You are amazing. Taking the time and applying the courage to complete your book is worth celebrating! Now that you’re done, or maybe now that you are close to the finish line, you may be thinking that it’s time to find an editor to work with to help you refine the manuscript. What will your editor do? How will they work with you? What should you expect? Read on for some ideas of what to anticipate when you get into this phase of writing.
A Note Before We Begin
When my husband Joel and I are getting ready to go out to a fancy restaurant, he’ll sometimes ask me whether or not he should have a snack before we leave. Why? Because he has a default expectation that when he goes out to eat he will be served large volumes of food that will fill him up. However, he’s had the experience in the past where he is served exquisitely prepared, tiny delicate portions of food served in the center of a gorgeous, enormous plate. The first time this happened, he was incredibly disappointed in the dinner. Going home hungry was not what he had expected from our night out.
The story is relevant to your experience working with a book editor! How? What you expect an editor to do, and what your experience is working with them, will be vastly influenced by your goals. Do you want an editor to do a light proofing job, staying mostly on the surface? Or do you want an editor to give you feedback on the content, the structure, and to have an opinion about any aspect of your book? Having clear goals is incredibly important, as this will guide your relationship with your book editor, and will give them a sense of your expectations—giving them a fighting chance of living up to them! (If you want to learn more about the different levels of editing, check out this blog.) With that, let’s talk about what you can expect when you work with a book editor. Since developmental editing differs greatly from copyediting and proofing, most of this information below applies to the latter two.
Mark Ups …. Everywhere
The last thing you want when your editor returns your manuscript is a few minor edits—flagging up a missing comma here, a common misspelling there. Whether you decide to go with a developmental edit, a copy edit, or a proofread, you should expect to see mark-ups all over your manuscript when it gets returned to you after round one.
While you might be traumatized from a teacher using a red pen in primary school to mark-up your work, the changes your book editor suggests will be indicated as tracked changes in a word processor if you are working electronically, as most do these days. Occasionally your editor will have questions or comments, which will be indicated in the margins with the “comment” tool.
A fiction or creative nonfiction developmental editor will focus primarily on big-picture items like your story arc, characterization, dialogue, plot, and scene. Developmental editing in nonfiction will focus on overall structure, organization and flow of the information, whether there is missing detail (or too much!), and so forth. In either case, a thoughtful editor will likely have much to say, and will provide you a detailed guide of how you might address some of the issues they identify.
When you are working with a book editor on copyediting, expect to receive a different level of feedback. Where sentence structure needs to be adjusted for clarity, or words need to be replaced with choices that are more specific or more directly on point to the message, an editor may often make those suggested changes directly in the manuscript as tracked changes. Not always, however! Sometimes, an editor will simply flag the concern, and it will be your job to decide if or how to address it. (This would more commonly occur if the content of your book requires field expertise, and in that case, no editor would make a change if they had any doubt about the accuracy of their suggested changes.)
Depending on the level of editing you’ve asked for, your book editor may want to go through several rounds of changes with you. The next sections that follow describe some possible scenarios.
Editing Rounds… It’s Not All Up to Your Editor
When you hire a book editor to work on your manuscript, you are not hiring them to be the final word. You’re hiring them to catch mistakes, to identify sections of your book that may not be clear to the reader, to point out inconsistencies, and point out anything that you may have overlooked—which is super common. (Honestly, how does anyone write a book without overlooking things!? That’s why editing is such an important part of the process.)
Once your editor has done that, then it is up to you, as the author, to make the final decision about how you want your words to appear in your book! So that means that when you receive your precious manuscript back from the editor, all marked up, you have a big job ahead of you. (Yes, I know, you thought you were done…You thought the manuscript was finished, and you were never going to have to look at it again. I am very sorry to be the bearer of bad news.)
At Least Two Rounds (Or Five)
If you choose to work with a developmental editor, they’ll likely read through your book a couple times, commenting on the overall elements that make the argument or create the story you’re trying to tell. They’ll often include a one or two-page write-up detailing all of their suggestions for your revision, and then you’ll get to work on applying the changes you agree with.
Once you get to copyediting, you should expect your book editor to look at your manuscript at least twice, if not more. The substance of the first round will vary depending on the level of editing that you have requested, but in general terms, your first round will be the heaviest editing round. Round one of editing will be the time that your editor has the “freshest eyes” and will catch the most. When they return your manuscript, this round will take you the longest to review. Your job will be to read through all their suggested changes, and then accept or reject them. You’ll want to address any comments or questions that your book editor has left in the margins, and delete or resolve those comments.
