Long ago, before I’d thought about writing (and long before the internet and eBooks), I needed a spot of extra income. It had to be a job I could do from home at night, what with the whole single-parent thing, so I took a course in proofreading and copy-editing. Those were the days of the marvellous red pen and lovely squiggles in the margins…yeah, I took to it. I worked mostly with academic departments and non-fiction publishers in England, learned my trade, advanced to pukka editing and earned my extra pennies.
Years later, when similarly in need of a boost to the earnings, I thought about going back to the red pen. I was, however, resident in North America by this time and completely unaware that this might pose a problem beyond the bonkers spelling. I applied for a proofreading job at a local advertising company and toddled along to do their ‘little test’. Who knew? They used different squiggles! I failed utterly and decided that my editing days were over.
That has all changed now thanks to computers. Happily, in the 21st century all you need to know about is MS Word’s Track Changes, and how to make comments and you’re away. So, I’ve been editing again, indie authors to start with, and then a dabble back in academic circles. After the latest Ph.D. thesis left the desk I remarked to a pal, ‘Oh I do love academics, they have no ego.’ I immediately felt bad, I love my author clients, and most of them have no ego either, we all just want the best possible product. So was the difference just in my head? An assumption that academics are less concerned with style and more about accuracy? I set to pondering the differences between the work of editing fiction and academia and realised that they are in what I do, not how the writer responds. Thinking about it has not only helped me become a better editor, I think it may have helped me as a writer too. So, here are a couple of things I am going to bear in mind from now on:
Spotting behaviour patterns.
With academic work I can always tell when the writer is tired. I can almost visualise them slumped over the keyboard, head in hand, snaffling a sip of the glass of wine they’ve promised themselves for later on and thinking, ‘Just write the rest of this section, then you can stop.’ The sentences get longer and longer, the tenses mix and match, the ten-word purpose of the study gets pasted into every clause, sometimes twice, just to make sure it’s all specific enough and the result is an unreadable mess. I tend to pop a comment in the margin, ‘You were tired when you wrote this bit?’ The hapless student is so impressed that I can see into their head that they work through the dozens of suggested changes without complaint.
I can spot similar patterns with fiction writers but for different reasons. As the pace of the action picks up and things get exciting, dangerous or steamy…the writer picks up speed too. As the writing gets faster it changes, and not always for the better. Sentences get longer, clauses merge into each other, little words are lost in the hurry to get it all down. Until recently I have just filled the margin with notes suggesting breaking sentences for more impact, adding lost words, fixing tenses and querying muddles, but even the nicest author can grump a little when they see a whole page of notes. Why don’t I add, ‘You got a bit excited here 🙂 ’ to explain what’s going on? Maybe I will.
When the meaning of a sentence is unclear, if I’m working with a fiction author I tend to pop, ‘Not sure what this means…’ in the margin. For academic work, because everything has to be so precise, I offer alternatives, ie ‘Do you mean that you put the flange-guzzler into the dinkle sprocket and then everything exploded, or that the gungewarbler was ready to go anyway and the other things were just nearby?’ Generally the reply that comes back is neither of those two options but it is both clear and written in the author’s voice. Now I realise that I can offer the options I’ve read into an unclear sentence without trampling on the author’s style, I will be a little less tentative with my lovely fiction people.
Editing led me to writing, and writing has led me back to editing. I would encourage anyone who does either to have a go at the other, there’s so much to learn about the business of words and you can even make some money.