Let the manuscript teach you how to edit it

One of the lessons I’ve learned over many years of editing is that you have to let the manuscript teach you how to edit it.

Every manuscript is different and every manuscript needs a different touch. Even when an author does something I’ve seen many times before, I have to edit for that particular manuscript, not for some generic idea I have about what makes a story good. The question is, what can I do to make this story better? How can I help it be what it’s trying to be, only more so?

For example, in a developmental edit, it is common for authors to info-dump – that is, to include too much unnecessary exposition, usually explaining backstory or describing why what’s happening is happening. In a fast-paced thriller, I would encourage the author to trim away more of this than I would in a fantasy novel where the author is exploring a setting.

And copyediting is no different. I’m not going to tell an author with a lush prose style to stop using so many adjectives (although I may suggest a few phrases they could trim away to let a particularly powerful bit of description take center stage). And I’m not going to tell someone with a spare, taut style that they need to stop and describe the lilac bushes planted around the CIA building in Langley, Virginia.

Whenever you have an editorial decision to make, look to the manuscript first to tell you how to make it.

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