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Blog > Perfecting your Craft – Posted on July 11, 2014

#FreelancerFriday #1 - Rebecca Faith, Editor

“In my experience successful authors are open to revision. It’s not easy to hear the eighty or ninety thousand words you’ve just poured your soul into are not up to par. But if you can leave a little bit of your ego behind and dive into the art, and find someone you trust to be there with you, I don’t think good authorship is beyond many people. It’s a form that invites participation for those who are willing to do the work.”

Rebecca Faith is one of the members of Reedsy's advisory board, and also an outstanding editor.

A quick anecdote that probably says more about Rebecca than any interview possibly could. The interview below is the first half-hour of our conversation. As I was thanking her, I mentioned that I didn’t want to take up any more of her time with questions about editing that would just be thinly-veiled attempts to find guidance with my own (pretty blocked) novel I’m working on. She pushed through my chronic shyness when it comes to talking about creative projects, and spent another half-hour, right there, listening patiently and dispensing insightful advice. Advice, by the way, that went way beyond any of the feedback I’d had from beta readers, best friends, anonymous message boards, and so on. It was neat to see someone almost spontaneously giving off editorial assistance. But you can meet her for yourself below.

REEDSY

How would you describe what an editor does for an author? It seem like the simple answer is “They edit,” but I wonder what you see that as consisting in. Some would see editing as just being fixing spelling mistakes.

REBECCA FAITH

Sometimes it is. It really depends on the kind of editing we’re talking about. There’s a very nuts and bolts straightforwardness about proofreading and line editing. Those editors bring a level of professionalism and polish to written work, and you really can’t put a price tag on that. It’s very important.

But developmental editing or content editing has surged in prominence since self-publishing has become more popular. A good editor helps drawn an amateur into more professional ranks by offering a lot of insight about craft, character development, style, plot production, and so on. There’s a nice collaboration between good editors and authors that really teases out the creative process. The most succinct way that I could say this is a good editor helps an author inhabit their work more fully and helps them stretch beyond their perceived limits of skill.

REEDSY

I like that. You’ve identified the two very different parts of the editing process.

REBECCA FAITH

There’s the technical side which is grammar, conventions, “How the hell do you use a semicolon?”; and there’s the subjective side: “Yes, you might have conceived your ideas and your characters in a particular way but I’m here to help you reach beyond the limits that you’ve imposed on your own imagination.” I don’t know that you can ever quantify that or articulate it without experiencing it first-hand, but that’s my best effort.

REEDSY

Could you talk about how talking to an author can be part of that process? It seems tricky to do a developmental edit working with the manuscript alone.

REBECCA FAITH

I think the face-to-face or phone-to-phone interaction is important. It’s more important for content editing or developmental editing because there’s a certain kind of idea exchange; where the characters or the content come alive. A good editor feels the reality of a book as strongly as the author does. If a particular passage feels awkward, or it’s not reading well, or there’s a continuity issue - meaning it’s not lining up with the rest of the book - a live chat gives us the opportunity to troubleshoot it. That’s very hard to do with just the page. I might say “This line of dialogue feels hollow to me and I don’t now if you mean x, y, or z, but what’s being communicated to me is this.”

The developmental work requires a live component, although I was resistant to that when I first started editing. It’s always quite nerve wracking to work with people and their art. It’s important to take the right tone and tack when you’re talking out things. Who am I say to say to an author “I don’t think your character would do this.” Thats a lot of ownership on my part. Face-to face work needs good editors who have a very cogent understanding of how to bring out an author’s best work while also pressing those limits that we talked about.

REEDSY

Are there limits on what an editor can do for an author?

REBECCA FAITH

At some points I’ve had to say “Look the work is not good, the book is not good, and you should stop working on it. Let’s go back to some craft lessons, let’s talk about short stories, creative non-fiction, let’s learn how to write.” An editor can’t take an author who has no skills and no desire to revise, and make that person a better writer. So I suppose the limit of an editor is a closed mind. There’s not much you can do with someone whose work is atrocious but who doesn’t believe it, and who doesn’t trust in the curated opinion of an editor.

An editor is like a chef. Good chefs have developed their palates: they’ve tasted everything, single ingredients, complex foods, they’ve honed their tongue like a fine-edged sword, and that sword can taste the difference between ‘tangy’ and 'sour.’ A good editor has honed their literary palate by reading everything: genres they love, genres they don’t; they’ve read craft books, they’ve read the Chicago manual, they read blogs about punctuation and they’ve developed a keen taste for what good writing is. Then, like a chef, they can transform that into any dish. A good chef can’t just cook one thing well, and a good editor can’t just edit one genre. Generally an editor is going to take that sophisticated palate and apply it across anything.

