Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Critiques, Commentaries, and Proof Edits

I spent the better part of the day doing a detailed commentary on a book project. The manuscript has been through several drafts and revisions and is this close to being ready for print.

The nuts and bolts of the writing is not bad. The author knows how to put sentences together, and generally only makes common, minor grammatical mistakes. When editing a major project for someone else, however, I like to do it in two stages: "Commentary" and "Proof Edit."

Most writers think their work is polished enough to skip the "Commentary" part of the edit (which, generally takes three times as long as a Proof Edit and is, therefore, significantly more expensive). Most writers are wrong.

The commentary stage is not a critique. Critiques, as far as I'm concerned, deal with whether a piece is "good" or not. They identify flaws or weaknesses in a work. Ideally, they also pinpoint strengths.

In my experience, critiques are most useful in the early phases of a project. They can help the writer recognize and avoid cliche-ridden writing, predictable plotting, and cardboard characters. Critiques tend to work best when a project is still fluid -- when it's still young enough, fresh enough, and incomplete enough to tolerate major revisions.

In contrast, a commentary accepts that the piece has started to set -- like newly poured concrete. Changes and revisions may still take place, but they should happen only if necessary. The time for playing with the concept, the topic, and the plot is past. A commentary is concerned with a project's execution.

Not all writers understand the purpose or the value of a commentary. That's why, when bidding out a job for a new client, I usually take a look at the first 3 to 5 pages gratis. I want prospective clients to see what they can reasonably expect to gain from the commentary phase.

The commentary includes observations about text inaccuracies, awkward construction, non-sequiturs, redundancies, clarity problems, formatting, and overall execution. I look at chapter titles, headings, and sub-headings, evaluating them for purpose, accuracy, and formatting consistency. I assess consistency of voice and vision. I also do a general evaluation of things like consistent tense usage, agreement, parallelism, sentence and paragraph construction, and spelling ability. At this phase, it's too early to do what I call a "proofing edit," but I like to get an idea of what proofing the project would entail.

The Proof Edit occurs after the writer has had the opportunity to review the notes from the commentary and act on them. When a manuscript is sent for a Proof Edit, I know I am the only thing that stands between it and the publisher. Now is no time for a commentary. Now is the time to get nit-picky and have a flashback to 10th grade English class.

The Proof Edit is concerned primarily with the manuscript's adherence to Proper English Usage. If a glaring error in logic, a series of un-understandable directions, or a poorly presented plot point shows up, it should be duly noted, but the Proof Edit is really all about making sure all i's are dotted, t's crossed, and things like periods, commas, and apostrophe S's are used correctly.

Critiques, commentaries, and proof edits. Each one has its place in the creative cycle. For the next few days, I'll be working on this commentary. I think, of the three, the commentary is my favorite. It takes place when the project is very nearly finished. It doesn't just say, "this doesn't work." Instead, it offers a series of suggestions for fixing or strengthening any weakness in the writing. Ultimately, however, the decision of how to improve the work lies with the author.