The other night I watched the 1947 movie The Ghost and Mrs. Muir starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison (See the trailer or watch the entire movie online free). Mrs. Muir, a young widow in unexpectedly dire financial straits, consents to “ghostwrite” the biography of Captain Greg, the now-deceased original owner of the house she rented. He proceeds to dictate the book to her, and she comments as she types.
When the captain told her, “You can correct my grammar, but don’t make any changes to the story,” I had to laugh. I’ve heard that many times, usually from writers just finishing their first full-length manuscript.
To all those writers who fear editors, let me reassure you that you and the editor are on the same team. Your editor wants your book to be the best book it can be. Writing is a craft with many aspects and subtle nuances. It takes time, hard work, and experience to learn to write a good novel…and there’s always more to learn.
Take character for example. People are complex with often conflicting ideas. A writer lives with his or her characters for months, if not years, learning everything about the character: background, family, motivations, outward appearance, favorite music and on and on. This intimate knowledge can work against the book in either one of two ways. The writer may take many character traits for granted and not show them to the reader, thus erring on the side of writing a flat two-dimensional character. On the other extreme, the writer may try to communicate all the details and background. Either way, the book suffers. Pointing out mistakes such as these goes beyond correcting grammar and punctuation, yet falls far short of changing the story.
Another example is the time line of the story. Writers hear that every story must have a beginning, middle, and end so often that they sit and write the story straight through in chronological order. This may reveal details that appear irrelevant to the reader and cause loss of interest. Skillful use of weaving backstory into the tale is a learned skill—something an editor can help the writer recognize. Proper timing is essential to a well-told story.
Repetition is a common failing in manuscripts by new writers. It takes months or years to write a book, and the writer may think the reader has forgotten what he wrote 200 pages earlier. Believe me, readers remember details. I have read two manuscripts in which a scene was repeated. In one book, chapter two took place decades before chapter one. There’s nothing wrong with that—except that the entire first chapter was repeated later in the book in its chronological place within the story. The other book had the same scene in two successive chapters. The author claimed that it was necessary because it was told from two different points of view. The problem? The reader already knew what was going to happen next, and the tension necessary to hold a reader’s attention was lost. The author rewrote the scene alternating points of view within a single time line.
These are just examples of ways editors can change a manuscript for the better by doing what editors do—go far above and beyond finding typos and correcting grammar. Remember, your editor is on your team.
Question: Has an editor ever saved you from a potentially embarrassing mistake? Give that editor a shoutout of thanks.
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