On this edition of Ask the Editor, we’re sitting down for an in-depth chat with the one and only Beth Hill.
Beth is a freelance fiction editor who’s been forever fascinated by the creative power of words. She loves that words can create new worlds and people, characters so real that readers in the 3-D world not only remember them years later but are so touched by their adventures that they laugh and cry just reading about them. Beth’s goal is to help writers make fiction real, memorable, and entertaining through manuscript editing, author mentoring, and the exploration of craft through articles at her blog. Beth is the author of The Magic of Fiction, a comprehensive guide to writing and editing fiction.
AutoCrit: To begin, give us a brief walkthrough of your path as an editor. How did you find your way into the position, and have you witnessed the landscape evolve in any sense throughout your career?
Beth Hill: I’m one of those who’d passively imagined I’d be doing something with books when I grew up. Yet for a long time I didn’t realize that I could actually make a career out of working with words; I thought I’d be a lawyer or a psychologist. Still, any time a teacher or professor praised my writing, that praise was validation of my hidden dreams.
When I worked for a small software company, I wrote the manuals and related materials. The owners were a married couple and among the wife’s other endeavors, she wrote magazine articles. She edited my work, and I edited hers. Of all the complete projects I’ve edited, she wrote the only one that I didn’t mark with a single change or suggestion. The mechanics were perfect, the tone fit the magazine, and she had made the dry topic fascinating. We were both tickled at how well it was done. And even though I hadn’t had a hand in writing or editing it, I was excited for her success.
At that time I was also a member of two writing groups. Group members critiqued each other’s work, and I found myself not only critiquing but ultimately editing large sections of manuscripts. Not wanting to steer anyone wrong, I embarked on a study of both writing and editing. Over the years I moved from editing the work of group members (for free) to editing for online writing buddies (often a barter relationship) and from that to editing professionally. I’m in my ninth year as a professional editor.
I’ve always been a freelance editor, so I have no insights about the changes to the big publishing houses with the advent of e-publishing. But I certainly enjoy watching the changes. The ease of self-publishing has created a higher demand for freelancers in cover design, formatting, and editing, and for that I’m thankful. I’m curious to see where future changes will take us.
AutoCrit: Can you walk us through an average day from an editor’s perspective? What’s your personal approach, technique or system for efficient editing? Have you developed any unique quirks that mark your style?
BH: Because I schedule edits so that the stages of one edit overlap another edit at a different stage, most days are different. If I’m working the first pass of an edit, I’m reading from hard copy, marking the text and making notes. If I’m working on my second pass, I’m sitting or standing at my computer and marking up the Word doc. At that stage I’m also verifying facts, checking spelling, and making suggestions for changes. The first pass always goes quickly; the second is where much of my edit time is spent.
Because editors have different approaches, I will mention that I do make notes on my first pass. Some editors read the entire manuscript before making any notes, but I note anything that strikes me on that first read. If I don’t, I know that either I’ll forget the issue altogether or I’ll lose the emotion or power of my first reaction. If I don’t make a note, I’m likely to minimize the impact that a section of text had on me.
On any given day I’m also answering questions for clients or prospective clients, putting together a sample edit for a new client, and working through text or exercises for writers that I coach.
Unless I’m close to the end of an edit, no two days are alike. If, however, I’m pushing toward a deadline, I may have three or four days in a row when I’m focused on that one project alone.
And although I jot down general story notes as I do my edit passes, I flesh out my edit letter toward the end of an edit and may spend two days writing and rewriting that letter.
As for quirks, I’m not sure I’d notice my own. I am thorough. And I spend a lot of time with line-editing duties, making suggestions for word choices and sentence structure, for rhythm and balance and paragraph length. The right word choices can make any story unique, can make plot, setting, and characters stand out. I love enhancing word choice so that words fit characters, the situation, the genre, and the scene’s mood. I also look for words that will elicit an emotional response from the reader. And I definitely recommend replacing the general and the common (such as clichés) with specifics that fit only the characters in the story—not any old character—and fit them at only this time, the time period covered by story events. (As with any writing advice, there are exceptions, of course.)
