Category: Notes on Publishing

Getting Published Day 2016


Yesterday I book doctored at the Writers’ Workshop Getting Published Day at Regents College. It was a lot of fun. I met some really lovely people and read samples from some interesting works-in-progress. One in particular was very exciting for me: witty, intelligent, and a strong story concept. My enthusiasm had no bounds! (Though the said writer does now have the challenge of writing the second-best opening line in English literature.) I hope the rest of the manuscript is as strong as the opening chapter and synopsis, and I also hope others will soon feel the same. At this point, the prospect of getting published comes down to taste, and finding people who share your vision (agent, editor, readers).

And before taste dictates, it’s usually important to get the craft right. Things that came up in the book doctor surgeries included: bringing more of an edge into the narrative style; deciding what should be revealed when within a story; building the pacing and narrative tension around key moments within the story; the importance of setting; establishing mood; sharpening the prose style. I found myself asking various writers: what are you giving a reader? A good question for any writer who wants to be published (hope it doesn’t prompt an existential crisis).

I also led an hour-long workshop on prose style: Style Brings Substance. There’s never enough time to say all that could be said on such subjects. So it was a brisk romp.

I discussed how I break down my thinking about any piece of writing in terms of: its context; its narrative content (including its dramatic situation); its narrative style (including its structure); and most important of all its prose style, because that is where writing is ultimately experienced – and judged.

I feel that the natural speaking voice is usually the best foundation for our writing, even if it sometimes needs adapting or embellishing. Mood is important in creating intimacy with the reader, and creating an impression relies on our use of style, moment by moment in a piece of writing. I suggested that style is as much about what we leave out of a piece of writing, and what we leave to the reader’s imagination, as what we explain.

Much is a matter of taste, again, but much too can be improved through a strong grasp of the craft, and I stressed the importance of understanding how the different parts of speech work. A few simple pointers:

* Verbs bring energy to a sentence, so aim to be energy-efficient. In fiction, sentences are often most effective when a strong and simple verb of action is used as the main verb of a sentence. A sentence such as ‘He realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ has less force than ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers were running at him’ or even ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers ran at him’ – the realising and the easily being able to identify don’t add much, really, do they? They just get in the way. We often simply don’t need realise or remember or sense verbs (e.g., see, hear). Auxiliary verbs (e.g., can, must) can often be lost too.

(And while we were at it, we cleaned up that weirdly precise ‘at least seven’ – we usually want specificity, but I don’t think it works here.)

* Nouns serve as anchors, grounding the writing – which sometimes is necessary, and sometimes is not.

* Interrogate the need for every adjective and adverb in your writing. As Ursula Le Guin says: ‘Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge … The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.’

* Even prepositions have their moments, e.g., at in ‘Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’.

* Dependent clauses create, um, dependence within a sentence, and sometimes it makes sense to connect clauses in a simpler manner that creates self-contained action, e.g., by breaking the sentence down into separate sentences, or by using the simple conjunction ‘and’ between recast clauses. So (with a few other tweaks for tartness and economy): ‘When he glanced quickly over the top of the freestanding plexiglass partition of his cubicle, he realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ could be improved as ‘He shot a glance over the partition. Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’. The edited version feels much less cluttered.

* It is usually good to let the idea or action within a sentence unfold chronologically.

* Think of the paragraph as a unit of thought or action.

We considered the use of parts of speech as we listened to the opening of Kent Haruf’s fantastic novel Our Souls At Night, whose plain style is beguiling. Here is a writer, I stressed, who gets out of his own way and lets a story simply tell itself.

Revision exercise: Take a piece of your own writing and reduce it to only those nouns it contains. Then the verbs. Then the adjectives, and then do the same for other parts of speech. (This reminds me of an article on reducing books to their marks of punctuation.) What does this tell you about the way in which words are working in your writing? Do you spot any words/habits that might need changing?

I also shared a couple of pages of the intense reading experience that is Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs To Me, (am very excited to see him read tomorrow). This book includes one section that is a 41-page paragraph – a stylistic choice that certainly pays off. As I also stressed: we don’t run marathons without lots of training! But it’s fun to try. And how about another writing experiment?

