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.