A Day in an Editor’s Brain

How’s that for a terrifying blog title? Okay, so we won’t spend a whole day there. But as I pondered how to give you a glimpse into what freelance editors do, it occurred to me that the easiest, and best, method would be to just let you live in this editor’s brain for a short time. So buckle up, Buttercup–here we go…

I’m sitting at my computer, ready to start a substantive, or line-by-line edit on a novel. I’ve already had a 2-hr phone call with a client, and now I’ve got my second cup of (very strong) coffee beside me as fortification.  This is a manuscript on which I did a 20+ page macro months ago, and which the author has completely rewritten. I’ve done a quick read on the revised manuscript, and am pleased with how much the author improved it. But I’ve also seen a number of issues that I addressed in the macro that are still rearing their craft-damaging heads. Flow, speaker attributions, effective use of beats, showing important emotions rather than reporting them, overdoing descriptions, to name just a few. I open the manuscript, activate my trusty Track Changes, and start in. As I enter the story world, my mind evaluates (you’ll see I’m using both he and she for the author. That’s because what follows is a composite of a number of edits I’m working on now)…

  • Nice beginning lines. They pull us right into the story and the character’s head. Do I like these characters? Why or why not? The protag is a woman, and some of the things she says seem…harsh. Ooo, and the husband’s comment there is pretty insulting. Is that the author’s intent? I don’t think so. Better point it out and suggest a change.
  • Does that word make sense there? No…it’s not quite right. But what word does the author need?

I open the internet and go to my trusty Webster’s online dictionary, type in the word I think the author needs, read the definition to be sure, then do a synonym search to see if there’s an ever better word to us. Yep, there is. I go back to the manuscript file and put in a comment, suggesting some options to the word the author used.

            Okay, back into the edit… 

  • Who is saying what here, and does it need to be said? How does this dialogue add to or enhance the scene? The lack of speaker attributions bumps me out of the story world and I have to go back to figure out who is saying what.
  • Hold on…that section was past tense, and now we’re suddenly in present tense. Better go back and see if that happened anywhere else…

 I stop the edit, go back to the beginning, and read again with an eye toward tense. Yup, he’s going back and forth in tense. Need to address that in a comment. Okay, that’s done. Back to the edit…

  • The author is using some wonderful, strong descriptive words—but when he follows them up, as he seems to do quite a lot, with an unneeded and overwritten comparison, those nice, strong words are weakened. Need to point out the overwritten sections/comparisons as a caution and explain why they’re a problem.
  • The characters are shaping up nicely, but I’m not getting a strong sense of place here. The setting in this book is as important as the characters, but I’m not feeling, hearing, smelling, tasting it. We’re being held at a distance. Makes sense, since a large part of the rewrite was to get rid of overdone descriptions. The author has gone a bit too far the other way. Need to give a bit of direction in a comment.
  • Wait, what just happened? We were with the protag in a room, and now suddenly we’re not? Need to finish the previous scene, mining the emotional richness, before we jump to the next place. This is the second time we’ve done a time warp, so I’d better caution the author about tying up scenes so readers don’t get whiplash.
  • Wow, that scene was so well written I forgot to edit and got caught up in just reading! So I’ll make note of that in a comment, then go back and read again to be sure I didn’t miss anything.
  • Hmm…the author has made an intriguing comparison to a movie, but it doesn’t really work. She’s comparing something positive to something negative… is there another movie comparison that works as well?

Back to the Internet, to do a search of movies and see if I can recommend some options. I find two or three, and plug those into a comment. On with the edit…

  • Nope, nope. This page of dialogue without speaker attributions is too confusing. I add in examples of beats and SAs.
  • Ooo, nice scene with the siblings. Love how the author handled that.
  • Flashbacks within flashbacks seldom work. I point that out and explain in the comment why they’re problematic, and why it doesn’t work in this manuscript.
  • Okay…what did that sentence just say? Nope, still don’t know what the author is saying here. Add a comment to ask for clarification.

And on and on it goes. As I analyze facets of the author’s craft, I’m writing notes in the margin of the manuscript, pointing out concerns, explaining edits I’ve made, commenting on what works well, letting the author know in comments when something makes me laugh or moves me. And I’m jumping on and off the internet, researching where needed, such as to ensure something is accurate to the time period. And, of course, I’m editing where needed to do things such as clarify meaning; fix wrong words, sentence structure, or punctuation; and all the lovely things we talked about in the previous editing blogs.

