Substantive Editing Lessons I Learned from Grading Papers

My husband, Jonathon Owen, was an adjunct professor for a book editing class last semester, and since he’s never done any fiction editing and I have, I guest lectured on fiction editing three times and helped him grade the fiction editing assignment. To do that, I read the book for which the students had to write an edit letter, took my own notes, and then read their edit letters. Then Jonathon and I discussed our feelings on how each student editor did and decided on a final score for each of them together.

It was an interesting exercise to see 13 different (student) editors’ suggestions for improving a single book. Many of them noticed the same things, but there were some things that only one or two of them caught. Sometimes they disagreed—something one student editor would say they liked was the same thing someone else said they didn’t. Which leads me to the first thing I learned:

1. The entire publishing process is subjective.

It can’t help but be. Humans all have their own viewpoints, expertise, life experiences, and tastes. One agent might quickly pass on your book, while another loves it. Editors might suggest changes that other editors might disagree with. And some of my favorite books have one-star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.

Likewise, if you were to hire five different editors to do a developmental edit on your book, you’d probably get a lot of the same feedback, but one editor might focus more on inconsistencies with your setting, while another might help you make your theme ring out true, while another might help more to really get at what makes your character tick.

Every single edit letter we graded contained feedback that none of the others mentioned. Does that mean that the others “missed” that issue? Maybe, but not necessarily. What seems like a major problem for one person might not even cause a momentary hiccup for another reader. This is one reason it’s a good idea to get a few beta readers for your book. If you’re getting the same feedback from multiple people, even if it takes different forms, that’s probably a good sign it’s a real issue. If you get three or four beta reads and only one of them says a particular thing took them out of the story, consider whether you agree with the feedback.

Most good developmental editors recognize where plots aren’t working, but they might have different suggestions for how to fix plot issues. That’s fine! And it’s fine to take the feedback—that the plot is broken—and find your own solution that’s different from the one your editor suggests. No matter who you go with, as long as they’re a good developmental editor, you’re going to get feedback that can help you strengthen your book. Ask for a free sample edit (usually 5–10 pages) to see if a particular editor is a good fit. Because that’s subjective too.

2. Possibly the most important thing an editor—of any kind—can catch is problematic representation.

The book the students edited contained multiple cases of problematic representation. Probably the author didn’t realize they were doing anything wrong, but that doesn’t mean the book should be published with that problematic representation still in it.

About half of the student editors mentioned the issues in their edit letters. One student found even deeper levels of problematic representation than anyone else (and this student got extra points for that!). If you want to be an editor, you would do well to make sure you are well informed about how to describe people of different races, religions, abilities, and ethnicities. You should learn which terms people like to be referred to by. It’s even worthwhile to study some of the problematic stereotypes that certain groups, such as Black, Jewish, Native American, Romani, and Muslim people, often get painted with, so you can help authors avoid falling into these traps.

And if you get this kind of feedback from an editor, you’d be wise to listen and to correct the problem.

3. There’s a difference between fine and good—and then there’s great. The best editors don’t settle.

One of the questions the author of the book asked was whether the flashback scenes were working. So obviously this was something the author was already unsure of. As I read the book, it was obvious to me that these scenes majorly interrupted the flow of the book. The information in them was good overall, and it was necessary for understanding the main character.

Yet all but one of the student editors said the flashbacks were fine. Some said they were jarring, but they said the information in them made them worth it. Only one suggested doing what I would have suggested: threading these scenes, little by little, into the character’s thoughts rather than inserting them as full flashback scenes. Not only would this be less jarring, it would be more interesting to read and more powerful in creating a character who seems real. We think about our memories all the time, especially when confronting things that remind us of them, and especially if they were emotionally charged. When writing a good, deep POV, it can be a powerful tool to allow your character to do this too.

My point is that I suspect every single student editor felt that the flashbacks were a little off, but they rationalized that they were okay. But when writing books, authors can do better than okay, and editors should help them to stretch, to reach for greatness.

4. In an edit letter, go deep.

It’s not bad to find details about the setting that aren’t consistent, or specific scenes that are confusing, or times when someone behaved in a way that was out of character for them. All editors should find these sorts of things.

