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The Editor's Role

"My biggest thanks go to my editor ... whose dedication and attention to detail have made me realise how important it is, when you're driving at night, to have someone in the passenger seat, ready to hand you a coffee, change the radio station, or just pull out a map." Cate Kennedy The World Beneath (Scribe 2009).

Writers use many different analogies to illustrate the role of an editor. Dorothy Johnston likens the editor to a midwife who attends to the baby being born, recognising it for what it is, or what it's aiming to be (The Fine Print, July 2005). Alex Miller sees the writer as a marathon runner with the editor the coach helping them to reach the finish line when the writer is ready to quit (The Fine Print, February 2006). Stephen King simply says, 'to write is human, to edit is divine' (On Writing, Hodder & Stoughton, 2000).

HOW DOES AN EDITOR WORK WITH A MANUSCRIPT?

I often get calls from writers who assume that I'll be attending to the technicalities of punctuation, grammar, syntax and spelling (copy editing), and perhaps giving them feedback on where the good and not-so-good bits are in their manuscript. That is in fact what I do, but only part of it. The main role an editor plays is to guide the writer (fiction or non-fiction) to realise on the page the full potential of the story they are compelled to tell; to keep them on track to reach their intended destination. This is the stuff of structural and stylistic editing which deals with the larger issues of the book.

I offer writers preparing their work for submission to a publisher or agent, or those wanting to self-publish, an editorial report (which is the same as a manuscript assessment). Even if a writer feels their work is ready for a detailed edit, my experience shows that there are often structural issues that need to be addressed before the work is ready for the pedantic nit-picking a detailed edit entails.

WHAT IS AN EDITORIAL REPORT?

An editorial report provides an independent, professional appraisal of your work. You could think of it as a health check, or a reality check.

An editor/assessor will give you a written report outlining the strengths and weaknesses of your work, in terms of structure, pacing, story line and character development, genre, style, language usage, consistency and continuity, and any other issues that may be pertinent to a particular genre and a particular manuscript, such as ethical and legal questions. The report will address issues of the 'publishability' of the manuscript and offer suggestions on how to work on the next draft. I have not encountered a manuscript yet that hasn't required at least a little reworking, even those that have gone on to be successfully published.

There are some basic 'rules' (for want of a better word) about writing in terms of the elements listed above — plot, character development, structure, language usage, etc. An editor considers all these areas and how they are working to achieve the writer's intention. Sometimes this process is important simply to help the writer clarify what their intention is. Writers can break rules, of course, and if they do it well it can be magnificently successful. But it takes considerable skill to be able to pull it off.

WHAT DOES AN EDITOR LOOK FOR IN A MANUSCRIPT?

Apart from the basic elements, what makes a manuscript successful in my eyes? At the most fundamental level, the answer is simple and not at all mysterious. "Do I want to turn the page? Do I want to keep reading?" And yes, I make no apologies for the fact that the 'page-turnability' of a manuscript is a subjective thing. There is an element of subjectivity in an assessment, just as there is in a publisher's decision to publish, or an agent's decision to represent an author.

If I don't want to keep reading, if I find my attention wandering, or a bump in the narrative, I look at why. There can be a myriad of reasons, and these are all be dealt with in a report.

After I read a manuscript — and allow time for the story (fiction or non-fiction) to roll around in my head for a while — the first thing I write in my report is an overview of the work. This is not simply a synopsis of the plot, but an attempt to identify what the work is about, what the essence of the story is. If I can’t seem to grasp the essence, however hard I try and however long I ruminate on it, then I can be pretty sure that the writer is unclear on the essence as well. Or there may be more than one essence, which is an indication that the writer has not made a definitive decision on the direction of the manuscript. Without being able to identify what the story is about, the writer will be unable to hone his or her work in the next draft. The editor's report is, after all, a document that will give guidance to the writer as they tackle the next draft of their work.

"SHOULD I CONTINUE WORKING ON THE MANUSCRIPT, OR SHOULD I GIVE UP?"

I get asked this question a lot, but it is not one I can simply answer. I can draw attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the work, I can help you to distill the essence of the story, I can give advice on how to proceed with the next draft, but only you can decide whether you want to undertake the required work, whether you are passionate and committed enough to keep going. Writing is a craft that requires practise and patience. There are no short cuts, but — returning to Cate Kennedy's metaphor — an editor can help by whipping out the map and point out where you are in relation to where you want to go.