Revision exercise: Knock every paragraph break out of a piece of writing. How might what remains read differently? Does the new version suggest any changes? Then without referring back, add paragraph breaks back in.

I heartily recommended Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax to anyone who wants a refresher on grammar and usage. And here is a clear explanation of parts of speech from the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

I also link lots of useful things for writers on this page: Resources.

Reading recommendations I made yesterday included: Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Stephen King’s On Writing; Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey; and Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots. I also suggested that people writing in that area take a look at Emma Darwin’s Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction from the Teach Yourself series, which comes out this week (I’ve not read it yet, but if it’s by Emma it must be excellent). In addition I recommended the Writers’ Workshop own online self-editing course, run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

My fellow book doctor Shelley Harris also signed my copy of her book Vigilante – out this week in paperback.

Only sad note of the day: losing my lovely linen scarf on the way home 🙁 so in memory of that one of the great poems from one of the great poets: ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop.

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop for asking me. Their events are always the best – meeting old friends, and making new ones, all of us joined in our love of writing and books. Stories shared, secrets revealed, dreams inspired – and sometimes set on the road to success. I always come away thinking how writers and book folk are the most interesting people, and the best fun.

A great day all round. I really love my job!

When Does A Writer Need An Editor?


To round out this short series of posts on editing, I want to add something on the occasions when writers might think about forking out on the services of an editor for either developmental or structural editing, copyediting or line editing, or proofreading. I sometimes, for example, come across writers who are asking for copyediting, but after closer discussion that might seem premature, as any copyediting might be carried out on a draft that could still gain from revision. Copyediting is basically a tidy-up done to an otherwise final and agreed manuscript.

As I need to maintain the gardening analogy: when do you need the help of a landscaper, a tree surgeon, someone to mow the lawn? (In this instance, let’s say you’re too close to the grass to spot the daisies. Okay, bad analogy, but you know what I mean.)

* If you are preparing to submit a manuscript to an agent or a publisher with a view to getting published:
It should not be necessary at this stage to hire a copyeditor or a proofreader. If you know your spelling and punctuation are really dreadful, you might want to get a beady-eyed friend to pass an eye over the text to help your work look more professional. But an agent or editor is at this stage more likely to be looking for a compelling story told by an engaging voice, rather than prose that’s had every single error removed (along with most of its life). Lots of sloppy errors will, however, simply make you look … sloppy. But it’s hoped that you don’t need a professional copyedit to avoid looking sloppy.

Writers who are preparing to submit might gain more from a manuscript critique from, e.g., a book doctor or an editor. This could address matters of developmental and/or structural editing, depending on the stage you’re at in your drafting: be clear what you’re looking for. You might in fact already have this sort of input from beta readers, and feel confident enough to submit anyway – a critique is hardly a requirement. Having been read by another good reader in whatever form is a good idea, though. Sometimes even experienced and agented authors solicit the services of an independent opinion, e.g., for a fresh project that might be something of a departure.

Another alternative would be to attend a writers’ conference or similar event where writers can share a sample of writing or pitch a story idea with an agent, editor, or book doctor (as a book doctor, I meet writers in this capacity when I take part in the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York or their Getting Published Day in London). Only a snapshot of your writing might be read, along with a synopsis, but this can give a good indication of the strengths and weaknesses of a project, in the manner of a diagnosis of its strengths as well as areas for improvement. Plus feedback will be discussed with you directly, and little beats a face-to-face discussion, however brief it might be.

If you feel your style needs some serious help, maybe you are not quite ready to submit yet? Agents and editors can sometimes go for strong ideas and help you out editorially, especially with nonfiction, but help with your prose is something of a long shot and they’d have to be pretty committed to your concept in order to devote this much time to your writing. A freelance editor could help fix obvious mistakes and even tighten some of your baggy prose, but this does beg the question about the work writers need to be able to do for themselves. For me, style is vital to the way in which individual writers convey their personalities in writing, whatever genre they’re working in, and there are no quick or easy editorial fixes for that sort of thing.

