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What a Good Editor Will Do for You

An experienced line editor can make a subpar manuscript good and a good manuscript brilliant. Beena Kamlani offers the kind of editing you should expect when you turn your novel in to the big house.

Beena Kamlani brings a worldly perspective to the editing profession. Born in Bombay, India, Kamlani went to a boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas, was then educated in England, and has worked in book publishing in New York for the past 20 years. She's spent the past 11 years at Viking Penguin, where she is senior editor.

Kamlani has edited a wide range of books, working closely with literary heroes like Saul Bellow (whose Herzog she read when she was 10); classicists like Robert Fagles (The Iliad and The Odyssey's translator); popular writers like Jacquelyn Mitchard, Terry McMillan and Joanna Trollope; biographers like Robert Kanigel and Leon Edel; and recently published writers like Nora Okja Keller, Ruth Ozeki and Peter Sheridan.

Kamlani also knows the other side of the desk: She's a fiction writer herself, and is just completing her first novel. When asked how she'd respond to editing, she says: "If I know I'm dealing with an equal mind, a sensibility that genuinely understands what I'm trying to do, I'm eager to play. I feel truly challenged by good editorial feedback. When an editor gets my work—and I suppose I know what it takes to really get what a writer's trying to do—you're exhilarated. It's thrilling to know you've got that kind of ally for your work.

"When the feedback is off course, you know the editor's read the book she wanted to read, not the book you wrote. Then you do the only sensible thing: You just ignore the feedback. You can't always ignore it, it's true. But sometimes you may feel that you're making a compromise you can't live with. In that case, don't cut your cloth to suit. Wait for the right editor for your book."

Fiction Writer: How does "line editing" differ from and/or resemble "developmental editing" and "copyediting"?

Beena Kamlani: Actually, the term "line editing" covers the entire gamut of the editorial process, from the big, conceptual picture to line-by-line editing. In reference books and in college textbooks, the term "developmental editing" is used more and I think it's slightly different. In trade editing, we call the actual editing process "manuscript editing" or "line editing."

Copyediting is very different from line editing. A copyeditor does not have much flexibility. The manuscript is already in its final form when it gets to the copyeditor and there isn't very much she or he can do with it other than make it grammatically sound; watch out for errors in syntax; catch repetitions in words and in phrases; pick up inconsistencies in ages of people, chronology, physical characteristics; make sure the spelling and punctuation are right—that kind of thing. There isn't the reshaping of a manuscript, and taking it through several drafts as you would if you were line editing it. Sometimes I go through several drafts before a manuscript is ready for copyediting, and that could take a year and a half, maybe more.

So that's the big difference between copyediting and line editing.

FW: So line editing is the process of going through a manuscript's different drafts and shaping it and reshaping it until you and the author are happy with it.

Kamlani: That's it, although sometimes one thorough revision could do it.

FW: Is this type of line editing a fading art in modem book publishing?

Kamlani: I think editing is a dying craft, and it really is a craft. I teach it—not instinct, not discrimination, not good taste, which are inherent or developed through experience—but the technique and the craft of narration, of writing and, therefore, of editing. All editors should know the craft of writing backward if they want to be good editors, and that is how I approach it in the class I teach—through narrative technique itself. Ironically perhaps, because it is dying and authors are really beginning to feel it now, there is much more interest in the craft. Once learned through apprenticeship, through osmosis as it were, smart editors now come to a class like mine in order to learn it. That is a huge change in the state of editing.

FW: Is there time now in a publishing house for an editor to get this kind of training from a senior person?

Kamlani: Rarely. People aren't editing in quite that way, and editorial assistants are worked to the bone, as are editors. Editorial assistants don't really have the time to learn how, just as editors often don't have the time to edit manuscripts the way they'd like to. The very principle on which acquiring a book was dependent—the editor's ability to edit it—is no longer really as central to the job as it once used to be.

FW: In an average calendar year, how many manuscripts are you working on at any given time?

Kamlani: Sometimes it could be one a month, sometimes it could be several because different drafts of different manuscripts overlap, so it's very hard to actually pin that down. I'm constantly editing, though.

As soon as a manuscript comes in that needs the kind of in-depth, roll-up-my-sleeves-and-edit job that I do, the publishers sort out which ones I should be working on, and in what order.

Working with author and manuscript

FW: How do you approach a manuscript that you'll be helping an author shape and sharpen?

Kamlani: As a fresh challenge, a totally new experience. It's exciting when someone walks into my office with it and puts it on my desk. Sometimes I know a little bit about it beforehand, sometimes not. I read it through; I see what the author's trying to do. No editing at this point. I take very extensive notes; sometimes these run into 15, 20 pages of very tiny handwriting. I also put down my overall impressions, my thoughts as I'm reading.