I see myself as not only an editor of the text but a teacher as well, so that may be an oddity. For new writers and writers new to me, I include a lot of explanations of the fiction elements and of grammar and punctuation rules. I don’t want to only offer a suggestion; I want to show writers why one suggestion might be a better fit given all that’s going on with a story. I provide as much information as possible so that writers can incorporate that knowledge into subsequent projects. I don’t know if this qualifies as a quirk, but I’m not sure that all editors consider themselves teachers.
AutoCrit: Do you have a preference or specialism for the genre/types of books you edit? Which type do you most like working on, and why… and on the flip-side, which do you dislike the most, and why?
BH: I prefer to edit a variety of genres. If I limited myself to only one or two, I’m certain that I’d be itching for something different after three or four consecutive edits of the same genre. But I get the chance to edit a romance followed by a historical followed by something experimental, and I enjoy the experience with each.
Recently, I was editing a mystery set in 1950’s Manhattan when I had to break to speak with a writer about a scene set in thirteenth-century Europe. The variety is challenging and so very satisfying. I honestly don’t have an editing preference. And I haven’t met a genre I dislike yet. Not to edit.
AutoCrit: What are the most common issues you tend to see in manuscripts when you first get to work on them?
BH: As strengths and interests differ from writer to writer, so too do weaknesses. Some writers excel at witty dialogue, others are awesome plotters, and others are exceptional at world building. But no one is great with every fiction element or every writing skill, and that means we all have weaknesses. Different weaknesses. I find some commonalities, of course, but nothing common to every writer. That said, I can mention a couple of issues that many writers might want to take another look at in their works in progress.
First is unnecessary words. Writers can almost always cut unneeded words. If you can use fewer words to say the same thing and create the same effect and the scene isn’t harmed by changing the rhythm or sound of the sentence, cut the extra words. Many three-word phrases, including prepositional phrases, can dilute the impact of what’s come before. This is especially true at the ends of sentences.
An example: Jim had never seen such a horror in his life. The impact is likely to be greater with horror as the final word of the sentence, where it can resonate. Plus, in his life is simply unnecessary. Unless Jim’s comparing sights of horror that he’d seen when alive to those he’d seen when dead, in his life is meaningless; readers know he’s referring to a time in his life and not after his death. The use of never tells us that Jim means never, so no other qualifiers are needed. Exceptions if you’re using this kind of phrase for emphasis. And yet, Jim had never seen such a horror is demonstrably more emphatic. But that may not always be the case, so use this advice with consideration. (Yes, there are always exceptions.)
Second, is holding back. I often prompt writers to push deeper in an emotional scene. In my experience, many more writers hold back than overplay emotional elements. My suggestion here is to press deeper, to extend the emotional moment for characters and readers. Twist the knife—make readers uncomfortable.
Not every scene will have the same emotional depths. But in those dramatic scenes when you want to have the reader crying or laughing or screaming or gasping, don’t hold back. Push into the emotional element. You can always back out any excess. But I almost never have to suggest that a writer dial back the emotion component. My suggestion is almost always push deeper.
Last is chapter-ending hooks. Some writers create chapter endings that have readers turning pages deep into the night. But other writers end chapters without including a hook that compels readers to turn the page. While not all chapters (and not all stories) have to make use of dramatic cliffhanger endings, the ends of most chapters should both look back and look forward, wrapping up some issues while putting readers and characters into states of expectation or anxiety regarding what might happen next. Think anticipation rather than resolution.
Remember that you want readers turning pages, not turning off the light and going to sleep.
AutoCrit: Do you recognise and/or appreciate when a writer has obviously put in the effort to self-edit before passing their work to you? Do you consider a familiarity with self-editing to be an essential part of the writer’s toolkit?
BH: Of course I love receiving a fairly clean manuscript; when the fiction elements and the mechanics are at least generally in place. But every writer is at a different level of experience, and I know that each project will be different. Still, consistency paired with an attention to the rules tells me that the writer cares enough to do as much as he or she can on her own. I don’t expect perfection out of any manuscript, but it’s clear when a writer makes an effort. I appreciate both the effort and the writer.
Like rewriting, self-editing should be a standard part of a writer’s duties. Self-editing allows even more of the writer’s style to work itself into the text.
AutoCrit: With your answer to the previous question in mind, what top tips/things to look out for would you offer to writers if they want to keep their editor happy (and complete the editing process as painlessly as possible)?