So maybe there’s further work to be done in developing your own voice? And note that I don’t talk about finding your voice, as I don’t believe in that – you already have a voice, and it’s more a matter of using it confidently and working out how to put it into your creative writing. It might, for example, be worth taking some time to read widely in your genre (and others), figuring out how a particular style is achieved by another writer. You might also want to conduct a few experiments in voice and style, e.g., I Remember is a great exercise for this. And you could try your hand at some short stories (which of course have a value all of their own – a short story is not just trainer wheels for writing a novel). You might even want to do some broader studies in creative writing.

Also, though, matters such as style and voice are often quite subjective. You might just have to test your manuscript and wait for some reactions. At a certain point, you simply submit – try out your manuscript on the world. (Another post on that later.) You can always do further work, depending on any feedback you get.

* If you are preparing to deliver a contracted manuscript to your agent and/or editor:
Some contracted authors do have longstanding relationships with independent editors and might get a critique or some help with drafting or even a bit of a line edit. But on the whole editorial work is usually done in relationship with the publisher (and sometimes the agent too).

Any submitted project is likely to go through further editing and revising: maybe some developmental or structural editing with agent and/or commissioning editor, and definitely rounds of copyediting and proofreading with your publisher’s editorial department. Occasionally authors have preferred freelance copyeditors, and even though they have moved publishers they continue to work with the same copyeditor for all their books.

At the time of delivering your manuscript, it is worth asking how your book will be handled – keep channels of communication clear and open, and know what to expect and when. I always think it is a good idea for authors to see a copy of the copyedited manuscript before it is typeset (and I am surprised at how often this seems not to be the case).

Note: authors should not be charged for editorial (or other) work done by a publisher, unless you are working with a vanity press, which is basically self-publishing (see below).

Sometimes an author will be delivering a draft of a manuscript to an agent who hopes to sell it to a publisher. An agent should not require payment for reading a manuscript or other editorial work; an agent earns a living by taking a percentage cut from any deals made on the author’s behalf. Scams have been known; though in practice such dealings are rare, they can make writers unduly wary. In fact, agents do sometimes recommend the use of an independent editor for a critique or a fresh view or some other editorial input, and this can be sincere and helpful for the writer. As in all business relationships, this is a matter of trust.

It can be reassuring and informative for writers at this stage of their careers to join professional or genre organisations that can give advice on matters such as working with agents and editors. Sometimes a bit of networking or lurking on Twitter or other social media can be instructive (though I recommend that discussions about personal transactions are conducted privately rather than in more public forums). And you’ll also find many similar resources on writers’ blogs and websites.

* If you are self-publishing:
If you are self-publishing, do make sure you have at some point shared your writing with other readers before charging money to book-buyers or giving it away for free. Beta readers or professional editors see errors and incongruities that you miss in your own text. They will help you to improve your own work and avoid any embarrassment.

If you are publishing in print formats, certainly make sure your book is copyedited as well as proofread; typos and spelling errors make your book look amateur. Before that, you might also want to have done some sort of structural editing, or have taken the book through revisions after getting feedback from beta readers. It will undoubtedly be a good idea to make sure that at least the proofreading is done on hard copy. The human eye catches different things on a printed page.

If you are publishing in both print and ebook formats, you should also aim for a structural edit, a copyedit, and a proofread. In practice, the work for both editions can usually be combined.

If you are publishing in ebook format only, again aim for structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Though the work is being published in a digital format, it is still worth introducing a hard-copy read of a print-out for either the copyedit or the proofread. It might also be worth having a final proofread on files converted for reading in their ultimate format on an ebook reader or tablet.

When briefing an editor, be clear about whether you want a light or a heavier copyedit – you might discuss this with the editor and even ask to see a sample of editing (which might need to be paid for) to be sure that any work done is to your liking. You might also ask a proofreader to look out for specific things you might feel need double-checking, e.g., a change to a variant in spelling that you made after the copyedit was done.

