by Ellie Maas Davis

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” –Dorothy Parker

It happened twice this past week. Once two weeks ago, before that it’d been at least six months. Like all things insidious, sad, and uncanny, they seem to travel in threes, and if one’s off her game with greater frequency. It’s as if the book gods know when an editor has scheduled gum surgery, nicked himself shaving, or eaten bad duck. No matter who we are it’s bound to happen, even to the best of us, at some point in our careers.

Last week, I had a manuscript, well written in terms of actual content, story arc, dialogue, and character development, yet it needed massive changes to spacing, punctuation, and formatting. Literally, each line contained one or even all three of those issues. Different parts of the narrative had been previously edited with a “find/replace all,” so 200+ pages had quotation marks that had been replaced with periods. Also, whole sections had periods removed and commas inserted. The sheer volume of corrections was staggering. The worst part is with so many corrections, there’s no way I can be sure I caught 100 percent of the errors. (Let’s face it: when it comes to editing and proofreading there’s always a level of error—but that’s a whole different blog topic.)

Editing a ridiculously unpolished book can be frustrating on many levels.

Here’s my advice when it comes to working with such beasts:

  • Never work for more than two hours at any given time on the manuscript.
  • Prepare to fully review the manuscript twice. If there are tense or point of view issues, tackle them first and tackle then jointly.
  • If you juggle a few manuscripts at a time, make sure the problem child is the one you spend time on first thing each morning (then move to projects that are easier or more enjoyable). Never “late night” a bad ‘script.
  • Don’t cut corners. No matter how awful the sentence structure or flat the dialogue may be, it’s your responsibility to make it better.
  • If there’s already an issue with someone else having misused the “find/replace” feature, don’t rely on it. Revising things—excluding misspellings—manually can be a pain, but in some instances it’s what’s necessary.
  • Don’t spend needless time stalking the author on the Internet to verify he attended Harvard, nabbed that Pulitzer, or really did actually save seventeen children from a capsized boat off the coast of Malta. Keep in mind really, really good people can write really, really bad books.
  • Be compassionate (no one wants to be a bad writer or storyteller) and constructive (use kid gloves with your comments). The author has taken the project as far as she or he can, so look at this as an opportunity to shine.
  • If you’re a professional editor, you undoubtedly have friends who edit. Sometimes it helps to send such a comrade an example of a real doozy from the manuscript. Yes, it’s immature, but it will make you feel better. And, really, most editors will probably appreciate the good laugh.

I hope this helps. Oh, and one last thing, even when we have our work cut out for us, lest we forget: writers keep us in business. Hail, hail all writers, good and bad!

Ellie Maas Davis is the owner of Pressque, a publishing consultation firm based in Charleston, South Carolina that offers editing, ghostwriting, and marketing services to authors and publishers. She is the author of Shooter: A Woman’s Journey in Combat from Behind the Camera, The Humours of Folly, See Charleston in a Day, and over twenty ghostwritten works of fiction and nonfiction.

Image courtesy of David Reyes Palacio.


Ellie Maas Davis

About Ellie Maas Davis

Educated at Southern Methodist University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, Ellie Maas Davis has written extensively on the environment and issues of human rights. She is the owner of Pressque, a publishing consultation firm located in downtown Charleston that offers editing, ghostwriting, and marketing services to authors and publishers. She is a founding board member of the Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts, a former curator and host of Charleston's longest running weekly literary series, Monday Night Blues, and serves as a mentor to senior writing students at Charleston County School of the Arts. Published in a number of anthologies and journals, she is the author of The Humours of Folly, See Charleston in a Day, 100, over a dozen ghostwritten works of fiction and nonfiction, and often reviews books for The Post and Courier. When she's not living somewhere else, she makes her home on Daniel Island with her family.