A friend recently got a group together to offer free reading and editing help to authors who wanted this type of service. Apparently the group is off to a bit of a rough start. My friend's goal is pretty grand: get better-edited works out there in the self-published world.
The kerfluffle got me thinking about some of the technical stuff behind the craft of editing. Here are a few thoughts for anyone interested in how I approache the art and craft of editing. And a comment about reading for others too.
You'll notice right off that I call it "reading" and not "beta reading." Beta-testing is about finding errors to fix; reading before publication should be about offering an opinion about the effect a work had on you, the reader. If I am reading for someone I don't say much about grammar or spelling errors. I would make a general statement that I found the grammar awkward or difficult to read if that were the case. I try to state my observations in a fairly neutral way using comments, like, "I'm not sure how this section relates to the plot," or "this bit seems out of sync with the hero's character." And then I'll add some details about why I felt that way. And, yeah, I have to pony up to a yes or no about whether I'd purchase the book.
I would correct a typo or some odd usage if the manuscript was generally pretty grammatical and well-typed. In this case I'd consider myself "proofreader for a moment" and make sure the problem was pointed out. But notice that this is only when it really is a small something not a real edit.
Readers should be there to tell an author whether or not they enjoyed reading the piece. Even a piece that is warmly received by readers should have a lot of work ahead in the editing stage. Don't edit unless the work is really at the editing stage.
I believe that editing is truly an art and a craft. But, of course, there is no art without craft and well-crafted works are art. Here is a taste of my philosophy about editing.
Do no harm. Like doctors, the first thing I want to avoid is adding error, confusion, or unnatural weight to a work or completely erasing the author's voice.
Global changes. Often we misspell the same word over and over or favor an odd usage. When I see the same concern cropping up frequently I'll stop marking it and make a margin note that describes why I think the spelling or usage should be changed and how and then I'll circle that and write "global." Whew, think to myself, I've said my piece about that bit that concerns me and now it's the authors responsibility to make their choice and do a global find and replace. I stop thinking about it.
Content. Usually content includes plot, characters, setting, point of view, and such to an editor. I need to read for a few pages and get a feel for the author's style and way of developing these points. I will sometimes make small margin marks and write myself notes on separate paper so that I can find the place easily if some concern isn't resolved by the author later on. If I have a concern in any of these areas I'll write what's bothering me. I'll explain my concern. Note the words "bothering me" and "explain." This is my part of the job.
The attitude of the editor should reflect the business relationship here. If I am an editor at a publishing house and we're putting money into your work I expect to have oodles of authority. If I'm a freelance editor and you're paying me to make your work polished in the hopes of buckets of sales I'm responsible to give you the best professional advice I can for creating a well-crafted book. If I am offering my best efforts for free, well, I feel responsible to offer yo the best advice I can for what I think will create a well-crafted book.
Proofreading. Believe it or not proofreading is really a special ability. A proofreader reads a manuscript looking for typos, weird text flow, line-end punctuation, misplaced words or really unpleasant usage errors. The proofreader should mark all these things but not mention plot or other content unless the problem is huge and would be glaring to anyone who reads it. This is the high-gloss polish every manuscript benefits from. I don't think I've ever read a whole book that doesn't end up with at least one typo. No worries, it's just life.
Notice that in all this work I don't critique. That is what I might do when I review a book. If I want to, I might offer an informational review that doesn't include a rating or critique. If I do want to critique, then I will. Until a piece is offered for sale I'll offer my thoughts but I won't agree to call that a critique.