Editing and proofreading are often offered by many of the self-publishing operations that also provide design, formatting, printing, and distribution services. It’s worth inquiring about who’ll actually do the work, and again asking for samples. In some ways, though, it can make sense to arrange your own copyediting and proofreading – it will give you more control over the outcome. It might be a little more expensive to use an experienced editor, but it can make a real difference to the work that’s done.

Whatever else you do (even more important than copyediting – and it pains me to say!): hire a good designer to create a striking cover image that will look good on screen as well as on a print copy (print copies need to be sold online too).

Of course, you don’t have to do any of the above. As I often stress, if you want to be published, you don’t have to write a good book as much as a book that other readers want to read, and we know there’s no accounting for taste, right?!

* Who to hire?
A personal recommendation is ideal – ask around, particularly of writers working in your field. It’s a good idea to know the editor’s track record: books they’ve edited or proofread, and publishers or writers they have worked for (sometimes discretion is required).

Rates vary significantly. I tend to quote on a job basis after seeing a sample of work, for example, while other editors set a page rate or an hourly rate. Don’t be afraid to say that you have a certain budget to work within. Don’t be surprised if an editor turns down a job, but too sometimes an editor can read opening chapters and a synopsis instead of a whole manuscript: this might help steer you in the right direction, whether this might be further work on your book, or some studies in creative writing.

I don’t give direct recommendations for editors on this site, though I do have various experienced associates whose services I can suggest, depending on the sort of book that needs help.

York Festival of Writing 2015


I returned last night from the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York, which as usual leaves me tired yet simultaneously full of inspiration and energy. So many books, so many writers, so much gossip, so many friends old and new, so many dog-lovers sharing pics of their hounds on their iPhones. So much passion, so much love.

Agents, editors, and book doctors noted not only an improvement in the quality of the writing that we were reading, but also what seemed to be a shift in expectation. Events such as York can hold out to writers the prospect of snagging a book deal (agents, publishers), but we all know that much depends on taste and luck, and we also know that in many ways writing is often not quite ready yet (those snotty book doctors).

This year it seemed notable that many of the writers (probably all of the ones I spoke to) possessed realistic self-knowledge in greater abundance than unrealistic ambition. We might have a good central idea, and maybe a strong opening chapter, and perhaps a whole first draft complete, but there is still room for the work to grow: aspects of craft to refine the telling of a story, ways to strengthen the voice or build the emotional core of the work. Writers seemed more immediately interested in improving their writing than in getting published, though of course that remains a long-term goal.

It was also noticeable that this patient approach *does* lead to results. People who’ve been working on their writing for some years are now getting manuscripts called in by agents and editors, and acquired for publication. You know who you are!

Many of the delegate writers were already agented or published (both publisher-published and self-published), but came along to York as they feel they still have things to learn: about the craft, about the business of publishing. An event such as York, along with some self-study and writing classes, can be an effective – and more affordable – way to build your own writing programme (see my earlier post on Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing for further ideas on this).

And all of us surely have things to learn every day – I gained so many insights and inspirations this weekend too.

I always leave York feeling there is so much left unsaid – things I could have added to our discussion of readings, for example – but these workshops are more than anything points of departure, offering ideas to take away and experiment with in our writing.

Here, however, are a few links and notes for following up or revisiting:

Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity
Someone who came along tweeted that he might not have done so had he known that he’d be doing a guided meditation! Haha, that’s why I keep that bit (and the tarot cards) quiet. But apparently it helped him unlock the right mindset for the rest of the weekend (thanks for oversharing – something I’m good at, and a quality I commend in others: please make sure I’m there in the audience).

We talked about the left brain and the right brain as we explored ways to expand our process of writing beyond simply thinking about it: clearing our minds (that meditation exercise), getting fired up, creating emotional connections, introducing the full range of sensory experiences into our work, then bringing clarity back into our writing through a powerful central idea. We had some fruitful discussions along the way.

