Manuscript Editing Demystified

I was invited by Shonda Brock, author of the paranormal romance Eternal Traces, to help demystify the editing process for new authors as well as to share some tips on how to edit your book and how to find the right professional editor.

Shonda asked some great questions, including “What are your thoughts on authors using beta readers before sending a manuscript to a professional editor?” and “How much can a writer expect to spend to have an average length novel professionally edited?”, so please read on to learn more, and don’t forget to check out Shonda’s paranormal romance Eternal Traces!

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1. You love words. What made you choose to be an editor instead of a writer?

Actually, I am both, but I especially love working with people and the words they write. Strong writing skills are important to be an effective editor, but there is also an intangible that a good editor has: the ability to hone in on what makes a piece of writing “tick.” I approach every project I work on as a collaborative effort between writer and editor, and maintaining your distinctive voice while suggesting and making necessary changes is a top priority for me.


2. Can you give us a brief description of your editing process?

With developmental or substantive editing, which is the “big picture” type of editing, I work with the writer to figure out what is and isn’t working with a manuscript. My first step is to read the manuscript all the way through, and I make notes as I do so. Once I have a feel for the writer’s voice and the story she’s crafted, I go back and examine every aspect of the manuscript to see what’s working and what isn’t. Is the story compelling? Do the subplots enhance the main story? Are the characters fully developed? Do the story arcs work effectively to compel the reader to keep reading? If I see issues like plot holes, unnecessary characters, weak or slow passages, or even chapters or characters that aren’t working, I bring these to the author’s attention, and I often suggest possible revisions that might fix that particular problem. There can be quite a bit of brainstorming with this level of editing, and I love the collaborative process of helping a writer improve her work, which ultimately makes the story that much better for the reader.

Copyediting is more detail-oriented, and is often called line editing. At this level of editing, I’m concerned with the mechanics of the writing: spelling, punctuation, and grammar faux pas such as correct and consistent tenses, sentence structure, and word usage. I’ll also point out lapses in logic or sequential errors, but this level of editing assumes that the writer has completed revisions to the work, so the editing is more about the mechanics of the writing than about the ideas in the work.


3. Most new writers don’t know where to begin or how to manage revisions once they’ve completed their story. What’s the secret to keeping focused and organized when editing a large body of work like a novel?

Every writer has to find the system that works best for him or her, but as a rule of thumb, the best thing to do first is put the manuscript away for a period of time; give yourself a chance to gain a little perspective.

Once you’re ready to begin revisions, I suggest running a spell check first and a grammar check second. Not only will you catch many of your mistakes, but you’ll also see some of your patterns of error, which will help you improve your writing in the future. But don’t automatically accept the corrections—software doesn’t know that your character is an uneducated bumpkin who is supposed to say “I’s good with it.”

The next step is to read—just read—through the entire manuscript. Take off your writer hat and become your potential reader. Pay attention to the characters, the flow, the plot holes, and make notes of things you want to come back to, but don’t begin revising yet. Go ahead and fix any glaring errors that jump out at you (like the spelling or punctuation errors that still remain), but try to just keep reading so you’ll have a good sense of what you’ve written. By the time you finish this read-through, you should be able to see what’s working and what isn’t and begin revising.

There are a plethora of software programs available to help writers stay focused and organized while they write and edit. The best advice I have is: stay organized and focused while you write and edit. Back everything up. Delete nothing (save it all in a separate folder—you never know when that minor character you decided to delete might make a great protagonist in another story). Whatever system you use, use a system so you aren’t overwhelmed with jumping around nilly-willy, which creates a whole new set of problems, especially with consistency throughout the novel.


4. What do you find are the most common mistakes writers make?

Most writers fall into a pattern of error that they aren’t even aware of. When we don’t know we are doing something incorrectly, we just keep repeating the same mistake. If you have a tendency to use dangling modifiers, for example, you probably use them quite frequently. The same can be said for comma splices, run-on sentences, and of course, punctuation, which is almost everyone’s Achilles heel. I was the queen of semicolons before I learned how to use them correctly!


