Editing: What Even IS That? Two Editors Discuss The Matter

Stock: CRIMES BY WOMEN 04, digital comics museum, 1948, Fox Features Syndicate

EDITING. What kind of crap is that?? Some bossy grifter trying to change your words, take your voice, and redirect your thoughts? NO THANK YOU!

Actually … no. That’s not so much the way of things. Editing is fun: the opportunity to support a creative writer in their production of their very best work. One of our editors (me!) and a freelance comic fiction editor have a conversation about all the strange things editors do all day. We’re drawing back the curtain. Please enjoy the view.

Alright, first things first: who are you, and what do you edit? This is Claire Napier starting the conversation, and for the purposes of this discussion, I’m Features and Opinions Editor at Women Write About Comics. For this job, I edit creative non-fiction — pieces from personal perspectives that take the reader by the hand and show them around a neat, sturdy mental garden. Currently, I have eleven reliable writers and various guest contributors when I can lasso ’em.

Hi there! I’m Jasmine, better known in print as Geoffrey Crescent, and I’m currently the co-editor of The Psychedelic Journal, a weird and wonderful small-press comics anthology. I also happily edit anything and everything that comes my way; I’ve recently worked on the first issue of Second Life by Afterlife Inc. creator Jon Lock, and I’ll occasionally edit academic papers and journal articles as well. When I’m not being critical of other people, I’m also a writer, blogger, and reviewer in my own right, and I’m a post-grad student working towards my master’s degree in evolutionary anthropology.

You’re a very busy person! Which did you come to first — the comic editing or the non-fiction editing? How did it happen to you, this editorial habit?

The Psychedelic Journal of Time Travel #1, CoverIt was around the same time, actually. I’d been published in a few poetry and short-fiction anthologies and an archaeology journal while I was doing my undergraduate degree, so when dissertation time rolled around, a few of my friends asked me to proof-read their theses, and I realised I really loved correcting people’s grammar! That led to me editing a colleague’s Egyptology article. The comic editing began when my partner, who edited a Doctor Who comic I’d written for a couple of times, asked me to become his co-editor on The Psychedelic Journal of Time-Travel, as it was known then.

So tell me, what exactly do you do as a comic editor? I feel like, outside of people who edit, there’s not much awareness of what “editing” actually means. I’ve read writers, self-published writers, advising each other not to utilise editors, because they remove the author’s voice — and of course, Anne Rice pretty famously gives the same impression with her reported refusal to use any. When I edit a draft for a piece to be published on WWAC, it goes like this:

  1. Approve pitch (either straight off or after some discussion on focus and potential)
  2. Receive first draft from writer. This is usually pretty good, because we’re smart people who’ve practiced our craft.
  3. I read it through, essentially looking through the eyes of the nitpickiest potential commenter:
    1. Are the sentences enjoyable to read in their own right?
    2. Are there any obvious failures of research or leaps towards conclusion?
    3. Do they apologise for their views or undermine their intellectual work with the language of self-deprecation?
    4. Are questions, which seem very important to the premise, left unanswered or even unasked?
    5. Is there evidence for the claims that they make?
    6. Are all points expanded upon sufficiently to express the writer’s point of view?
    7. Are they offensive or possibly offensive to read in multiple ways?
    8. Do all of the sentences make sense?
  4. Personally, I mark each problem and leave comments explaining my perspective on how I think a change or a rethink will enhance the author’s communication to their audience.

But this is working with non-fiction and for a text-only product. Editing for comics must be pretty different, right? You don’t have to give away any secrets, but tell us how!

The first thing I do when I receive a script or a pitch is to give it a quick once-over to check if it fits the brief. After all, if I’ve asked for four page submissions about sentient trees and I get sent a seventeen page submission about giant slugs, then there’s not much point to me reading it any further. Scripts or pitches that don’t match the brief get rejected outright, but thankfully that rarely happens. I prefer dealing with actual scripts rather than pitches or synopses; most of the comics I edit are under five pages and the writer needs to be able to tell a snappy story that can be understood without a ton of background information, so pitchers will be asked to throw an actual script my way.