Here is the video of the amazing Lynda Barry describing how creativity gets stunted by self-consciousness, and here is the audio recording of Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’.

A couple of further things. First, I hope I did not seem rude about NaNoWriMo, but I really would love to see writers apply themselves in equal measure to aspects of craft such as voice and narration as they do to composing a stream of 50,000 words. It’s often important to carry out such work away from your master (or mistress) project, so that you can develop these skills on the side then return to your book equipped as a stronger writer. (I post many writing exercises here.)

A good editor/teacher also, when the writer seems ready, needs to be a bit of a bully. Perhaps about things such as writers not apologising for the genre they’re working in: be authentic, and own your genre. Sometimes writers also need prodding into doing things that they say they can’t do. Gentle bullying does not hurt. As Miss Rosenberg said to us in primary school, ‘There’s no such word as can’t in my vocabulary.’

(And is it just me, or are many British writers just a bit uptight about some things?! I use the word uptight in a gentle way too … I say that as a Briton myself, albeit one from the Midlands, where I suspect people are often too laid back to be uptight. That is a good birthright to enjoy.)

Trusting Your Voice
Find your voice: that was the first myth to bust this weekend. Instead, trust the voice you have already, and ‘Tell it fast, honey, tell it fast’ (Bobbie Louise Hawkins). Write with ‘density and speed’ (Donna Tartt). We looked briefly at samples of writing (academic, business, sales) that have other purposes (investigating, analysing, selling), and discussed the purposes of creative writing (telling a story, establishing mood).

I used an audio selection from Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina. I backed this up with a hearty recommendation to read Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family, and played a selection from this excellent recording from his publisher, in which he describes how he created the novel: he didn’t start with a plot, but writing in the different voices of his characters led him to the story he needed to tell. (If I had had my wits about me, I could have related this to the way in which Stephen King in On Writing compares the writing of fiction to the hunting of fossils: we don’t always know exactly what’s there yet, but have to dig it out.)

Reading aloud is both fun and instructive, and we read aloud Joe Brainard’s I Remember to show how we can trust our natural speaking voices as the foundations for our writing (something I’ve blogged about here, and maybe I’ll post my version for 2015 later this week: some really choice memories, eh?!). I also recommended listening to audiobooks, perhaps of favourite books: experience some of your influences via a different sensory mode.

Here is more on voice from an earlier workshop, where we looked at some different examples.

After the workshop, someone asked me about practical ways to adapt the natural speaking voice, e.g., for other characters. In discussion that person (whose name I never caught) said maybe it was like having a particular type of substrata in geology: many different types of plants can grow upon chalky soil. A good analogy. I don’t think your speaking voice has to be the only voice in your writing, but it can be a strong foundation at the start. Get fancy later.

Someone also directed me to this *excellent* interview with Annabel Pitcher that was recommended in another workshop: ‘Me, Myself and I: The Secrets Of Writing In First Person’. Really useful tips on how to make tweaks and shifts to your natural voice.

Showing & Telling & Storytelling
A second exercise in myth busting: let’s tell, don’t show.

I don’t wish to downplay the importance of showing, in the right measure (which might be 99% of a piece of writing), but in this workshop I make a strong case for the special telling that comes from having a strong narrator at the heart of your book: the storyteller. It might only be a sentence or two of narrating at the right point within the story, but it can arrest and guide the reader in a very efficient way.

I used examples from the openings of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ and Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to illustrate both showing and telling. And examples of info dumps can be found in this clip from Acorn Antiques (try around 0:55-1:36). My blog post Tell Me A Story also looks at some of these ideas.

