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I keep reading about cases of comic editors dictating what must and mustn’t happen in a particular book, to the point where the writers either miserably force themselves to write something they hate or quit.
It kind of blows my mind, honestly. I’ve done some editing myself. My husband used to work for a newspaper, and I would edit his articles before he sent them in (he’d get a bonus if his articles didn’t require too much editing, so it was important that they be as perfect as possible). I’ve edited stories friends have written for fun, and I’ve edited works for publication, most notably several compilations of original comics.
I’m not a professional editor, by which I mean I’ve never been paid to do it. Nevertheless, after reading yet another article a few weeks ago about how editorial ‘meddling’ has probably killed an up and coming comic book, I wanted to explore what, in my mind, an editor is . . . and isn’t.
1. An editor catches spelling and grammar mistakes.
This is the most basic of an editor’s duties. We all slip up sometimes. While modern spell-checkers are very good, all of us occasionally use the wrong word or leave out a word or put in an extra word. Nobody’s perfect, and editors exist to catch those times when we’re not and fix them. For example, recently I discovered that in something I’d written years and years ago, I’d used “threw” instead of “through”. It was a mortifying moment. A really good editor would have caught that even if spellcheck didn’t.
That being said, an editor should not have to do this all the time. Writers who constantly mix up “your” and “you’re”, who use malapropisms (saying “gracious” when they mean “graceful”), who use the wrong homonym (“taught muscles” when they mean “taut muscles”) or who switch between past and present tense every other sentence will never make it as professional writers, no matter how good their ideas are.
It’s maddening when stupid mistakes do make it into print, particularly print we pay money for. Mistakes made by amateurs are forgivable, but we hold professional writers and editors to a higher standard. If I’m paying hard-earned money for a piece of literature, shouldn’t it be free of such easily-caught flaws?
2. An editor catches inconsistencies and contradictions within the work itself.
The other day I was reading a murder mystery. I love murder mysteries, but this one had a glaring inconsistency that affected a major plot point. The victim, I was told, shouted and switched on her flashlight just before she was killed. Later in the book, I was told that the flashlight was found in her pocket, and that this was important because it meant she couldn’t have seen the killer’s face when she shouted. Also, the killer fled the scene and wouldn’t have had time to slip the flashlight back in her pocket.
Wait, what? That makes no sense. On the one hand the story clearly stated that the victim had switched on her flashlight after calling out, on the other, it said that the flashlight was found in her pocket and that she’d obviously never had a chance to use it.
By the end of the story it was clear that this wasn’t some authorial trick; it was an error. The author should have caught it, and even more so, the editor should have caught it. This was shoddy, unprofessional editing, plain and simple. It’s all the more depressing for the fact that the book was written over fifty years ago, and no one’s attempted to fix the glaring mistake in the interim.
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3. An editor makes sure a story is consistent within the context of the real world.
I’m a fan of Hugh Jackman. Hence, I rented Kate and Leopold. It’s an awful, awful movie, the only redeeming factor being, well, Hugh Jackman. Setting aside the nonsensical time-travel plot (and I mean that literally, the story made no sense), there’s a bit in there where the time-traveling Leopold invented the elevator. In 1876. Before he time traveled.
Why is this problematic? Well, the elevator was invented long before 1876. In fact, the first passenger elevator was installed in 1857!
I’m not sure why the detail of Leopold inventing the elevator was thrown into the script. It adds nothing to the ‘plot’ and directly contradicts historical fact. It’s the kind of thing that should have caused a good editor to say, “Um, what is the point of this? Why are you changing history when there’s no need to?” I’m not saying a story can’t contradict history; some of the best stories do just that (Harry Turtledove comes to mind) but if you’re going to do it, there’s got to be a purpose to it. It’s the writer’s job to do the research in the first place, to take a moment to look up the invention of the elevator, but it’s also the editor’s job to catch the writer’s failures and mistakes. It’s a team effort.
4. An editor makes suggestions to improve the story or the writing.
This is where a good editor really shines. A really good editor will tell a writer that a particular paragraph is convoluted, that a specific character’s role isn’t clear within the context of the plot or that the ‘gotcha’ is much too obvious. They might make suggestions like, “I think you should wait longer to reveal that character’s backstory, draw it out more,” or “It seems out of character for him to say that, based on what he said in the previous chapter.”
The key point here is that these are suggestions. The writer can choose to take the editor’s advice or not. Maybe there’s a good reason why someone’s behaving out of character, to be revealed in the following chapter. Maybe it’s important that the reader learn a character’s backstory up front. It’s the writer’s job to carefully take these suggestions into account and to modify the story appropriately if something is unclear or seems to come out of nowhere.
Yes, there are times when an editor must dictate what a writer has to write. TV writers must be careful of censors and of their audience. Publishers are trying to make money.
At the same time, an editor who tries to dictate what a writer should write based on that editor’s personal preference is a bad editor. An editor who becomes more of a hindrance than a help to the storytelling process is a bad editor. An editor that arbitrarily makes major decisions about characters that run counter to a writer’s vision, then forces the writer to comply with those decisions? That’s a bad editor.
Editors are supposed to work with writers, not against them.
The Final Squeak
It’s my pleasure to bring you another comic by paskettiwestern. I thought it only fair to highlight another side of editing, since sometimes editors do have to step in and say, “Sorry, but that just won’t fly.” Check out the original post on tumblr.