Then I begin the actual line editing. By the time I begin, I've been through the manuscript at least once very meticulously, sometimes twice. I'll go back and reread portions of it to reconfirm my impressions and have a very carefully calibrated sense of what the author's trying to do and what she needs to do to get there before I actually start the editing process.

FW: How do you actually work with an author? What's the day-to-day give and take?

Kamlani: This is really a two-part question. One is the principle behind editing and the other is what I call the four key aspects of editing.

In terms of the principle behind it, it's essential to have a good sense of strategy, of negotiation. I pick my battles very carefully. You give some, you win some. You don't win them all, but it's important to know what's bottom line for you and what you can live with if you have to. If you begin with that, it's negotiation all the way, and you're going to be diplomatic, you're going to be tactful, because you see it as a two-way process that can only be a win-win situation for the book.

The book is very much the author's work. You're trying to make it as good as it can be, but you need the author's cooperation. Without it, nothing can be done. The other part of your question I'm going to answer as a separate issue altogether, through what I think are four key aspects of being a good line editor.

FW: How does your editor choose the books that need you?

Kamlani: What I often get—and I don't choose them—are manuscripts that need solid reshaping and/or very thorough attention. That's the single most important criterion: These manuscripts need careful editing. In one case, the author was too close to his novel. It was a 2,000-page manuscript that I cut down to 800 pages, and I managed to preserve the main story intact. The author worked with me on it, was in fact very pleased with the changes. That's the kind of editing one has to do sometimes: literally go through three and four drafts of it until it's down to a very clear and coherent version.

The other kind of book that comes to me is when the author has somehow managed to write several books in one and a sharper focus on story line and clearly subordinate subplots are required. I help the author refocus so we have one beautifully honed story as opposed to several that go all over the place and in the end lead nowhere.

Often I work with first drafts. I'm trying to determine how much of the material is really essential and how much merely digressive. Is the author showing off? If a passage is, in the end, just verbal pyrotechnics, it should be taken out.

It's very clear when an author hasn't really thought through what he's trying to do, or if it's a hasty job, or if it's sloppy. I hate to see that. I think that it's important to do the best you can. Put your best foot forward, whatever that might be. I don't think you can afford to let the editor think that your book is a little like a neglected child. It shows, you know—both the care and the neglect.

FW: What does a line editor fear to find in a manuscript, and what does she hope to find?

Kamlani: I dread allowing myself to feel the impression that this is a lazy author, that there's no sense of a real focus in her work. Repetitions, sloppiness, names, physical characteristics, etc., change halfway through the book; plot lines are left dangling and aren't really linked to the main plot; obscure language... these are all signs of laziness.

I don't want to have to go back to an author with the most basic question of all, which is, "What's your story?" That's very different from saying, "What are you trying to do?" That's saying, "Let's work with what you have." But trying to figure out what the story is makes you wonder whether this author actually thought her book through properly.

The things I hope to see are a love of language, careful phrasing, a playful yet clever use of metaphor—an unusual way with metaphors is, as Ford Madox Ford said, a true sign of originality. I love dialogue that shows a good ear for the way people actually speak; a vision, a focus, an earnestness in trying to get that world to be seen, felt, heard, smelt by the reader. When I feel that the manuscript has been a well-tended, well-nurtured child, and is really bright, I'm in awe of the writing process.

FW: If you and an author hit an impasse, will you rewrite a passage and show it to the author as an example of what you're looking for?

Kamlani: I think there's no problem with that, but you'd better be sure you know what you're doing. With fiction, especially, authors would much rather be asked, "Are you trying to say something like..." and have the editor attempt a version of what the author is trying to do. Then they have something to work with, instead of just receiving something that's been done for them.

It's all a dialogue. And part of an ongoing dialogue is to put something out so you can get something—hopefully a lot better—back. An author might say, "But that's not the way I want to say it," and then go ahead and do it exactly the way they want to do it. That's the point. I would actually rewrite only when the author's given up—says to me, "Why don't you have a shot at it?" Even then I would say, "This is the kind of thing I thought you were trying to do here."

The way you preface something is so crucial; trying to be the book's author, or even a coauthor, however heavily you may have edited it, is not the point of editing.

As long as you justify everything in the margins and you say, "You're repeating yourself here, you've said something identical through such-and-such character," no question to an author is out of bounds. But you've got to provide a very strong basis for doing it, whatever you do. Whether it's rewriting a paragraph, or finding fault with a word somewhere, or problems with an entire chapter, you'd better justify it.