Book Doctoring
Lovely people in the 1-to-1s, and some of the same things coming up:

* Voice
* Tightening of syntax (is every verb needed in a sentence?)
* More mood, please!
* Pacing
* Are you absolutely sure this needs to be present tense? Past often gives the writer great freedom
* Not everything needs explaining: gaps and edges are often what make writing interesting
* Voice, voice
* What is revealed when (among characters; to readers) for best effect?
* Psychic distance (discussed over at Emma Darwin’s blog)
* Motivate your characters
* What are the dramatic stakes?
* A novel is not a movie (a point driven home in Hal Duncan’s workshop on point of view, which had an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of different POVs – thanks, Hal!)
* Might there need to be a trade-off in the writing in order to make what’s really important work?
* Voice, voice, voice

And in case feedback left you feeling a bit frazzled, here’s a post from last year:

* Working With Feedback On Your Writing

Books I recommended included:

* Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax
* Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft (finally back in print in a new edition, as of last week)
* Stephen King, On Writing
* Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
* Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey;
* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots
* Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, How Not To Write A Novel
Turkey City Lexicon from the SFWA
* the Self-Editing course taught by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin for the Writers’ Workshop

And finally
* A very thoughtful writeup of the weekend: ‘Nine Lessons In Writing From The FoW15 Conference by Jo Hogan (to whom I give thanks for mentioning the Annabel Pitcher interview above)

* York reports from Emma Darwin and Debi Alper

* And some clips from Naropa University, which I mentioned a few times (I studied and taught there, and it changed my life)

Thanks to the good people of the Writers’ Workshop for asking me along, and to everyone I met there who made it such a pleasure. York really is a highlight of my year.

See you next time, I hope!

Definitions of Editing: Proofreading


This post continues a short series defining basic terms about editing and editorial processes with a look at proofreading. Following copyediting (which in turn comes after structural editing), proofreading is the last check for quality control: checking for any remaining errors, as well as looking over the designed page as it will finally appear.

To return to the gardening analogy I used in the earlier posts, proofreading is like a final clean-up before the garden party: weeding, raking the gravel, deadheading, sweeping up.

Once the editor has a master copy (often called a fair copy) of the copyedited manuscript, it is ready for typesetting. An in-house production department usually liaises with the typesetter, though editors in smaller presses often work directly with typesetters. Sometimes editors do the typesetting themselves. Typesetting software such as InDesign has made all of this easier. All the same, I do think the expertise of a good typesetter cannot be beaten. (I speak from experience: InDesign is marvellous, but has a steep learning curve, and I’ve only really learned some of its most basic functions.)

In the olden days, of course, the typesetter had to rekey every word in a script. Nowadays, the typesetter will usually uses the final corrected text in digital format (which incorporates both copyedits and author’s changes, often already typed in by the copyeditor or desk editor), or otherwise will take the author’s unedited digital text along with the final copyedited hard copy and incorporate editorial changes themselves as part of typesetting. Typesetters are probably better equipped to carry out such corrections, for they are trained keyboard operators, and editors are not (editors are also incredibly neurotic about messing things up, and sometimes they are technophobes, and …).

In addition to processing corrections to the book, the typesetter works on its internal design. The design might be briefed, firmly or loosely, to a particular style by an editor, production manager, or designer, but the typesetter often takes charge of various design decisions, e.g., about typeface and page layout as well as other aspects of tidying up and organising the text, e.g., sorting out dashes and hyphens, indenting extracted text in the same style, and inserting artwork in the right places. For many illustrated books, design is a defining aspect of production that takes place alongside copyediting; many copyeditors in this field handle the design too.

Once upon a time typesetting was a mechanical procedure, but nowadays technology has automated various processes for inserting features such as the page numbers or the running heads (the headings on the top of every page, which are usually some combination of page numbers, author name and book title). Body text is usually run into a standard template.

Proofreading: The Basics
One of the primary purposes of proofreading is removing glaring mistakes that remain in the text: errors of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, inconsistencies of form, slips in continuity.

The proofreader looks not only for errors that slipped through the copy-edit, but seeks out any mistakes that might have been introduced at earlier stages too. For example, the introduction to a Penguin edition of War and Peace tells us that:

in her nightly copying of her husband’s output during the day the Countess misread words, mistook word order, even missed out whole phrases occurring between two identical words. Printers and proof readers succeeded no better, and the first (1868–9) Russian publication of War and Peace contained 1,885 errors which automatically reappeared in all subsequent editions during the following ninety-four years.