So there you have it. Your glimpse into the mind an editor’s mind. Hope you enjoyed it!



52 Responses to A Day in an Editor’s Brain

  1. Amy Boucher Pye April 20, 2016 at 3:41 am #

    Love this Karen! I don’t have fiction experience and learned a lot just from reading this snapshot. Read your post following scanning a link from FB on the writer/editor relationship. http://www.afr.com/brand/afr-magazine/anna-funder-christos-tsiolkas-tim-flannery-on-the-editorwriter-relationship-20160112-gm49x0 It’s a day to think about the gift of editors.

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:24 pm #

      Amy, what fun to hear from you. Hapoy you enjoyed it.

  2. Jackie Layton April 20, 2016 at 4:09 am #

    Oh my goodness, Karen! What an exhausting, but fun, job. You must get so much satisfaction helping authors write stronger stories. I’m impressed with how hard you edit.

    Plus you’re an agent and author. How do you get it all done?

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:25 pm #

      Sometimes I don’t, which makes me so grateful for grace!

    • Georgette April 22, 2016 at 7:13 am #

      Thank you for this! As I edit my own work… I will find this very helpful of what to keep in mind!

  3. SC Skillman April 20, 2016 at 4:43 am #

    This is such a helpful post. It both encouraged and enlightened me as a writer. It made me feel I am not alone…

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:27 pm #

      So happy it encouraged you.

  4. Hannah April 20, 2016 at 6:34 am #

    This was so much fun, Karen. Thanks for sharing this glimpse of your process with us. 🙂

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:28 pm #

      You’re welcome!

  5. Linda Yezak April 20, 2016 at 6:44 am #

    Yes, yes, yes! That’s exactly the way I think when I’m working. I’m so glad you mentioned having to go back to make sure the tenses are consistent. I’ve caught myself wondering, “when did that happen?” many times and have had to backtrack.

    I’m going to bookmark this and share it with my clients so they’ll understand. Thank you for sharing what it’s like to be an editor!

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:28 pm #

      Thanks fir the comment.

  6. Carol Ashby April 20, 2016 at 6:51 am #

    Karen, this view into your personal editing process is fascinating.
    On the recommendation of a contest judge, I got “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave King. What you describe as your process as a professional mirrors what they taught. I’ve read that book carefully, and the “self-editing” I learned to do as I work on my own manuscripts improved their quality a lot. I heartily recommend that book for every writer to read and apply the lessons before sending something into a professional editor’s hands. It could make the process less painful for both.
    Do you ever get manuscripts that suffer from no major flaws and are simply a joy to read?

  7. Barbara D'Antoni Diggs April 20, 2016 at 6:58 am #

    Oh my ! This was so helpful! It definitely helps me better understand the editing process, and what I need to do in self- editing. Thank you, Karen, for letting us into your brain.

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:30 pm #

      Great book! I recommend it to writers all the time.

  8. Allison April 20, 2016 at 7:02 am #

    I’m not an editor but I must think like one because so much of your thought process echoes what I think when I read books or critique for other writers. I often find that my internal editor distracts me from the story. One of my greatest joys is finding a book I can just read without being distracted by the writing. I’m starting to think of reading as a hunt for those rare and beautiful treasures.

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:31 pm #

      Love that definition of reading.

  9. Linda McKain April 20, 2016 at 7:21 am #

    Karen: Enjoyed the gander through your head. A gander through a head is not always rewarding, but yours has been inspiring as well as educating. I found several points I need to put on file cards to add to my writing tip file.
    Thank you

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:31 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed the gander!

  10. Teresa-Rae April 20, 2016 at 7:50 am #


  11. Janet Ann Collins April 20, 2016 at 8:27 am #

    I’m surprised you would even have accepted a ms with that many problems. It’s encouraging to know mss don’t have to be perfect to have agents like them.

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:21 pm #

      Janet, these were manuscripts were from editing clients, not agenting clients. Two completely different things.

  12. Kathy Ide April 20, 2016 at 8:28 am #

    Loved reading this! This is exactly how my editing process goes too … but you described it with your special Karen Ball brand of humor, which always makes me grin. I’m sharing this series of posts with my editors at The Christian PEN, and they’re loving it too!

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:33 pm #

      Hapoy to hear it!

      • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:34 pm #

        Man! I have to quit typing my replies on my phone. The keyboard is too small and I keep making mistakes. Sheesh.