But if you get an edit letter back without feedback for something more fundamental (unless the editor is very experienced and literally tells you your book is amazing and needs no work, and the chances of that are slim to none), it’s not doing its most important job.

What kind of deeper feedback? Well, for example, when my reading group finished reading my Murder on the Edmonton Rose, my most valuable critique was the woman who said, “The mystery is working well, and so is the setting and the sci-fi stuff, but the romance needs work.” The romance needs work isn’t something I can fix by tweaking a few sentences. I’ll need to look at that the entire way through, making sure there’s the right balance of attraction and tension to keep readers invested.

In Jonathon’s class, the best edit letters were the ones that noted that the main character’s love interest didn’t really have a character arc—they didn’t change in any meaningful way from the beginning to the end. The best ones mentioned the imbalance between the two leads, the fact that while it made sense for one to be attracted to the other, there wasn’t a compelling reason for attraction the other way around. These types of comments come from a deep understanding of human behavior and of books and how they work.

To be fair, the book these students edited had a pretty strong plot, a mostly well-developed setting, and characters who were internally motivated. So the easy, obvious stuff was in place. It took insightful editors to take it from good to great.

5. Insightful compliments are as powerful as insightful critique.

Some of my favorite edit letters that I graded had great lists of things that worked well in the book. They sounded enthusiastic rather than simply professional. Remember that good feedback I got from someone in my writing group about the romance in Murder on the Edmonton Rose? The rest of the sentence was equally valuable: the mystery was working well, and so was the science fiction setting. As I work on my revisions, I will not touch those things too much, other than minor tweaks. And as I work on the romance, I need to make sure I don’t break anything that’s working well.

It is essential when doing any kind of fiction editing to give sincere compliments. There’s always something good to compliment, even in manuscripts that may need a lot of work. Point out the good so that the author is encouraged to keep trying and to work on improving the parts that need revision. Point out the good so that they know it’s good and don’t write over it. Point out the good because sometimes authors simply don’t know what their strengths are, and they should. And do it because we authors are all insecure little souls wrapped up in a weird mix of bravery and imposter syndrome, and a well-placed compliment from an editor can really make our day.

I think I knew all these things at an instinctive level–both from getting good feedback from beta readers and from writing edit letters myself. But grading these papers really made it clear. Now, the editors in this case were just starting out, so it’s likely with a few more years’ experience they’ll write amazing edit letters (assuming they choose a career in fiction developmental editing, and many of them may not). Still, it’s not every day you can hire 13 editors and compare their feedback. I hope my thoughts can help you, whether you want to sharpen your editing skills or whether you’re in need of an editor’s services.

Review: Blood for Blood by Ryan Graudin

4 stars (I really liked it).

Blood for Blood cover (link to Goodreads).

Blood for Blood is the sequel to Wolf by Wolf and the end to the duology. This one was almost as much fun as the first, more of the same exciting twists and turns and impossible obstacles. I felt like the heroes were a little slow to figure things out, which is why it’s not the full 5 stars, but the ending was perfect, and I was a very happy reader all the way through. I can’t say more without spoiling Wolf by Wolf, since the premise of this one gives away the ending of the first.

And now for something a bit more personal

I’ve seen a lot more people reflecting on social media about how their year went in 2020 than I usually do. It was a weird year, a hard year in many ways. It was a hard year for me for some additional reasons that had nothing to do with covid-19.

2020 was supposed to be the year for trips. Jonathon and I haven’t really been able to afford vacations other than road trips to visit parents . . . ever. But we decided to go to northern California to visit my sister’s family before they moved away. It would have been our family’s first real family vacation. It would have happened the first week in April. My sister moved to Utah in May, so even though we plan to go to California once it’s safe to do so, her family won’t be there, and that makes me really sad.

Then, at the end of April,Jonathon and I were going to attend ACES together (the conference for the American Copy Editors Society), since it was supposed to be in Salt Lake City this year. I was so excited to meet some of his old friends and some of my friends and to learn more about editing and to have four whole days away from my normal life responsibilities. This would be the longest the two of us had been away from the kids since our oldest was born fourteen years ago (we’ve had a night away, twice). But ACES was cancelled too. And since we probably can’t afford for me to fly to ACES, I don’t anticipate being able to go any time soon, which makes me REALLY sad.