(Guess it serves Count Tolstoy right for not copying out his own words of genius, doesn’t it?!)

Other corrections deal with the display of the book. Some matters are routine, e.g., checking that headings and page numbers are correct (rarely a problem nowadays), inserting the final page numbers on to a contents list, and guaranteeing that facing pages have the same number of lines. Other matters require a modest but careful degree of judgement, e.g., a book on counselling for abuse survivors might try to avoid the unfortunate word break in the word therapist that would place the- on the end of one line and rapist on the start of the next. The overall appearance should also be checked, e.g., headings should not land at the bottom of a page, and any artwork needs to fall in the correct spot in the text and sit beside the right caption. Overly gappy or tight setting within body text can also be noted; in many cases the typesetter can rerun the text to make the word spacing more even.

If artwork is used, it will also need checking. For example, photos should be checked to see whether they have been wrongly inverted or flipped during design, or to ensure that any cropping has been done successfully.

Proofreading: Practical Matters
Proofreaders are usually freelancers who’re assigned jobs by in-house editors. The author is sent a set of proofs too, and this will be the last chance to make any changes. (This is not the time to rewrite the book, though! Any changes should be limited to corrections. Any final amendments to the text should really be made at the copyediting stage.)

Proofs are usually read as printed-out facsimiles of double-page spreads from inside the book. Proof pages (unlike manuscript pages) look like the very pages that will be read by readers, at least in print format.

Proofreaders are tasked on either reading against copy, cross-checking that none of the original text is missing or wrongly transcribed, or reading blind (without reference to the original text) for sense and any outstanding errors. If a manuscript was heavily copyedited, it is a good idea to have two proofreads, as there is a greater chance that errors will need removing.

Corrections are made in ink on the page proofs. The convention is to mark printer’s errors (made by the typesetter) in red ink and editorial corrections in blue, using proofreader’s marks (this goes back to the days when the cost of print corrections needed to be allocated to either printer/typesetter or publisher/author). Slightly different sets of marks are used  in the UK and in the US.

A proofreader’s squiggles and crosses might look like an alien alphabet to a newcomer, but they are soon grasped. I first learned them through checking over the work of other proofreaders when I was collating proofs, and when I started to proofread myself I simply referred to a chart of symbols as I needed. If in doubt, it is easy enough simply to cross out the word in the text and write the correction in the margin.

Extensive proof changes can be expensive and complicated. They might need checking by the author, which adds further time and work to proceedings, and they can lead to extra work for the typesetter, which has to be paid for. And every change introduces the possibility for yet another error to be introduced into the text.

But sometimes a proofreader cannot resist suggesting further stylistic changes to smooth out clunky phrasing or perk up stilted language, or to avoid confusions in ambiguous usage. An in-house editor might in fact brief a proofreader to look for such refinements to the text, particularly if a copyedit was demanding and there are concerns that there may still be room for improvement. Such alterations are not necessarily essential, so they might be flagged in pencil. Changes that would affect pagination should be avoided.

Collating And Revises
Any final judgement calls about changes in the proofs will be made during collating, when the author’s set of corrections are integrated into the master set, along with changes from a blind read, if an additional proofread was done. Collating is usually carried out in-house by an editor, though sometimes a proofreader will be sent the author’s set for adding any changes.

Collated proofs are returned to the typesetter, and even if they are lightly corrected a set of revised proofs or revises will be produced. These will be returned to the in-house editor for a final check that corrections from the first round of proofreading have been incorporated accurately. If paragraphs needed rerunning, an editor might also need to check ‘page creep’ to be sure that word spacing remains even and any new word breaks are acceptable. This is the last chance to eyeball the text for any outstanding mistakes before it is signed off as ready for printing, so it can be good to give the whole text one final scan.

The work of collating and checking revises is done with hard copies and any changes are transferred to the digital text by the typesetter, though in some contexts editors have access to the electronic files and make these changes themselves. I do think, however, that inputting corrections is best retained as a distinct stage in the workflow, rather than done while collating; spotting errors and keying in text are separate tasks that require slightly different types of concentration.