The resistance is the diner who salts his food before he eats, who is not willing to taste and be led on a culinary journey. Authors who don’t want to open their eyes and their minds to their editor will never get better. The only limit of a truly excellent editor is an author who won’t release their mind to that help.

REEDSY

What’s the appeal of editing? I feel like most people told to sit in a room with unedited work would balk at that; do you like what you do?

REBECCA FAITH

I love what I do. I wanted to be an editor since other girls were dreaming of being ballerinas. I don’t think I had language for what I wanted to do; I just started hoarding red pens and hoping for the best. I love losing myself in line editing the same way others love losing themselves in doing the laundry. There are correct answers. There’s a certain comfort in that, it’s almost mathematical. Grammarians, people who truly love our language, can at once respect the rules of that language and acknowledge that language is a communicative tool; and so there’s also play within grammar. It’s not all cut and dry; there are moments where we break the rules.

But my real pleasure as an editor is the developmental editing. Helping someone discover the work that lives in their soul is a privilege. Being in that space with an author who’s trying to give life to something that does not exist outside of their own mind is an incredible thing to witness, and I’m in awe every time.

I’m working with a client now who came to me with a full completed draft. After the first three chapters I went to her and said “You know, this is really terrible. I think it’s not the story you want to tell; I think it’s just the story that occurred to you first.” We’ve been working together on a draft where you don’t even recognise where it came from. She’s working so hard and so well and so productively; she’s writing a book she won’t just be proud of but that people will love. Watching that happen, watching someone’s mind give life to things that are not there, that’s magic.

So I suppose it takes a certain amount of creativity for someone to go into editing. You have to have a mind that sees potential where it’s hiding, but also a mind that makes space for someone else to roam around freely, and create. There’s a balance for good editors between offering structure, lending out my palate, and also sitting back and saying “What do you taste? What are you baking?” I’m a sous chef in the kitchen. It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy that behind the scenes work.

REEDSY

What makes a good developmental editor? It seems difficult to look at two people and tell who’s better. I’ve heard experience thrown around as a way of doing this.

REBECCA FAITH

I think experience is important. But there’s a balance between being the scaffolding, and then also the architect. A good developmental editor gives authors the structure they need to be free. If you’ve ever had to write an essay for a class, you’ll know writing for a prompt is much more directed than writing on 'a topic of your choice.’ That’s the death knell for a lot of people because it’s too much open space. A good developmental editor creates a structured place for an author to live in, creatively. They have no ego about their author’s work. As much as I invest in my authors work- and I feel the heartbeat of their characters and I care deeply about what happens to them - I have no desire to make that work my own. There’s a lack of covetousness with a good editor wherein you truly are working in service of another person’s artwork, and I think that’s a quality even experience can’t necessarily teach.

REEDSY

Once you’ve engaged with a client and want to start an edit, what happens?

REBECCA FAITH

A lot of my clients have just an idea for a book. For those people we start with a one page synopsis, which is much much harder than you might imagine. For people who have a completed first draft I start reading and after 25 or 30 pages I edit and make margin notes. I send that work back to the author and then we talk. We talk about the work, we talk about the edits, about subjective and objective things; we do grammar lessons and we also talk about character motivation and how things are shaping up. Generally we’ll proceed along in that fashion until the end of the book. First drafts are generally extremely malleable and change very quickly. A lot of rewriting happens after a first draft so I’ll also guide writers through rewriting, what’s interesting to me as a reader, questions they should be asking themselves about their characters, and we go through the work using it as a practicum for being a better writer and expanding the usefulness, utility and beauty of a manuscript.

REEDSY

So what about when someone has just an idea?

REBECCA FAITH

The line that I draw is that a substantive editing is based off a completed first draft, while in developmental editing we’re developing from an idea.

In developmental editing, you come to me with an idea. We start by talking about it and I require a one-page synopsis. People spend months on a one-page synopsis. It makes plain where there’s not enough plot, which is often a problem - authors tend to have a pretty good handle on the beginning and end of a book, and the middle is a wasteland where forward momentum goes to die. The one page synopsis helps us hone in on conflict, character development, protagonists, antagonists; a lot can be accomplished within the confines of an 8.5" x 11" page. That usually requires a few hours of Skype conversation, a few drafts, a lot of brainstorming.

From there we move into what I call chapter-snapshots. You get a short paragraph, maybe five or seven sentences, to articulate what happens in each chapter. Again, we’re trying to avoid the problem of authors getting off to a sprint when the race begins, then having an asthma attack laying down at the side of the road by chapter 12. That foundation-laying helps engage authors engage with and confront the problems of their work.

