Works and Days

Liber Editing, Books Behind the Scenes: Grace Moon, Winter Shadow 2016

My Winter Shadow experience did not concern the cold, bright, often terrifying light of real-time social exposure in the offices and labs I’d always imagined as waystations placed along the glistening Career Track, places for making urgent connections. Instead, it was private, personal, almost confidential—indeed, my time spent with Edith Zdunich, a Portland-based freelance book editor, was very much about what happens in the shadows.

The editing Shadow had captured my interest partly because my understanding of the field was so vague. Sure, as an avid reader and writer with a confidence in her own grammatical accuracy, detail-oriented perfectionism, and literary taste, I had a hunch that being paid to polish manuscripts for publication would suit me. But my comprehension of the processes that brought a work from brainchild to print edition was virtually nil, and Internet searches supplied surprisingly little clarity. I knew what an editor’s job was, but I had no idea what editors actually did.

When I met with Edith, one of the first things I learned was this: neither do their clients.

As it turns out, the editing procedure encompasses so many levels of alteration and refinement, from content and organization to grammar, style, and all aspects of appearance on the page, that a larger publishing house will often divide such phases between several editors. A copyeditor might make corrections for syntax and accuracy of diction while a different proofreader addresses spelling and punctuation, with someone else dedicated to book design and page formatting. An independent freelancer is responsible for all steps of the process, and a self-publishing client looking to put out their book is seldom aware of this. Edith impressed upon me that authors expecting to hire an editor for “a quick proofread” are most often in for a potentially expensive reality check, unconscious that their manuscript may need a major overhaul before it can be sent to print. When given sample work on a book by one of Edith’s main clients, I was awed by the infinitude of possible corrections to be made in a text of several hundred pages. I’d written fiction of that length before, but never had I been responsible for its freedom from error. This time, I could (and did) spend five hours simply ensuring that all quotation marks began and ended correctly.

It’s why we discover new details in favorite novels we’ve been perusing for years—we’re simply programmed to register what we expect to see, which means glossing over aberrations so that we can understand what we’re reading. Even to an experienced editor, “Ten Commandants” and “Ten Commandments,” when taken in a clear context (and surrounded by tens of thousands of other words demanding equal attention), can appear exactly the same. It’s also why a writer can only edit their own work with very limited success, and why a single editor risks reaching roadblocks—the more familiar you are with a text, the harder it is to catch mistakes.

Edith and I seemed to have a lot in common. Both writers, we shared an independence bordering on shyness, which made our one-on-one mentoring setup frank and comfortable, with a lot of flexibility for questions, answers, and personalized learning. Best of all, the traits we shared were the ones that made her excellent at her job. Edith had an exacting stylistic eye and a sensitivity to the creative projects of her clients, and I identified with her tendencies toward the minute and the methodical.

Sure enough, when I finally got my hands on some practice material, I became almost elated at the sense of earnest fascination—no matter how atrocious the writing, I could hardly look away. My mind raced with solutions—the text appeared suddenly to me as an expansive and elastic medium, full of parts to be pared, filed, polished, adjusted, tightened, rearranged.

Of course, editing work is limited by the vastness of its responsibility, as well as the difficulty of working with clients who are firm in their artistic visions. Even so, during my time with Edith I learned the satisfaction of preparing manuscripts in print format and hearing the unique voice of each aspiring self-publisher, guiding the transition from idea to thing. I was also presented with abundant resources for contacting printers, dealing with copyright, using software, and promoting one’s own freelance enterprise.

I finished the week feeling almost as if I could have sat down at my laptop and started my own business!

Tags: winter shadow, externship, editing, publishing, literature, editing