Unfortunately, the word "editing" is often synonymous with red pen marks. Crossed out words. Missing commas.
Because of this, editors carry a certain mystique. First-time authors approach them with the fear of a high schooler meeting their prom date's parents for the first time. Authors hand over their manuscripts and say things like, "Please don't rip it apart too badly," or a last-second disclaimer, "Remember, this is my rough draft... it's probably not ready yet..."
But the red pen, the sentence-level grammar stuff, that's only one part of the editing picture. A lot of editing (or proofreading) is just a really smart person -- who's out to help your story, not destroy it -- saying to the author, "Tell me more, tell me more."
What does this look like in action?
Three scenes come to mind from our latest book, Safe Landing: A Family's Journey Following the Crash of American Airlines Flight 191"
Show vs. Tell #1 - Irish Headstand
The character "Nudy" (mom of the three siblings who co-authored the book) was described as outgoing, life of the party. The editor sees that and immediately says, "Hey, let's see that in action. Any memories of a specific party come to mind?"
Melody (one of the three authors) came back with this story:
One of my fondest memories of Mom standing on her head was in 8th grade. Our family was celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at a local restaurant in our parish called Deasy’s. The owner was a rather stern Irishman but was fond of Nudy, as all the adults called her. Mom gave me a “head’s up” that the owner had asked her to stand on her head as part of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Mom told me she’d be wearing a taffeta green dress and was going to let her skirt fall to display a ruffled green undergarment with a shamrock on her backside. She wanted me to be prepared when her skirt fell in front of a couple hundred parishioners. Don’t worry, it’s all planned.
Needless to say, as a teenager with some of my classmates present, I was slightly embarrassed. But I was proud of how Mom could do something this crazy with style and grace.
Perfect! Great, memorable story, but works on another level as well because the line "wanted me to be prepared" ties into a larger theme in Chapter 1. A few pages later, we have Melody's mom preparing her to someday be the matriarch of the family.
This St. Patrick's Day story is something the author already had in their memory, just needed to bubble up to the surface. Good editors ask questions to make that happen.
Show vs. Tell #2 - Dad to the Rescue!
While preparing for their Memorial Service, we received a call at the house from the Coroner's office. Dad had been identified! He was identified with the first group of people, including the pilot, co-pilot, and a few stewardesses.
We speculated why Dad was with this group. Mom and Dad would not have been in first class, but Dad was an engineer and knew how to fix most things. Back in 1979, the take-off was shown on screen, so passengers would have seen something was immediately wrong. Maybe Dad rushed up to the front to help right the plane. We will never know if this occurred or not, but, knowing our dad, we like to think he did everything he could to save Flight 191.
An editor reads this and wonders, "Are there any memories that come to mind of your dad coming to the rescue?"
Again, the author came back with a memorable scene:
We will never know if this occurred or not, but, knowing our dad, we like to think he did everything he could to save Flight 191.
Much like he did when he saved Mom's life during Jim's childbirth. Mom ate a bag of potato chips right before going into labor. She had to throw up, but the nurses were not paying attention. They clamped an oxygen mask on her while the doctor stitched her up. A little while later, Dad was with the doctor in the cafeteria when all of a sudden: Code Blue.
"That's Nudy!” the doctor said. The two rushed back to the room.
They charged in. The nurses had Mom upside down, trying to dislodge what she was choking on. Mom was turning blue. There was no working oxygen tank, either. So, Dad sprints down to the basement of the Edgewater Hospital and finds a tank. He gets it working and brings it back to the doctor to set up for Mom. They called in a lung doctor to get the food dislodged, and he damaged her lungs, which ended up being the root of Mom's asthma.
When they had her upside down, Mom said she was reciting the 23rd Psalm in her head and thought, for sure, she was going to die. If Dad hadn't found the oxygen tank and got it working, she might have died that day.
Looking back on that phone call from the Coroner's office, we were so excited about finding Dad. We were jubilant, almost like he was coming home.
What a story! And what's amazing here is we have an author writing about a crash in 1979, then jumps back 20+ years with a flashback, but because it all builds on this theme of their dad rushing to the rescue, it beautifully flows together.
Show vs. Tell #3 - Don't Always Need a Reason
Two examples above, the editor wanted stories to enhance specific character descriptions.
But sometimes an editor will encourage the author just to come up with memorable stories. Worry about where they fit later.
The result? Here's a story Kim added in during the editing process.
One memory of Dad that set an example for me, and it's something I've reflected on throughout my life, was on Christmas Eve, 1975. Christmas Eve festivities were in full swing around the punch bowl when the phone rang. I answered and it was Dad's sister, Corrinne, who lived in Wisconsin. She asked to speak with Dad. I handed Dad the phone, and a few minutes later, he returned to the party and continued to be the host with the most. It wasn't until the following morning when he told Mom and me that his dad had passed away. That's what the phone call was all about the night before.
"Why didn't you tell us last night?" I remember asking.
"There was nothing I could do at that moment," Dad replied. "Christmas was in full swing, and I didn't want to put an end to a happy occasion. There are plenty of days ahead to mourn his loss. He lived a long life (93 years), and he wouldn't have wanted his death to stop or disrupt a Christmas gathering."
We learn a lot about their dad in this scene, but it's hard to boil it down into one sentence or a 2-word character description.
This showed he was thoughtful? Put others first? Wanted people to have a good time?
None of those summaries do it justice. The book needed this little 3-paragraph scene -- just like it needed the Irish headstand and the dad to the rescue delivery room story.
Editors love stories. They love making books the best they can possibly be. No reason to be intimidated. Just tell 'em a story.
If you're interested in reading Safe Landing, here's an excerpt of Chapter 1. You can also purchase in our bookstore below. And for more writing, editing, and publishing tips, subscribe to our blog.