Once I have that in hand, I go over it with a fine tooth comb, marking any typos and grammatical errors I find along the way. I’ll comment if I think dialogue needs to be moved onto a different panel, if there are story elements I find confusing, or if there’s anything I downright dislike about it, something offensive for example. I also make sure the suggested layout of the comic will work in practice; new writers often try to cram too many panels on a page or too many speech bubbles in one panel. I’ll write a little review at the end of what I think works and what doesn’t and what things need to be rejiggered in order for the script to be accepted.

Sometimes writers request that I give them some advice on how to improve their writing in general, which I’m always happy to do! I normally go and work on something else for a bit, then give the script another look-over, to check the spelling and grammar in my writing and make sure there’s nothing I’ve missed first time around. If I’m working with another editor, the script then gets a look-over by them before being sent back to the writer with suggestions for a re-draft. Scripts normally go through three or four drafts before I’m satisfied with them; occasionally, I’ll accept something outright first time around, and even more occasionally, a script is dropped if the writer disagrees with the suggested edits.

Once I’m happy with a script, it’ll be matched to an artist that fits the style of the story. Sometimes writers propose collaborators or friends they’ve worked with before, which can be cool, and it’s always nice to discover new artistic talent.

I think what Anne Rice does is a real shame, because I don’t see editing as removing the author’s voice in the slightest! It’s just shifting things around so they flow better, getting the spelling and grammar up to scratch, and streamlining the story so that it works well in a visual format. It’s a collaborative effort, but the story is always the writer’s. Blimey, I’m writing the last few chapters of my first novel, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to not have folks helping me tweak it into place along the way, let alone publishing it without a good hard edit! Most of our scripts are diamonds in the rough; editing is all about polishing them up to the best they can be. Constructive criticism!

Do your writers ever/often push back on your comments? You mention occasionally dropping work if your advice is ignored, but how much is editing a conversation for you, draft by draft?

I love being able to have a proper dialogue with people and shape the script draft by draft, so yes, in the best case scenario editing is a two-way conversation. Sometimes people are a bit precious and refuse to change their work in any way, in which case they’ll get a polite “goodbye” from me. Sometimes we get submissions which have great stories, but are just unworkable as comic scripts; they have far too much dialogue, for example, or captions that take up the entirety of the page. Other times, we’ll have a sudden slew of stories that are all based around a similar theme, so we’ll have to ask one or two of the writers to go away and come up with something different. Most of the time I’m happy to say I work with very co-operative folk who are happy to enter into a discussion about how to make the script workable; it’s only very occasionally I’ll have someone go, “No, you’re wrong and I’m right. That dialogue can’t be moved to another panel. You’re suppressing my artistic integrity.”

Talking about how to make it work can be such a satisfying thing. For me, it’s so rewarding to write, “I think this could use some work. Here’s why,” and come back to, “I see what you mean! I worked at it — what do you think?” and find that the flow is SO much better, the piece so much stronger and more personal, such a better example of this person’s talent. It’s incredibly gratifying to say, “I think you have a better endgame in you,” and have the writer trust that you might be right. We both win: they see how good they really are, and I see how good I was betting they might be. Removing their voice couldn’t be further from the picture. I just want to hear more of it, and hear it refined! Editing is a privilege.

Do you edit again after the artist’s done their stuff? Is there a separate art editor, or do you trust that there will be no problems from here on?

My partner is an artist, so he deals with most of that side of it, although the two of us will always discuss which artist or art style we think would suit a particular script. Normally we just leave the artist to it, although occasionally they’ll open up a dialogue with us or the writer about how they want it to look. Once we get the art back we give it the once-over to check everything’s in place; occasionally artists will compress panels together or move dialogue around, so we need to make sure everything still makes sense. Once or twice we’ve had artists who’ve completely changed the ending of the story or added random characters in, although thankfully that’s not an everyday occurrence.

Talking about rare experiences — what’s the best editorial project you ever did? What makes you most proud to think of having had a hand in its creation? Not because the end product is so good (although, no doubt it will be), but because you really feel like there was something electric in the collaborative back and forth?

It’s hard to single one out, but I helped develop a comic-based iPad app a few years ago that I’m very proud of.  It was a series of stories that were intended to get children talking about issues that affect their lives, like bullying or domestic violence. It was a wonderful collaborative effort, and it was lovely to explore everyone’s ideas on the topic. It also resulted in my first, and no doubt last, story-boarding credit. Someone out there really enjoyed turning my terrible stick figures into believable creations!

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money