A conscientious copyeditor will want to see your manuscript again after you’ve resolved all the comments and changes. Why? Because it is not uncommon for errors to crop up during the process of accepting or rejecting changes. For example, sometimes a word or a punctuation mark might be accidentally repeated, or a change you rejected results in a lack of agreement with the surrounding text. So a good editor is going to want a second round of review to read through your manuscript to double check all the areas where changes had been suggested in round one. Often a copyeditor will include proofreading in their work (because if they’re like me, it’s hard not to!), and that’s another reason for multiple rounds. However, if you just hire a proofreader without copyediting, there will likely be only one round.
Once your book editor has had a second pass, you may be finished and the book may be clean and ready to go to print. However if the editor finds anything during that second round, you will be tapped for another review round. It is tempting at this stage of the editing process to add new content, or move paragraphs or sections around, or change chapter headings, or find any number of ways to change the book from how it was when you originally sent it to your editor. A big word of caution: don’t do that. That should have been done in the developmental editing round. At this stage, your book editor has read through the manuscript in its entirety at least twice, and has done their best to identify inconsistencies. If you add new material, their ability to ensure that that new content flows with the rest of the book is dramatically reduced. It’s just a fact. It doesn’t mean that you cannot add content! It just means that you run a higher risk of errors. Once a book editor has seen your manuscript twice, their eagle-sharp eyes will no longer be physically capable of catching everything. It’s inevitable. So if you decide to add new content now, just be aware that you may pay a price in the form of errors. (You could also hire a new editor, but of course that comes with a different price—and cost is definitely a factor for most people.) So to reiterate… resist the temptation to add or change your book’s content once you’ve engaged an editor.
Even if you don’t add new content, depending on how your first few editing rounds go, you may easily have one or two more rounds of editing. Each one should have fewer changes to address, and each time, your decision is the final one. Ultimately, it is up to you how the book will read. (Note that this is not always the case with traditionally published books. The publisher may have a style guide that could affect which changes are non-negotiable.)
(No) Mind Reading
Let’s say you contact the local baker and order two dozen chocolate chip cookies, and have a few rounds of back and forth about which kind of chips you want, and whether the flour and sugar should be organic, and so forth. When you arrive at the bakery to pick up your order, you ask the baker why the cookies aren’t decorated with “Happy Birthday, Susan.” What do you think the baker’s response would be?
As good as any book editor may be, only the psychics will be able to read your mind. (And I personally don’t know of any psychic book editors… my guess is that they’re in a different profession.) If you want footnotes, or endnotes; if you want source citations; if you want only three levels of headings instead of five; if you want call-outs or sidebars–whatever it is, you must remember that this is your book. It isn’t the editor’s book, and it is up to you to provide to them everything that belongs in the book, where you want it, how you want it. For example, if you are citing sources and you haven’t included all the raw material for the citation to be built, it will ultimately be your responsibility.
Without the raw materials, without the information, an editor cannot complete their job. The baker didn’t pipe “Happy Birthday Susan” because they didn’t know you had that in mind! If you do ask your editor to create content that was not in the original manuscript, be prepared to renegotiate your contract, and to add time to the project timeline.
Organization, Clarity, and Kindness
Your book editor should be accurate, clear, organized, and most of all, empathetic. You’ve just produced a book, for pete’s sake. That’s hard work, and it takes a lot of vulnerability to ask someone you don’t know to read it, not to mention to look for and point out all the bad stuff things that aren’t working so well. So good for you for taking that step; it’s fair to feel like your book editor is truly on your team.
You can also expect that your editor keep track of all the rounds, that they be organized so that neither of you lose any of your work, and that all the comments and changes are input into the document in an orderly fashion so that your job, which is already hard, isn’t made any harder. You’ll want to do the same. Ensure you’re renaming the document each time with the round number you’re on, and the date. Save the old versions in an archive just in case a question comes up about what was in the original. And be kind to your book editor, remembering that they have your best interest in mind (even if you disagree with their suggestions!).
In the end, your relationship with your editor should result in a book that you feel even better about than you were at the onset, a book you’re extremely proud of, and one that is as comprehensible and error-free as is humanly possible.