5. Especially in this frenzy of self-publication, why is it important for a writer to hire a professional editor to polish their his or her manuscript?

There’s an old saying that “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This is especially true in publishing. Professional, quality editing isn’t cheap. But how much will it cost you to publish a poorly constructed story full of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors? At the very least, make sure you have your work professionally proofread before it is published.

When you engage intellectually in the editing process, you’ll find your writing improves and your ideas crystallize as a result. Remember that your editor hasn’t lived with your ideas, plot, or character—and that’s one of the reasons why you hired him or her to work with you. It is difficult to be objective about your writing when you are so close to it, so really consider every suggestion—then discuss your ideas and concerns, and make your editor your partner in creating the very best work you are capable of writing.


6. What are your thoughts on authors using beta readers before sending a manuscript to a professional editor?

I think it’s a very wise decision. Quality professional editing isn’t cheap, and any mistakes you fix or revisions you complete before you involve a professional editor will save you time and money in the long run. Beta readers can point out those patterns of error, those plot holes, those undeveloped characters, and by the time you begin working with an editor, you’ll be icing the cake instead of searching for raw ingredients to put into the bowl.

One word of caution, though: beta readers, your best friend, your high school English teacher—and even your editor—may have differing opinions about changes you should make. “Too many cooks spoil the soup” is a truism when you begin revisions on your WIP. Consider the suggestions that make sense to you, the ideas that respect your authorial voice, and don’t feel compelled to make a change that doesn’t improve your work. In the end, this is your story.


7. How does a writer determine whether an editor is right for their his or her book?

The writer/editor relationship is a lot like a marriage: communication and trust are vital to success. I encourage writers to do three things when shopping for an editor:

  1. Ask for references from other authors who have worked with that editor. You wouldn’t let just any mechanic fix your car; don’t let just any editor fix your words. Check the websites of editors you’re considering; I read one website for a “professional editor” that was filled with grammar errors and misspellings. Ah . . . no. And don’t be afraid to conduct an interview—you’re spending your hard-earned money, and you deserve the best!
  2. Discuss your needs and expectations with the editor you are considering. If you don’t know what you want or need from an editor, you might not end up with the editing you thought you were getting. You don’t even need to know the correct terminology—a professional editor can help you figure that out. The more specific you can be about what you want from an edit, the more you’ll get for your editing dollars.
  3. Ask for a sample edit. Each editor has a slightly different approach to editing, and one of the best ways to see if that approach works for you is through a sample edit. Blindly hiring an editor because he’s inexpensive or she knows your mother isn’t a wise business decision. Reviewing a sample edit will give you a huge insight into a particular editor’s knowledge and ability, so don’t hesitate to ask for one before making this important financial and professional decision.

When you hire an editor at any stage from development to proofreading, be sure you know what you want and need. For example, if you just want a professional opinion on a section that doesn’t seem to work after you’ve revised it several times, don’t pay to have the entire manuscript copyedited.


8. What credentials should a writer look for when seeking a professional editor?

First, in my experience, a good editor is intellectually curious, well-read, a good writer, and is compelled to edit.

Most editors don’t hold a formal degree in publishing or editing; while many have an English degree, that alone does not make a good editor. (I do have an English degree. )
Many editors (myself included) learned from working with editor-mentors, and then from hands-on experience. I have a page of testimonials on my website from authors I’ve worked with—not to pat myself on the back, but to let potential clients know that I’ve worked with authors who recommend my work.


