How did you get into editing? Did it always come naturally to you?
I knew from a fairly young age that I wanted to edit. Language has always been my strength, and I’ve always had a sixth sense for awkward syntax (even if it’s correct on a technical level) and misspellings. I also pick up foreign languages pretty easily. Some advice: If you want to develop a more complex understanding of the English language, study a foreign language for a few years. You won’t believe how much better you understand the nuances of your own language. You’ll also be on par with the rest of the developed world, where multilingualism is a virtue and a way of life.
Do you have any funny editing/author stories you could share?
I was working on the page proofs of a book, and the proofreader had inserted a query asking how a character could tell that someone’s heart had been torn from her chest in a given scene. Having your heart ripped out is no joke (few have lived to tell the tale), but the Post-it caught me so off-guard that I’m sure the entire office could hear my involuntary guffaw. It was a legitimate query, too, and I realized that only in my line of work would I have to address questions like these. I still keep that Post-it in my “funny” file.
What would your top three pieces of advice be for a writer?
1. Be receptive to agent and editorial criticism. I have worked with a few authors who didn’t want me to change so much as a comma, or who left biting comments in response to legitimate queries. If you want total control over every stage of the book, then you need to self-publish. Conventional publishing is a collaborative effort, and it means that you have to trust other people involved—from editorial to design to layout to marketing—to make the best decisions for your book. If an experienced editor tells you that something in your story doesn’t work or needs tweaking, don’t dismiss it out of hand. You don’t have to make every suggested change—many times, I’ve stetted queried text because the author has provided a compelling explanation as to why it’s written as is—but you should respect your editor’s instincts. Learning to accept criticism is one of the most important (and challenging) things you can do as a writer.
2. Invest in writing guides, and don’t just give them a cursory glance. Read them from cover to cover. Flag pages. Write in the margins. Make lists. Do whatever necessary to internalize the tenets of good writing.
3. Read your work out loud. This will eliminate a lot of choppy syntax and help your prose sustain a more natural rhythm. I’ve said many times in my Shreditor column that I can tell when an author has read his or her work out loud, and I’ve been right at least once.
Bonus advice: Although I work in traditional publishing, I support self-published authors wholeheartedly. However, I believe that the key to a good self-published book is having extra sets of eyes on your work. That doesn’t mean having your best friend or mother read the book, because our loved ones are less likely to read impartially. Find beta readers and critique groups. Strongly consider having an experienced freelance editor work on your manuscript.
Is there something you think writers should always avoid in their work?
Aside from certain grammatical no-nos, there aren’t many things I’d tell writers to avoid under all circumstances. I think the closest I’d come is this: Unless you’re ready to put in hard time researching a place you’ve never visited, don’t write about it. And research doesn’t mean picking up a Lonely Planet travel guide, trolling Google images, or culling trivia from a Wikipedia page. This kind of shallow research breeds settings riddled with cultural clichés and inaccuracies. Research means investing a lot of time in books, both fiction and nonfiction, about the area you want to visit in your story—or, ideally, visiting the place itself if your budget allows. And if you want to write a story set in a foreign country, don’t read some American writer’s book about the region—go straight to the source with native authors who truly know and understand the nuances of the place.
If you weren't a writer or an editor, what would you be?
Probably a forensic linguist.
What book is on your nightstand right now? Are you an avid reader? What's your favorite genre?
Right now, I’m reading Nobel Prize–winning author Orhan Pamuk’s memoir about Istanbul. I’m also making my way through a book of short stories by the late David Foster Wallace. I read over a hundred books per year. I’ll read anything, because my core belief is that you can only ever be as brave a writer (or editor) as you are a reader. So read outside your comfort zone.
If you could be any character in any book, who would you be?
This is a tough one, because there are so many characters I adore for being messy and flawed, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to make their mistakes. (Trivia: I prefer morally flawed characters. I find it difficult to relate to characters who do, or profess to do, the right thing 24/7. I swear, I’m not a delinquent or anything.)
If you could travel to any time period in the world’s history, which would you choose and why?
Ah. You’ve simultaneously stumped me and stumbled upon my secret shame: I’m not much of a history buff, and I’m very picky about historical fiction. I gravitate toward modern, postmodern, and futuristic stories. So please beam me into the future if you’re going to force me to time travel. We sometimes put a gloss on the past (nostalgia is a powerful thing), but there are many inequalities and atrocities that can stay there forever, as far as I’m concerned.
Thank you so much, Ms. Shreditor, both for the interview and for all the work you do on our behalf in making our first pages better. We appreciate you!