The next thing to be cancelled was a family reunion for my mom’s side of the family. We hold these every three years, and it will happen in 2021, covid-19 allowing.

So March and April were kind of heartbreaking. A lot of people had cancelled vacations and plans then, but I feel particularly salty about ours because the plans that got cancelled were literally some of the first plans our family ever made.

One thing I don’t talk about here much is that I am also a piano teacher. I’ve been teaching for over twelve years now, and I love it. Anyway, piano teaching this year has been hard. Starting in mid-March, I taught only through Zoom for months. That involved buying second copies of all the books all my students were using so that I could see their music as well. It involved trying to explain to some little students who don’t read music yet which part of their music I was referring to and explaining how to get their hands to the right place without actually showing them. Six students quit a few weeks into that, but strangely, I was always able to fill any openings in my studio, though I’ve had a lot of turnover throughout the year. One interesting development is that I have been teaching the son of some online friends from another state since June!

Starting in about April, I started composing, arranging, and transcribing music for my students in a website called flat.io. The nice thing about Flat is that I can share a private link to each score with my students, and I can share my screen while using the MIDI playback to show them how something should sound, or I can share my screen and point to the part of the music I’m talking about with my mouse. Pretty soon every single one of my students was playing at least one of my songs. It was weird but cool.

I’d done some composing and arranging in the past, but in 2020, I created over seventy scores in Flat. Many of these were scores I’d already entered into Finale Songwriter, but I like Flat so much better that I moved them over. One of the reasons I chose Flat in the first place was that I could color-code the note heads in chromatic order (C is red, B orange, A yellow, G green, etc.). I used that as a way to teach note reading to some students who had been struggling, and as a way to quickly reference notes (“Put your finger 2 on the blue E!”).

At the end of 2019, I started drafting my third novel, a science fiction murder mystery loosely inspired by Murder on the Orient Express. I was so nervous to attempt writing a mystery. For years mystery was my genre of choice. I started with The Boxcar Children, moved on to Nancy Drew, and then discovered Mary Higgins Clark and Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I didn’t get far into Sherlock Holmes, unfortunately, before transitioning to a love of science fiction that hasn’t left me yet. But all that mystery reading left me with a skill: I can guess the identity of the murderer in the first quarter of any mystery (TV, movie, or book) the vast majority of the time. I rarely know why it’s them or how they did it, but I have an intuition for it. I figured this might make me uniquely qualified to write a mystery, and I’ve always wanted to do it, but . . . I mean, it’s mystery.

Anyway, somehow I kept writing in 2020, even when everything went crazy, even when I was helping my kids with online school and teaching piano through Zoom and composing and dealing with kids all summer who couldn’t play with friends or really go anywhere. I made small goals: 500 words per day six days a week. And I usually met them. I submitted chapters to my writing group as I completed them, and overwhelmingly, they liked my book. This encouraged me to keep writing.

By the end of September, I’d finished Murder on the Edmonton Rose. I am proud of it. I am currently working on revising it. My goal is to query it widely in 2021 once it’s ready to go.

But let’s back up a little. In June I broke my toe pretty badly, making it difficult to walk for about six weeks. That was terrible timing for summer, since all my plans for keeping four boys busy during their break from school had involved hiking, since nothing else was covid-safe.

Jonathon’s family always does a camping trip together in July, but we decided not to attend this year (it happened without us). Instead, we went camping on our own at a campground on a lake near our house. We rented a kayak and played games and drank a lot of Tang. While at the campground, we lost my six-year-old for over an hour when he ran ahead of us on a trail and took a wrong turn. Remember, I was still hobbling around on a broken toe and couldn’t run to catch up with him. A kind man found him and drove around with my son in his truck asking people if they knew him and eventually found us. I also noticed while camping that my twelve-year-old was looking extremely thin. He’d been losing weight for months, and at first I thought it was a growth spurt–not losing weight so much as stretching out. But by that point it was obvious he didn’t look healthy.

