If you’re an editor or hope to become one, this is something you need to understand.

No, no. Listen. You really need to get this. It’s so important, in fact, that I’m going to explain this two ways, one of which will be using this handy little graphic.

I made dis.

See that big, pink peg? Good. Now look at that tiny little hole at the bottom. Would you be able to push that big peg into that tiny hole? No. Stop trying to get creative. It’s not a challenge. Wasn’t a trick question. The correct answer is no. You cannot fit a big peg into a little hole.

Think of that hole as a bucket. Visualize a bucket. You’re standing over the bucket, looking down into it. That bucket shrinks every time you drop a load of edits into it. The bucket processes your edits, makes some adjustments, and shrinks. Then it’s ready for the next load of edits. But it’s no longer big enough for the big peg, remember? It’s smaller now, ready for the manuscript edits. And once you drop those in, that bucket’s going to shrink again. And once you’ve made it to the proofreading phase, that bucket is tiny.

The bucket is your author’s endurance. Their stamina. Their patience. And most of them have what it takes to get through this process, otherwise they wouldn’t have tossed their hard-earned duckets your way in the first place.

But if you try to shove a big peg into a tiny hole, you’re going to break the bucket. Worst case scenario, you’re going to break your author. If they’re familiar with the editing process, you’ll simply break their trust in your competence. Neither is a win for you, but the former could very well destroy a new writer’s motivation and love of the craft.

Futurama and its characters property of Matt Groening, I shouldn't even have to tell you that.

Don’t get me wrong, if you spot a horrendous mistake that has to be fixed, point it out. People make mistakes, even editors. It happens. We get so focused on certain aspects that other aspects fade into the background. This is why a first pass of high-level edits is sometimes done repeatedly, especially if you find multiple types of developmental or structural issues. The more editing a work needs, the more opportunity for errors to arise during editing. So it is possible to find a higher-level problem in the manuscript editing or even the proofreading phase.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m referring to, specifically, is offering suggestions for improvement on plot or story or character arcs or world building specifics at the proofreading stage. There’s a time and place for setting the pace and establishing ground rules, and the finish line ain’t it.

What does any of this have to do with backward compatibility? If the graphic above works for you—if you’re sure you’ve got a firm grasp on this whole peg thing—you can stop reading now. If you’re an author or editor and familiar with analogies, then I’m sure you’ve got this under control. But if it’s still not clicking into place, I’ll go the one step further just for you (and because it’s the title of my article, for crying out loud).

Backward compatibility is when a hardware or software system can use peripherals or files created for previous versions.

For example, in November 2015, Xbox announced a backwards compatibility feature that allowed users to play select Xbox 360 games on their new consoles. For those of you digging this analogy better than the pegs and holes and buckets, let’s apply this to the phases of editing.

I’m going to pick on Nintendo for this analogy; they’re a perfect fit. For our purposes, we’ll look at NES, Super Nintendo, and Nintendo 64.

You’ve seen them, right? If you haven’t, google Nintendo game cartridges. Look at some pictures. Compare the three different cartridges.

Nintendo logos and shit aren’t mine; they’re Nintendo’s. Come on, man, it’s like you’re not even trying.

At a glance, you can see that the actual game cartridges for each one were different. What do you think would happen if you inserted a Nintendo 64 cartridge into an NES? Something akin to trying to drop a big peg into a tiny hole, yes?

Those systems aren’t backwards compatible. Neither are authors. You can’t play a developmental game on a console designed for proofreading. Your author cannot start the whole editing process all over again just because you think the book would be better if we tweak this one thing.

Well, okay… they can. But they are going to hate you. And rightly so.

Even Playstation 2 consoles got testy when you tried to play PS1 games on them, and they were supposed to be backwards compatible. Some games did just fine. And you can do some light copy or line editing during the proofreading stage. You probably won’t break anything. But DO NOT force unnecessary high-level edits onto an author during the proofreading phase.

Authors are not backwards compatible.

Published in Editing


Jessica West (West1Jess) is pursuing a state of self-induced psychosis (reading, writing, editing). She lives in Acadiana with three daughters still young enough to think she’s cool and a husband who knows better but likes her anyway.

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