BH: Start learning what you don’t know. If writing dialogue is difficult for you, practice writing it. Take a class. Learn what makes dialogue good, what makes it great, and what makes it stink. Or if you don’t know how to use commas, start learning the rules. Punctuation rules help us communicate clearly, but proper punctuation can also help a writer create nuances and depth in phrases and sentences.
Unless you and your editor are working on a developmental edit, don’t send an editor your first draft.
Expect your editor to find and then prod at a manuscript’s weak spots. Strengthen those weak spots ahead of time to head off some of the prodding, but welcome it when it happens. Better for you and your editor to find weaknesses than for weaknesses to be pointed out by readers and critics.
Have fun with your writing, but recognize that it’s hard work. Explore the fiction elements and their connections so that you can create depth in your stories. Links and relationships between not only characters but between the fiction elements can help you create tight and satisfying stories. You don’t have to wait for your editor to suggest connections.
Apply what you’ve learned from one edit to subsequent projects.
AutoCrit: You’re a published author, yourself, most notably your book The Magic of Fiction: Crafting Words into Story. Did you enlist the help of an outside editor for that? If so, how did you find the experience of being on the other side of the table?
BH: I edited most of Magic by myself, but I have a great friend who is a nitpicker par excellence, and she helped out tremendously in the final stages. Also, a reader at my blog contacted me and pointed out some typos in the PDF version, and I was able to correct those in the paperback—though I still found three errors in the final version, including one blasted typo that had me frustrated! I’ve yet to be truly on the other side of the table, but I’m looking forward to that for my next book. I’ve met some quite talented editors in online groups, so I know I’ll find a good one.
AutoCrit: Have you considered extending yourself into the world of fiction as an author? Any ideas up your sleeve that may become a reality?
BH: I’ve written three complete fiction manuscripts (we won’t count the one I wrote in middle school), and I admit I made every mistake possible with the first one. The worst mistake is that I didn’t limit the word count and produced a 200,000-word monster. With rewrites, I got the word count to 160,000 or so, but if I were to do anything with it, it would need a major rewrite or two and lots of editing. It and a sequel are medieval adventures in a world like our own, but the world isn’t actually Earth. They’re sword and sorcery epics without the sorcery.
I began my third fiction manuscript as a NaNoWriMo project. I wanted to try a genre I’d never written before, so I tackled a romance. I finished it a few months later, happy to have overcome many of the mistakes I made with my first novel manuscript. I began but didn’t complete a sequel.
Time travel appeals to me, and I know I’ve got a time-travel novel or two in me, but I’ve begun projects twice and haven’t been pleased with the results. I’m sure that I’ll eventually write one to my satisfaction.
As for that first story way back when? I made the rookie mistake of writing myself into a corner. I didn’t know how the story would end before I started, so I had a dramatic plot with a few twists but no way to come back from one of the twists to give the story a proper ending. That happens when you kill your first-person narrator off in a plane crash before the final chapter.
AutoCrit: Outside of the professional sphere, what kind of books do you most enjoy reading? Do you have a favorite genre you go to when it’s time to curl up and enjoy a read? What do you think it is about those kinds of stories that capture your imagination the most?
BH: For fun, I read mysteries, suspense, and romance. I love historicals of almost any kind—I want to experience past eras. I want to see the world in every age, experience what that world produced and what it looked and felt like. I like paranormals, time travel, and international/political thrillers or suspense.
I want drama and upheaval and a fitting resolution after a fight well fought. I want bold characters who aren’t afraid to give all, who aren’t afraid to take a stand. Who aren’t afraid to say what I can’t say in my world without real repercussions.
When I read I want to fall in love, save the world, discover the treasure. I want to be the hero. I want the adventure.
In nonfiction, I enjoy books that teach me something but that do so in an entertaining way. Malcolm Gladwell does this kind of thing very well.
AutoCrit: Recall, if you will, your single biggest editing nightmare. What happened? Why? How did it impact yourself and the writer, and what did you learn from it?
BH: Let’s just say that out of all the edits I’ve done, I’ve had only two projects that I recall as negative experiences. One finished as a big positive, and the other still bothered me for several years after it happened, so the results were mixed. The problem for both arose out of poor communication. The takeaway? Whether you’re the writer or the editor, communicate clearly and be mindful of assumptions.