He had other mysterious symptoms: loud, heavy breathing; dry patches on his wrists; random muscle pains; a dull look in his eyes. After we came home from camping, he was constantly cold and lethargic but not fevered. I began to be extremely worried about him. Long story short, within a week he was in the hospital with diabetic ketoacidosis. My boy has type 1 diabetes.

The learning curve for diabetes is steep, and every day has ups and downs. I’ve spent hours and hours researching and learning and going to doctor appointments and pharmacies and on the phone with insurance and others involved in his care. I make hot breakfast every day now, pretty much, when we were a cereal family before. But cereal sends his blood sugar sky high, so it’s not an option anymore.

We chose the online option for our kids when school started up again. 95% of our school district is in person, but especially since we were so new to the diabetes diagnosis and because poorly controlled diabetes can cause complications with covid-19, we didn’t feel safe sending our kids to school in person.

Online school in the fall has been so much more involved and rigorous than it was in the spring. I spend 1-2 hours every day helping my first grader and then a bit more sometimes helping my fourth grader. My ninth grader did PE online, which meant he needed to exercise an hour a day, three days a week, for the entire semester. We did a LOT of hiking and biking, which honestly has been one of the highlights of this year. I also have a large garden, and September and October are the time of year when I’m always busy with harvesting, canning, and freezing everything. Everything takes a lot of time. Most days I’ve been working–cooking, helping with school, doing housework, running errands, gardening, canning, working on diabetes-related stuff, writing, editing, teaching piano, etc.–upwards of 14 hours a day. I’ve felt like I’ve been at my breaking point off and on for months.

Jonathon has been adjuncting an evening editing class this semester too, which has mostly been a great experience for him, but which has meant he’s been crazy busy as well, since he also has a full-time job. I got to guest lecture three class periods (the ones about fiction editing), which was super fun for me but added to my long to-do list.

Just before Thanksgiving, Jonathon started having a LOT of pain in his neck, radiating down his arm and back. He has gone to lots of doctors’ appointments, physical therapy, and a chiropractor, but any improvements have been temporary and not very significant. Thanksgiving and Christmas especially were some of his worst days pain-wise. And I didn’t even mention that he broke his toe this fall.

It’s been a hard year. I have had a few very fun editing projects (I feel the need to plug some of them, including this cool mystery and these delightful coloring and activity books), and we got new windows and a new fridge, both of which were badly needed. I feel closer to my kids because of all the added time we’ve had together, and, y’all, they’re great kids. They’ve rolled with the punches this year and remained kind and cheerful and hopeful. I feel so lucky to have such good kids.

So if you’ve been wondering why I haven’t blogged book reviews since July–well, this is why. I hope 2021 goes a bit better, even if it’s more of the same for the first while. Happy New Year!

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

5 stars (It was amazing!)

Wolf by Wolf cover. Link to Goodreads.

An alternate historical science fiction in which Germany and Japan won World War II and split the eastern hemisphere between them, Wolf by Wolf is the story of a teen girl who was transformed into a shapeshifter in a Nazi concentration camp, escaped, and is now on a mission to kill Hitler. At first glance, I thought, “Haven’t I heard this story before? Lots of times?” But the *way* that this one was told was fierce, relentlessly action packed, intriguing, twisty, and compelling.

The romance was my least favorite part, but the rest is plenty good to make the book well worth reading, and the romance wasn’t done poorly; I just have reservations about it at the conceptual level.

It sounds like I’m saying not to read it, and I definitely am not. It’s really cool: motorcycle races in the desert, secrets, an impossible situation that the main character will probably get herself killed trying to navigate. It’s awesome from beginning to end. One of the best books I read in 2020.

Review: Swing by Kwame Alexander

2 stars (It was okay).

Cover of Swing. Link to Goodreads.

This is a contemporary YA about two teen boys who are trying to make their mark on the world in a rather endearingly floudering teenaged way. I have super mixed feelings on this one. It was poetic and well-written, but it seemed to meander, and I felt much of the time like I wasn’t sure where it was going. Then the ending came out of left field, and I guess that was the point, but . . . it didn’t quite land for me. I was left feeling confused mostly.

I’ve also noticed that verse novels don’t translate well to audiobook, and that’s what this one was. If you like somewhat abstract novels or want books about the experience of being Black in America, this one is a decent representation.