  13. Lee Carver April 20, 2016 at 8:36 am #

    This is an excellent contribution to the ACFW course of the month of April on self-editing. I also do freelance edits, and I’m impressed by how thorough your efforts are.

  14. Joanne Reese April 20, 2016 at 9:10 am #

    This post was timely for me Karen, as I’ve started taking steps in the direction of editing as well. I hope to pour into other writers as I build my writing career. Tracking things with you today has only confirmed my suspicion. I think I will love this kind of work! Thank you for giving us a peek at your day.

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:35 pm #

      You’re welcome.

  15. Tammy Fish April 20, 2016 at 9:17 am #

    Loved this, Karen. Having taught writing to freshmen students, I could relate to the time spent on the internet in lieu of a better suggestion. However, I found it is easier to see the errors in another’s writing rather than my own. At some point, I do not know if I am making the story better or worse.

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:23 pm #

      Exactly why we all need editors!

  16. Sheri Dean Parmelee April 20, 2016 at 9:46 am #

    Karen, thanks for the glimpse into your world. It looks like you have to be able to head down rabbit trails while keeping your sense of direction. You appear to be part detective, part grammar/sense-making police. Very interesting!

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:36 pm #

      Love that description of editing!

  17. Robin Patchen April 20, 2016 at 10:22 am #

    Very familiar. Back and forth on the Internet, searching the most random things. The other day, desperate for a better metaphor than the writer had used, I typed “most persistent animals” and came across a delightful post that had me laughing out loud…and not editing…for about ten minutes. Glad it’s not just me doing stuff like that.

    Great post, as always.

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:37 pm #

      Thanks, Robin.

  18. Georgiana Daniels April 20, 2016 at 10:41 am #

    WOW—this is wonderful insight into how thorough you are. You have an amazing skill set. Actually, this makes me want to look at my manuscript with a fresh eye.

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:38 pm #

      Very cool! Thanks for the comment.

  19. Rachel E. Newman, Freelance Editor April 20, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    Spot on!

  20. Jeanne Takenaka April 20, 2016 at 11:23 am #

    I loved reading this, Karen. Seeing where your editor’s mind went, and how you worked to help your clients improve their craft by doing a little research for them. I’m sure your clients are grateful for you! Great post!

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:40 pm #

      And I’m grateful for them!

  21. Teresa Hanger April 20, 2016 at 11:26 am #

    Karen, You have described so well what the editing experience is like. As a freelance editor myself, this sounds very familiar. I like to think it is because I am doing a good job. 🙂

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:41 pm #

      You made me smile. Thanks!

  22. Jenelle M. April 20, 2016 at 7:18 pm #

    I need a nap now.

    • Karen Ball April 20, 2016 at 9:42 pm #

      And you made me guffaw!

  23. Linda Riggs Mayfield April 20, 2016 at 8:14 pm #

    Like others, I appreciated seeing that my professional editing process appears to be very similar yours–but I was a little surprised–I most often edit dissertations! Switching verb tenses? In a dissertation proposal, most of Ch. 1 (intro to the problem) is in present tense, Ch. 2 (review of the literature) all in past tense, and Ch. 3 (planned methodology) in future tense. Then after the proposal is approved and the research has been conducted, the scholar must rewrite Ch. 3 (methodology) in past tense to explain what s/he did, and write Ch. 4 (findings) in past tense, and Ch. 5 (discussion/application) in past, present, and future tense. One encouraging take-away from your post is that writers are writers with writers’ issues, whatever we write, and good editing can help just about all of us. 🙂

  24. Judith Robl April 21, 2016 at 2:09 pm #

    Karen, loved this! As an editor, I was thoroughly with you all the way — except when you referred to “SAs” which I couldn’t translate. Can’t for the life of me think what that identified. (blush)

  25. Martha Jane Curtis April 21, 2016 at 10:23 pm #

    Karen, Although I write, I find myself loving the editing process–other’s work, of course. My own is not so much fun. The glimpse into your brain has been most helpful. Thanks for posting.

  26. Bonnie S Hirst April 22, 2016 at 9:12 am #

    Karen, thank you for so many tidbits of helpful info. This writer gleened insights that will be useful now and in the future. 🙂

  27. Maggie April 25, 2016 at 8:35 am #

    Thank You, Karen. It is so helpful to have these issues in mind when working on editing my projects.

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