to write elegant, grammatical sentences are seen as dumb plodders who churn out yawn-worthy laundry lists, while the creative types play fast and free with puctuation and spelling, but produce beautifully surreal, imaginative writing.

    That said, once you’ve learned the rudiments of grammar, I think you’ve also earned the right to play around with it. I once submitted a story to a writing group. One woman returned it to me with every (wholly intentional) fragment marked, every split infinitive prissily pointed out, and a long-winded diatribe on the evils of confusing ‘further’ and ‘farther’ — so help me God.

    I’ll bet your English teacher and she would’ve gotten on like nobody’s business.

  35. Avatar Jennifer says:

    Three points were taken off every essay I wrote in my high school English class for “awkward construction.” On the last paper of the year, I asked about why saying the Chicago streets of yore were “mellifluous with sin” was penalized. She haughtily asked if I knew what “mellifluous” meant. I recited the dictionary definition.

    I know it must be hard to deal with the writing of high schoolers all day, but it’s hard to accept being punished for having style (as a writer, at least) as well.

  36. James Moore has a post today on editing from the point of view of an author over at Storytellers Unplugged.

    For those who have never been “edited,” it’s a great read as it describes why even if edits annoy an author s/he should be grateful for them.