After that we start writing. The snapshots are very productive, and usually make people feel pretty excited. The author has now done the work of creating some of that structure on their own, and it becomes much easier to then say “OK, I’m going to write chapter one” because you know where chapter one begins and ends/ Working within those structures I often find that people become much more creative. They might say “I started to write chapter one but it’s much more difficult than I expected because I had so many ideas while I was writing,” and then we revisit how those ideas integrate into the chapter snapshots and the synopsis.

It’s very difficult to build on nothing, so once an author does the hard work of laying the foundation, the house goes up quicker than you might imagine.

REEDSY

So there isn’t some place an author needs to be in before you can come in and help. You can be there at any stage of the project.

REBECCA FAITH

Anyone with even just the flame of desire to write a book can work with me. If someone comes to me and says “I want to write, but I don’t know what to write,” that’s OK. I start by asking that person what they like to read. I help them curate their own literary palate. I ask them what movies they like, what music they like; like, “What is your artistic profile?” Based on that I’ll make some recommendations about authors that are doing great work, and we’ll talk about books. We’ll talk about reading. I might give a couple of small writing assignments: free-write for me about someone in your office from the time they wake up to when they sit down at their desk.

Writing is a thankless and difficult process. To anyone with the heart to do it I say bring it on. So many of us are limited in our ability to produce art. Not everybody has the skill or patience for an instrument, or we don’t have the balance and the grace for dance, and when we dip a paintbrush in paint we just end up with splatters on a canvas. But writing uses something that’s inborn. We all have this language. Because of the structure of writing, because of the structure of grammar and good story production, pages are just waiting to be filled. It does take some discipline, I’m not saying it’s easy - it’s the hardest work you can do in some ways, artistically. But it’s there if you have language. It’s a true laying bare of the soul, and anyone who’s willing to do that work is welcome to call me.

REEDSY

If writing is a thankless and difficult process, is there a parallel for what you’d call the editing life?

REBECCA FAITH

Editing is not thankless! Editing is wonderful, in fact. I feel very close to my clients; by the end of our work many of them are friends. Editing is intimate process because, and this goes back to you asking about the qualities of a good editor, an editor mustn’t create shame; an editor has to actively quell embarrassment. The safe space that we create for our authors is a place where they can take risks and fall flat on their faces and not feel stupid about it. How many people have adult-to-adult conversations about sex, religion, ideology? These issues all come up in the course of creating three-dimensional characters. Authors and editors have to bring their whole histories to the table and be comfortable with that. I’m very humbled by the collection of books I have at home where I’m mentioned in acknowledgements. I think editing is the long straw; I wouldn’t have it any other way. I find my work deeply gratifying.

In my experience successful authors are open to revision. It’s not easy to hear the eighty or ninety thousand words you’ve just poured your soul into are not up to par. But if you can leave a little bit of your ego behind and dive into the art, and find someone you trust to be there with you, I don’t think good authorship is beyond many people. It’s a form that invites participation for those who are willing to do the work.

REEDSY

Revision is interesting, because it’s such an important part of writing, but it doesn’t apply to other uses of language; it would be insane to revise everything you say before you say it.

REBECCA FAITH

It would, but think about the times you wish you could have taken it back! The thoughtfulness we can bring to writing is a double-edged sword; if you’ve ever read something overworked you know what I’m talking about. But putting work on a page is an opportunity for people to really lay bare a certain amount of soulfulness, look at it objectively and say “Who am I? What is this?” There’s so much value in that clarity. I think authorship is a process of self-discovery as much as it’s a process of discovering worlds that don’t exist yet.

You invite an editor to accompany you and be a spirit guide. Editors who don’t take that privilege incredibly seriously should not be editors. It’s humbling to be entrusted with that privilege. I think people who want to write should write, and editors are out there who want to help.

REEDSY

When do you think the writing process ends? In traditional publishing it seems like it passes into the hands of the publisher. How would you talk about when a manuscript ends, for authors and for editors?

REBECCA FAITH

Some people say that work is never finished. I think that’s incorrect, and also very depressing.

REEDSY

Like, the idea that you don’t finish a novel, you put it away.

REBECCA FAITH

I think that’s just… what an awful thing to say. I think work reaches a place where it’s take the form that we’ve imagined it to. We feel like the journey we’re talking about has ended. Our characters have completed their journey. The work has reached a level of polish that’s industry-standard and acceptable. There’s an objective level to that - is it free of errors, as error free as a work can be? We also have to look at our characters. Have they changed? Have they grown? Have they gotten from point A to point B? I think that’s our best view of what’s happening.

REEDSY

Thanks Rebecca.