She defined mechanical and substantive copyediting and asked the question:
What do you prefer? Writing for yourself, mechanical copyediting, or substantive copyediting?
I answered the question in comments but thought it would be interesting to my readers to carry the conversation over here and give you a chance to tell us what you prefer.
I started as a writer and got into editing through a fluke. I read several books from a new publisher and loved the stories but kept getting distracted by errors. I wrote to a publisher expressing disappointment in the poor editing. The company (which was new and small) recognized it had a problem, and instead of taking offense at my unsolicited criticism, hired me to edit some of their books.
Later, one of the owners of that publishing company said, “You are the pickiest person I know.” I’m not sure she meant it as a compliment, but I took it as one.
After I had done mechanical copyediting of a dozen or so books, I decided I was ready to offer my services to individual writers. I soon discovered that most of my prospective clients needed much more than mechanical copyediting. However, not all writers want substantive editing. In fact, some just want an editor to tell them their words are golden.
I always offer a free sample edit (usually about five pages of a book-length manuscript). The sample gives the client and me the opportunity to evaluate each other, and it gives me a way to estimate the amount of work involved so I can estimate the time it will take. I am selective in the work I take. I don’t mind a lot of heavy editing – in fact I enjoy it – but I work only on projects I believe in. If I don’t think the premise is viable, if I just don’t like the manuscript, or if the writer is difficult to work with, I pass on the project. Fortunately, I don’t turn down many jobs, but I like knowing that I won’t be stuck with something I hate.
I remember one writer sending me the first chapter of an historical novel for a sample edit. I simply could not suspend disbelief in this story – the circumstances were totally untrue to history, and there was nothing in the story to make me believe it was possible. Even in fiction – even fantasy and science fiction – the story must draw the reader in so much that the impossible is believable.
I kept being pulled out of the story saying to myself, “That’s impossible. A spymaster wouldn’t recruit a spy in a public place on a first meeting with no prior contact … A woman of that time wouldn’t … ” When I suggested to the writer he might want to make the story fit historical facts or come up with a good reason why these unbelievable things happened, he became quite irate. I didn’t have to reject him as a writer – he rejected me as an editor.
Usually I work with inexperienced writers who have great ideas/stories and less-than-great writing skills, and every book I edit is as much my baby as anything I write for myself. The last three books I’ve edited have won awards or finaled in contests, and I’m as thrilled as the authors.
The book I edited that won the EPPIE for general nonfiction this year began as two separate diaries written in Vietnamese by a husband and wife and translated into English by their daughter-in-law. She had come to the US from Vietnam only a few years earlier, so she wrote/translated as someone for whom English is a second language. Making the story easily readable and understandable in English while maintaining the Vietnamese voice was a challenge.
Two writers I’m currently working with actually had very little education. One had seldom attended school at all, and the other one, who is blind, learned very little in his special education classes. I’m amazed at their storytelling talent and love helping them turn a manuscript that in some cases is almost unreadable into a great story.
Although I have some clients who are excellent writers, most need a lot of help.
I started as a fiction writer, but I have learned that I am a better nonfiction writer than fiction writer and a better editor than writer. But I love both writing and editing.
What about you? What do you enjoy most, and what do you do best?