06 Feb

A Long and Long-Overdue Post on Editing

The last few months have been busy. I closed down my legal business, opened my editing business, finished my copyediting program, edited a slew of stories, proudly watched a self-published book I edited rack up glowing reviews, and started revising an unfinished novel I wrote and set aside a year ago. I also found out that the pain in my hips comes from a skeletal deformity that will require surgery, went through a ton of physical therapy, traveled to San Francisco to see one side of my family, decided not to fly to New York to see more of my family, and ate a whole bunch of tasty food. Somewhere in there, sleep happened, too. I think.

I’ve written about many of those things, but I never quite managed to post them. Much of my recent writing deals with my struggle to come to terms with my disability–typing those two words still makes me feel like I’ve been punched in the gut–and the best pieces are also the darkest. Sometimes sharing my writing scares me, and part of the reason why is below. I know I need to get over that. One day, when I’m feeling brave, I’ll publish some of those dark pieces.

I’ve also written–and not posted–about editing. Back in November I promised to explain why I’m starting up an editing business, and the short answer is because I love editing stories of all sorts. The long answer stretches back ten years and involves an unpleasant incident that many writers may, unfortunately, recognize.

I always wanted to be a writer, but when I graduated from college in 2004, I prioritized not becoming homeless over pursuing my art and took a temp job at a law firm. The law firm discovered that I was not afraid of the attorney in the corner office–whose creative swearing decorates the speech of some of my characters today–when I marked up one of his letters and politely suggested he would have fewer arguments with his clients if he gave them clearer written instructions. The firm offered me a permanent job, and that started my career in legal editing. I was happy to be using the grammar I’d learned in Latin classes, and I enjoyed helping people write well–even the curmudgeon in the corner. But I missed playing with stories.

I started taking journalism classes in 2007, hoping to scratch my story itch and earn a living at the same time. Students in my classes struggled with the same writing problems as the attorneys I worked with in my day job. Many of these students had great ideas, and I wanted them to succeed. I offered to do teaching edits for them, using examples from their articles to demonstrate how to correct errors that distracted and confused their readers. After seeing one of these edits, a teacher told me I had a real flair for editing and suggested I consider an editing career. Her name was Alison Overholt, and at the time she was a Senior Editor at ESPN The Magazine. I wish I’d listened to her. But it was the spring of 2008, and newspapers were laying off entire copyediting desks. Mass-layoffs of journalists followed. Unemployed veteran reporters and editors swamped coffee shops all over town, and my odds of breaking into journalism suddenly seemed miniscule. I refocused on my day job and volunteered for assignments editing articles and books by attorneys. It helped, but I still felt like I belonged somewhere else.

I started checking out the local writing scene and joined my first critique group that summer. I was shy with my fiction back then, and I waited months before bringing a piece to the group. In that time I edited pieces by every other group member, and I built friendships with several of them. So, when I put my name on the schedule, the entire group showed up.

My short story for that session was deeply personal, and I’d polished it carefully. I handed it around the long table like a girl handing out valentines, hoping for a love letter in return. The wood-paneled private library fell silent as the critique group read. Then, one after another, twelve well-intentioned writers spoke–and ripped my story to pieces. This scene or that piece must be cut; there was too much symbolism or too little; I should delete this character, that character, or perhaps the entire story. No two writers agreed, and as the meeting veered into a spirited debate about the moral failings of my viewpoint character–a thinly disguised version of me–words ceased connecting to meaning in my mind. An hour later, I sat crumpled on the cold stoop outside and tried to remember how my legs worked so I could walk home.

I didn’t write again for six months, and it took me years to regain confidence in my writing. But, while this critique session hurt my writing, it helped me become a better editor.

I knew everyone in my critique group liked me, and I knew they’d all meant to help me with their comments. Some of those comments probably had contained excellent advice. I knew there must be methods for giving constructive criticism that didn’t leave the recipient shaking and stunned. And it wasn’t like I was thin-skinned; I’d survived the Attorney that Ate Assistants in my first legal job. If I felt pulverized after a critique session, many other writers probably did, too. I decided to find a better way of giving feedback.

In the months after I picked myself up off that concrete porch, I reconsidered how I communicated with authors when I edited. I researched how to give effective criticism and incorporated that research into my editing. I also started researching editing and story craft. If I was going to edit other writers, I wanted to give them the best advice I could.

Although I had stopped believing in my own writing, I kept going to writing events and meeting other writers. I have trouble sitting on my hands when I have the ability to help someone, so I wound up editing for these writers–and their friends and friends of friends. By the end of 2013, I was getting so many requests that I started having to turn people down. Several writers suggesting I look into editing novels for a career. This time, with clear evidence of the need all around me, I listened. I joined the local editing guild, enrolled in a copyediting program to make absolutely sure I knew what I was doing, and started winding down my legal business.

A year later, I’ve opened up my editing business. I sometimes feel like a beginner, but the truth is that I’ve been doing this job for over a decade. I’ve provided editorial services for more than seventy litigations and many other legal matters, and I’ve edited a small forest of short stories, articles, novellas, novels, and other books. The teaching edits I offered to journalism students have evolved into manuscript assessments. I’ve helped authors reorganize entire books, and I’ve painstakingly examined every line on hundreds of pages for misplaced punctuation. And now, when I open up a new manuscript, I remember how it felt to sit on that concrete porch in 2008. I look into the heart of the story in front of me. I see what the story is trying to be, what the story is, and what the story could be. Then I write my comments to the author on the other side of the Internet connection as if he or she sat in front of me, sharing a cup of hot chocolate, with hopes and fears swirling in the air around us.

I’m a professional editor because I love stories, because I’m good at fixing stories, and because I want to help writers succeed. I can’t change my own past, but I can make sure that writers who come to me walk away with the knowledge and support they need to improve their writing. I give honesty and encouragement to the artists in my care. Both are essential parts of making a good story better.

6 thoughts on “A Long and Long-Overdue Post on Editing

  1. There is a lot of good information in this post, Chris. I like the perspective that the writer and editor are working toward the common goal of making the piece better. The editor is not an adversary. I also think this is an interesting career-path story. Well done.

  2. If you send your work to six different people, and four of the six point to the same issue, check out that issue. If none of them have the same complaint, you can progress” That’s a sort of quote from Stephen King.
    You know you can always run something past me. Of course I’ll criticize but I won’t rip!
    Nora Roberts had a great bit of advice. I’m looking for the meme now for my (kind of late!) blog.
    Huggles

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