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Editing the Author

My first professional (well, unpaid, but professionally-tending) editing job has been instructive. I'm learning to spot common non-fiction prose problems in a flash. I'm getting better at explaining them to a client who is not primarily a writer. I'm finding a path for myself between line-editing and ghostwriting.

The manuscript as submitted was a hodgepodge of good but loosely-related ideas, a bowl of unpolished stones that could grow up to be a necklace. Polishing them is easy: SPAG, style, sentence structure, rhetoric, rhythm, cliche patrol, bullshit detector--clarity, basically. I'm good at that.

But the stringing! The sequence, the overall structure--that's hard. The client herself doesn't know what it should be. I wasted a fair amount of time polishing beads that don't even belong on the string. (Note to self: insist on seeing an outline first.)

I've been exhorting the client to go back and outline, but it wasn't happening. So this evening we had a phone meeting. (Note to self: in this business a lot of clients are going to be phone-talkers and think-out-loud-ers. Better get used to it.) Turns out, she didn't actually know what an outline is.

It never occurred to me that a person could get through high school without knowing that. Is it just me? Is that something that only a super-logical Spock-like person would retain? I mean, not fancy I, A, 1, a, i, a) stuff, but just your basic Heading 1/Heading 2/Text type thing? Is that uncommon knowledge?

So we had a little tutorial on Microsoft Word's outlining function, and I sent her what I think are the high-level headers to get her started. She just emailed me back to ask my opinion about a webinar she took called "How To Write A Transformational Book In Three Weeks". One of her webinar notes: INVITE DIVINE GUIDANCE FOR ORGANIZATION AND TO SHOW YOU WHAT PEOPLE NEED.

Seriously, I'm losing confidence in myself as an editor. I can't compete with Divine Guidance. Not in three weeks, anyway.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 5th, 2013 04:48 am (UTC)
I have to teach my college freshmen how to outline, so I can only assume this is a skill that is no longer getting taught in grade school, probably because it hasn't got any use on standardized tests.

And I totally think you should tell her that you are her Divine Guidance.
Aug. 5th, 2013 05:02 am (UTC)
OMG you made me laugh out loud! I totally should do that!

What surprised me is that this client is no kid, and well educated (in health sciences, too!). Good to know, though, that outlining isn't a dead language.
Aug. 5th, 2013 06:18 am (UTC)
Outlining is something I have to teach Masters level students, and I supervise people from all over the world. It is something I was taught (as an adult, mind) by communicator. I sometimes wonder if needing that sort of structure is something that comes more naturally easily to a particular type of person/mind?
Aug. 5th, 2013 05:06 pm (UTC)
That was exactly my thought: that part of what makes me a pretty good editor is that I have that kind of mind. I'm thinking a lot about how I can best work with people who don't.

It's been quite a revelation to learn--from the client and subsequently from almost everyone who's commented so far on this post--that the concept of outlining isn't universally understood. I honestly assumed it was as basic as multiplication tables.
Aug. 5th, 2013 08:34 am (UTC)
I was never taught outlining at school (in the UK) and I'm not sure that I knew until now that such a thing existed! I've just looked at a summary of Word's Outlining feature - I was vaguely aware of it but thought of it more as a method for setting up the layout of a document in word-processing terms. I think i've been instinctively outlining since I was at school, but now I'm not sure... I'm feeling deprived; if I'd been taught outlining I'm sure everything would have been easier and better!

The divine works in mysterious ways, and I agree with Lyrstzha - it's evidently working through you! But yes, if you're trying to work with something that is as disorganised as this work sounds, you do have to ask the author: what precisely is the message you want to convey? What are your key points? I've never quite known how one sorts out something like this without actually re-writing it.
Aug. 5th, 2013 05:12 pm (UTC)
Instinctively--yeah, that. I mean, I'm not hung up on the "rules" of outlining (okay, maybe I am a little) but I've been genuinely surprised to learn that the generic notion of organizing ideas in some kind of major-and-supporting order is mysterious. This has been really revealing to me.

And yes, rewriting is going to be a significant chore. The client is willing and hard working and really committed to her project, though, so it's been kind of fun.
Aug. 5th, 2013 12:32 pm (UTC)
An angel is, after all, a messenger.
Aug. 5th, 2013 05:16 pm (UTC)
I'm being re-cast by my LJ flist as something way cooler than what I am.
Aug. 5th, 2013 12:46 pm (UTC)
I only really understand outlining in an abstract sense. I don't know that I've ever done it (though I have been trying to get other people to do it for a while). I should, um, maybe get on that.

Re: her webinar notes - we've had a version of that conversation, surely? The Ask and the Answer &c. In this instance, she invited divine guidance for organisation and to show her what people needed, and she got you.
Aug. 5th, 2013 05:19 pm (UTC)
Oh, I am all in favor of invoking inspiration. I don't know of any other way, really, to come up with the initial idea. I'm less sure about asking God to do the legwork of organizing.

I'm realizing from all the comments here and on DW that my deep, almost instinctive feeling for outlining may not have come from my education. I remember learning the form of it, and its rules of logic, in a junior high class, but it really should come as less of a surprise to me than it does that I remember all that--and use it--because of the kind of person I am.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )



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