The publishing process

FW: Manuscripts come to you from an acquisition editor, the person who actually bought the book from an author's agent. How does your position interact with theirs?

Kamlani: At Viking, we've worked it out beautifully. The acquiring editors know what their responsibilities are, and they leave me to mine, and it's quite clear-cut. After I've read through the manuscript, I sit down with the acquiring editor; we talk about the initial problems I have with the manuscript. I share the drafts of my letters with them, and ask for their comments and feedback. Then it goes off to the author.

Nothing in publishing is done in an isolated way—everything is interdependent. No part of this industry could exist without the other. As a line editor, however solitary my craft is with the work itself, I'm dependent on the acquiring editor for feedback, for a certain amount of sound-boarding, for the very wonderful experience that editing a book can be.

FW: What's the process for getting back to an author with suggestions for revision?

Kamlani: Sometimes the acquisition editor does it with a phone call, and then I follow it up with a letter that explains everything very clearly. Or sometimes I might just call the author up myself and discuss it, and say, "I'm sending you a letter that the acquiring editor and I have worked on together." It's always a unified thing that goes out, so that the author's never confused about what the editors want. The acquiring editor and I will agree on what should be done with the manuscript before a letter, whether it's from her, or him, or me, to the author.

FW: What's next?

Kamlani: The manuscript first goes to the acquisitions editor. The acquisitions editor looks at it, and says to me, "This is what I think, let me know what you think." Most of the time we agree; sometimes we disagree. In one book I worked on, I wanted historical material about a certain place up further. I didn't want it halfway through the manuscript because I felt I needed the historical background to understand the evolution of this place. The acquiring editor felt slightly differently. We put both points of view to the author. And the author decided.

We work things out.

FW: How can the writer have a happy, creative relationship with the line editor?

Kamlani: This is actually a very important question, and I think it needs to be done justice to. My feeling is that authors, when they come across an editor who really cares—really, really cares—they should treasure him or her.

It takes a lot to really care in the changing environment of publishing today. If you have it, don't, for the sake of your book, blow it.

I have two examples of bad behavior. One is an author who might have been having a bad hair day when she wrote this, but a perfectly reasonable comment in the margins—something to the tune of, "Would So-and-So be likely to think this so soon after meeting this person?"—elicited "Bullshit" scrawled like mindless graffiti, in red, across my query. It irritated me so much, I felt myself shut off deep inside. It felt as if the author didn't care, so why, I felt it necessary to ask myself, should I?

The other example is an author who clearly wasn't prepared for the kind of editing I do, and his irate comments throughout were overtly offensive. I felt again the same sense of undeserved abuse. He was extremely relieved to know that I had reacted in a completely professional way and ignored his comments throughout. Again, trying circumstances in his life had provoked them, and once this was explained to me, coupled with his genuine appreciation of my work, it made it possible for us to become very good friends.

That's really it. It's crucial to know what you've got and to appreciate it. I think a good editor is not trying to tread all over your toes; a good editor does not want your book to be her book; a good editor is not going to try to be your coauthor. A good editor is acutely aware of the nuggets of gold in your manuscript and when she comes across dross in it, she helps you to convert it to gold, metaphorically speaking. It's Rumpelstiltskin without the catch! That is what a really good line editor is trying to do.

I think of myself as the spa treatment for authors. What I mean is that a tremendous amount of care is lavished on their manuscripts, there's a good amount of nurturing and of hand-holding, and I love what I do, so hopefully that shows. My gratification comes when the author sees this and is deeply appreciative of it. The best way to answer your question is with a quote from a letter from one of my authors. I don't want to say who it is, because I haven't asked if I can name the person, but this was the final paragraph of his letter. He said, "All through this revision process, I felt you beside me. I found these cuts and changes difficult and time-consuming, but not agonizing. I felt that through your comments, we were communicating, that you cared about this manuscript, that you wanted only good for it, that I had an equal partner on the opposite side of the page, and that I enjoyed the encounter with your mind." The care showed, the manuscript benefited—that's what I care about.

Jerry Gross is a freelance editor/book doctor with over forty years of experience in manuscript problem-solving, critiquing, restructuring, and developmental and line editing of mainstream and literary fiction and nonfiction manuscripts and proposals. He is the editor of Editors on Editing: What Writers Need To Know About What Editors Do

Specialties include: male-oriented escape fiction, popular psychology and medicine, and pop culture. His goals are to make a manuscript as effective and salable as possible, show the writer how to write to the best of his or her ability, and teach writing skills valuable not only or the current manuscript but for those that may be written. Rates, references and career history on request at

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