I wonder...does this mean that if something is wrong with one of these things, this tends to be a project you just don't bother with? I.e. if you say you don't typically change word choice, and you get a project where the word choice seems very often wrong (but other things, like characters and plot are fine) does this mark a project as not worth your time and therefore one you pass on? Just curious...
I hate to tell you this, but the answer is that it depends on how busy I am.
Some edits require more of my time. Some require more of your time. When I'm very busy (as I have been for at least the past six months), I tend to look for things I can bring to completion with less time commitment from me.
In general, line edits take more of my time. Story edits take more of your time. So if the plot and characters need work but the sentences are good, I would actually be more inclined to take it on.
But this is not the way I prefer to work. Not at all. My feeling has always been that it's easier to turn a storyteller into an author than it is to turn a wordsmith into an author. I can teach a storyteller what they need to know about scene structure, sentence mechanics, and the like. They can learn to respect language and grammar. Assuming they're willing to learn, that is -- it's always such a shock to run into authors who have achieved some minor success and think they know everything now. Shoot, you put my whole editing team together -- with our 10 or 11 advanced degrees, combined century of editing experience, not to mention college level teaching experience and publication track records -- and combined, we don't know everything. Nobody knows everything, no matter how hard they rock it, so hearing some n00b proclaim their perfection is always a bit of a shock. But that's perhaps a post for another time.
Human nature, interpersonal dynamics, motivation, and all those other great things that create character are much harder to teach. I can point out to a writer that the hero is behaving in a strange fashion in chapter four, but I probably can't teach them the sensitivity and insight they need to understand human behavior. That kind of knowledge comes from within, and it evolves over time. It's not a light switch learning moment. I can diagram phrases and clauses on a napkin and see the light dawn in a writer's eyes, and I know they'll never again misplace a modifier out of ignorance. (Perhaps out of carelessness, but not out of ignorance.)
But I can't whip out a napkin and a pen and jot down the key to character motivation. I can point out specific places in a particular story where motivation fails, behavior is erratic, characters are shallow, etc. Will that help a writer create better characters next time? Hard to say. They might gain a little insight, but whether it's enough to push them to the next level is anybody's guess.
In a perfect world, every book I purchased would be exceptionally strong in both the story elements and the writerly elements. In the real world, we have to choose the flaws we work with.
So what makes me pass? Assuming the project is right for my house -- that is, it's erotic romance suitable for a mostly female audience -- I can and do reject stories in the first page if:
- I see multiple spelling errors. Seriously, if you're too careless to even run the spellchecker, I'm not going to waste my time on your story.
- I see multiple grammar errors. Yes, I can and do teach better grammar to my writers. But it takes time, and at the moment, I don't have that kind of time.
- I see narrative summary in place of scene. Sometimes even the best writers will slip out of scene and into summary, but there's a kind of beginner writer that never gets into scene at all. This is always obvious right from the first page.
- I see multiple exclamation marks, underlines and double underlines, italics and bolds, and other bling meant to fool us into thinking something exciting is happening.
- A preponderance of boring, generic language. Dick and Jane went out of fashion sometime around grade three, and it's never coming back.
- Characters speak to each other without dialogue. Example: "Mary suggested they have Indian food for lunch, but Charlie said no because he was out of rolaids."
- Even one laughable gaffe gets you a rejection. "Eyes closing in ecstasy, the pizza tasted great." (Close to lunchtime. All my examples are about food!)
So, yes, it may be that I'm less likely to edit things like dialogue and word choice and paragraphing simply because our process of elimination rules out subs with loads of problems in those departments. But given the time, I won't rule out a project just because of weaknesses in those areas.