AutoCrit: How would you suggest an author go about finding a reputable editor to work with? How do you prefer to be approached by prospective partners, and what kind of questions would you recommend authors ask before committing themselves to working with a certain editor?
BH: There are many ways to find a good editor. Ask your writing friends and members of your writing or critique group. Look up editors online—search for fiction editor or mystery editor or whatever combinations make sense for what you write; freelancers all have websites. Check out professional editing associations; many have lists of editors arranged by speciality.
If you’ll be approaching editors, definitely check out their websites first; many questions will have their answers there. But if you don’t find what you need, you can ask. Ask if the editor edits your genre. Ask what kind of editing the editor does. Some editors focus on copyediting and some focus on developmental editing. Some do both and more.
Some editors edit only fiction, others edit only nonfiction, and some edit only scholarly works. If you can’t tell the editor’s specialities or focus from the website, ask.
Many fiction editors will do a sample edit (one-time only) for a writer for free; some charge a small fee and apply it toward the first edit. Again, check the website or ask. A sample edit gives the writer a good sense of what kinds of edit suggestions and comments the editor will make, what kinds of issues the editor will look for. A copyeditor or a proofreader may not provide a free sample.
Know what you’re going to get and what you’re not going to get with your edit before choosing an editor.
To contact me, send an e-mail and introduce yourself. Let me know what you’re looking for. If you got my name through one of my clients, tell me that.
AutoCrit: When this Q&A goes live, we’re going to be heading into NaNoWriMo. I noticed from your blog that you’re a NaNo fan. Would you mind sharing a few words about your NaNo experiences over the years? What do you think it is that makes the initiative so successful?
BH: NaNo is awesome. If you’re at all tempted to try it, let me be a voice that encourages you to jump in. Aside from being fun, it’s a period of time set aside to just write, to get started with a project you’ve been meaning to start or finish a project that you’ve all but given up on. And you get a lot of support, others pulling for you, writers who know what it means to dedicate one small bit of time to yourself and your goals.
Writing is a job for some and a dream for others. Whichever camp you’re in, NaNo is one more way to help you get started or stay motivated. Go for it.
I’ve tried NaNo three or four times (or maybe it’s five) and finished successfully twice. It’s easy to fall behind if you don’t meet your goals every day—you need to write 1667 words a day for the 30 days of November to “win” NaNo. But it is doable.
I’ve loved my NaNo experiences, even when I didn’t meet the 50,000-word goal. The challenge introduces some fun into writing. And to reach a consistent daily word count, NaNo pushes you to write without censoring yourself, a marvelous practice when you’re trying to get that first draft written.
You can participate in timed sessions either online or in person with other writers. I hosted a couple of online write-ins at my blog last year, and I can attest that those timed sessions help you produce the words.
Just remember that you will need to rewrite and edit your NaNo text eventually, just as you would any scenes and chapters. Don’t worry about creating perfect prose; just get the story down and moving. We sometimes create the most elegant or most creative phrasing when we write without pause, without a censor, without that editing witch hanging over one shoulder, eager to point out errors.
I think one reason that NaNo is successful is because the NaNo people and all the participants are so encouraging. Many beginning writers—many writers of any experience level—don’t get encouragement from friends or family or other important people in their lives. The whole NaNo community cheerleads writers to the finish line. That encouragement is a powerful force. It may even be strong enough to fuel a writer for years. Yes, we can write on our own, and we do. We do it every day. But knowing that others are standing with us brings a special bump to our writing during NaNo.
AutoCrit: Any final comments or words of wisdom for our audience?
- Learn the craft.
- Rework your text and rewrite as many times as needed; a first draft isn’t a finished novel.
- Hire an editor if you plan to self-publish. And if you’re writing fiction, hire an editor who edits fiction and who understands the fiction elements.
- Make use of books, the Internet, writing forums, blogs, and writing and critique groups to hone your craft.
- Your editor will be one of your greatest resources; learn all you can from him or her. Consider your first professional edit an advanced writing course.
- Dream big but back up those dreams with knowledge and practice.
- Keep writing; the rest of us want to read your stories.
Thank you, AutoCrit, for inviting me to share with your readers. I hope that each writer who comes this way finds success.
AutoCrit: Thank you, Beth, for such an insightful and lengthy conversation!
What do you think of Beth’s advice? Have her words lifted the curtain on any editorial queries you had? Let us know in the comments.