9. How much can a writer expect to spend to have an average length novel professionally edited?

The industry standard word count for a page is a firm 250 words, so a 75,000 word novel would be 300 editing pages. (This may not be the page count of the printed book, which varies based on typeface, layout, and other factors.) According to the Editorial Freelancer Association (EFA), an experienced freelance editor can complete a basic copyedit at 5 to 10 pages per hour; a heavy copyedit is 2 to 5 pages per hour. That comes to somewhere between 30 and 150 hours for those 300 pages, depending on the amount of editing needed. That’s quite a range, I know, so let’s base our estimate on an average of 5 pages per hour, or 60 hours. The EFA’s suggested rates are $30 to $40 per hour for a basic copyedit and $40 to $50 per hour for a heavy edit, so depending on the amount of work necessary, that 75,000 word novel will cost between $1,800 and $3,000 to edit. You’ll usually pay more for developmental editing and less for proofreading.

Before you swear you can never afford to spend that kind of money, please remember these are price ranges. I base my fees on each individual project because every project is unique.


10. What advice can you give writers that will make the editing process less painful?

In my experience, the number one reason writers avoid using a professional freelance editor is cost. Shelling out money with no guarantee of a return on your investment is something that’s easy to talk yourself out of doing. So spend your money wisely. Don’t waste it by handing over a first draft and expecting an editor to “just fix it.”

The pain of editing only goes away when you work with an editor you trust. Invest the time to find the right editor, be sure you share expectations for what the edit will accomplish, and verify with a sample edit that the editor is a good partner for you. Establish a relationship built on solid communication and you’ll not only enjoy your editing experience, but you’ll learn invaluable skills you’ll bring to your future writing.

 

Thanks for stopping by, and happy writing!

—Candace

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How a Professional Editor Can Help You Get Published: Developmental and Substantive Editing

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Writers are often too close to their own writing to be objective. After spending hours trying to get a concept or dialogue “just right,” it is difficult to know what should stay and what should be cut. Even after you’ve self-edited, had your friends critique your work, and perhaps even asked a friend who is an English teacher to take a look, an objective and professional opinion from a professional freelance editor is the best way to identify what is and isn’t working.

No matter how well written a manuscript is, it needs more than what another writer or a friend can offer. Writers are often amazed at the amount of help a good editor offers; published authors who have already been through the process understand how valuable an editor is to the success of their work.

If you have a great idea but don’t know how to organize it into a book or article, or if you’ve written a draft and want to be sure it is well-ordered and doesn’t drift off somewhere it shouldn’t, consider hiring a professional freelance editor. A professional editor has an objective viewpoint and will be honest with you about the many ways you can improve your manuscript—yes, even when you think it’s perfect, you’ll be surprised at the things an editor will suggest that never occurred to you.

Scott Norton, an editor at the University of California Press and author of the first full-length handbook ever published on the subject of developmental editing, writes: “For our purposes, developmental editing denotes significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse. The DE’s role can manifest in a number of ways. Some “big picture” editors provide broad direction by helping the author to form a vision for the book, then coaching the author chapter by chapter to ensure that the vision is successfully executed. Others get their hands dirty with the prose itself, suggesting rewrites at the chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence levels. This hands-on approach is sometimes called substantive editing or line editing.

This important function is not meant to replace self editing; whether you engage an editor before or after you begin writing, developmental editing is synonymous with The Big Picture. Norton goes on to say:

“From this perspective, stylistic intervention alone is not ‘developmental.’ To be sure, there are cases in which a manuscript’s organization is sound but the tone so pervasively wrong that virtually every sentence must be recast. Severe as these problems of tone may be, they can usually be handled by a high-powered copyeditor—and those that can’t are beyond the reach of editing, requiring instead the hand of a ghostwriter or coauthor. Nevertheless, most manuscripts with structural problems have stylistic lapses as well, and DEs are often asked to fix both kinds of problems. . . .”

Developmental editing (also called substantive editing, heavy line editing, structural editing, or book doctoring) is the first step for many authors on their way to having their work published. If you are a first-time author, don’t make the expensive mistakes by hoping an agent or publisher will share your vision, even if your manuscript isn’t in top shape. Do your research and find an editor who will work as your partner to help you say it the way you mean it.

—Candace