What An Editor Looks at First

by Kim Pearson on August 6, 2012

What I like most about editing is finding the creative, exciting, and beautiful ideas and stories that are trapped in word thickets. I like setting them free so they can be appreciated by others. I’m a story junkie, so a manuscript like Susan Younger’s which is stuffed with great stories, is a wonderful gift. I feel honored that I get to work on it with her.

When I’m presented with a manuscript to edit, the first thing I do is – duh! – read it. I read it from a reader’s as well as an editor’s perspective. As I read, I make notes and scribbles to myself about what I find. Here are some of the things I look for, during this first read-through:

  • Focus. Are all the scenes and stories in the manuscript consistent with the central theme and message of the book? I note whatever is off-topic – even if it is interesting, amusing, or beautifully written, it probably should be deleted. This is one of the hardest things for authors to spot for themselves, and also where arguments between the author and editor often occur.
  • Flow. Does the organization and structure of the book make sense? Is there enough “back story” early enough in the book so that the reader understands the settings, history, and characters and is not surprised to have someone or something suddenly pop up in the story, causing confusion. I think about whether a scene or event would be better moved to earlier or later in the book. I note where additional content may be needed. I note inconsistencies and redundancies – I have never read a first-draft manuscript that had none.
  • Tell vs. Show. Do I have a sense of place as I read? Do I feel like I am there? Can I see and hear the actors in the story – how they move, how they dress, how they talk? If I don’t, I note places where rewriting or additional content may be needed.
  • Basics. I note run-on sentences, cumbersome phrasing, tense consistency, active voice vs. passive voice, and other basics. I don’t note them all, since that comes later, but I do note whether the author has a tendency to commit these errors. At this time I don’t look for misspellings, grammatical errors, punctuation mistakes, or typos. I know they are there and will be waiting for me when I return.
  • Last but not least: Do I care about the people in this story? Does it matter to me whether she (or he) solves a problem, averts a crisis, completes a project?  It better.

After my first reading, I will write up my findings above — what “works” and “doesn’t work” in the manuscript (and why) – and give both general and specific suggestions on how to fix the problems and make the book sing. Then I send it off to the author and wait for her response. I will be sending this evaluation off to Susan next week. We’ll let you know what happens.

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