Proofreading Digital Formats
Print books are of course proofread as they will finally be read by readers; print publishing uses static text, with a publisher controlling exactly how the final text will look.

Ebooks are a different matter, using dynamic text, i.e., a reader can alter the typeface and typesize with a tap of the screen, so matters such as page layout and word breaks are not so much of a concern.

But other issues can arise in the reading of epub files. For example, automatic and manual indents for new paragraphs in word-processing software look the same on a printed page, but they use different types of underlying coding and it is not unknown for formatting of either type to be lost when the text is translated into its final format. Paragraph returns sometimes use different types of coding too.

I once read (for pleasure) a whole fantasy series in ebook form where indents and paragraphing were messed up, which was confusing in stretches of dialogue: was one speaker continuing, or were these the words of a new speaker? It seemed this text had not been proofread in a digital format.

Mistakes have been made, and lessons have been learned, and best practices are establishing themselves. Nowadays, publishers seem to proofread for print formats, and ensure that corrected files can be used to be produce the ebook too. On the whole this seems to be working.

The technology remains new, and it’s possible that digital formats will change again. The Kindle, for example, is a practical device, but it’s not going to win any awards for elegant typographic display. The iPad is a more attractive reading device, but its glassy screen makes it unsuitable for reading outdoors or under bright lights.

And digital technologies create a whole world of new opportunities for designing and enhancing text. There may come a time when publishers will be able to control the look of digital books more firmly, and when authors will write books that use their potential more purposefully.

For now, though, even if a text is only being published in ebook format I still think it is a good idea (and even essential) for text to be proofread as hard copy. The eye always catches things on a printed page that will be missed on screen, and it is valuable to introduce this subtle shift in perception into the process of reading for errors.

Of course, typos do slip through. Nothing is more terrifying to the good editor or proofreader than a review that says a book was ‘poorly edited’. The reviewer perhaps doesn’t know, however, how much rewriting was done, or how the original text was heavily edited.

And you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Editors and proofreaders are there to help, and a good editor, like a good doctor, will do no harm, but even the best will sometimes miss an error or two.

Which is why it always makes sense to introduce fresh pairs of eyes during every stage of production. If a commissioning editor briefs a desk editor that a writer’s punctuation needs attention, the desk editor will make sure that freelance copyeditors and proofreaders take special care to look for stray commas and run-on sentences. And different editors can look at different things at different stages: the bigger picture during structural editing, style and voice during copyediting, correcting obvious errors during proofreading.

But: be practical. If you are a writer, and you encounter errors in your own book, send a list to your publisher. Mistakes can be corrected in the next printing, and probably more easily for ebooks. It can in fact be a good idea to keep a file copy of the most recent printing that can be marked up with corrections as they are spotted by yourself or other readers.

And yes, it’s good to get your work proofread in professional contexts. You might even proof a manuscript of your own before sharing with beta readers; it can be helpful to introduce that process of cleaning up the text at different stages along the way.

On the whole, I don’t get my blog posts proofread; surely the more casual style of blogging can be forgiving of a typo or two, and besides I can simply go to WordPress and correct anything that’s wrong later on (ah, the instantly corrected beauty of the blog!). But I did get someone to proof these longer blog posts on editing for me; typos would be an irony not worth bearing.

If you are really neurotic about leaving typos (as I am about pressing Publish for this blog post!), it can be good to leave a day or two before proofing the final text, so that you have at least a little distance in your reading. You might also want to read the text aloud, as printers used to; a printer’s setter used to read a copy of the text to a partner, who’d correct any errors; sometimes the setter would even read the text backwards so that every word and punctuation mark could be scrutinised out of its natural context.

That being said: I occasionally hear agents and publishers tell (scold) writers to proofread their cover letters and submissions, and sometimes I even hear them say that the instant they encounter a typo they instantly reject the project. I imagine they’re being a bit hysterical. Of course, we all want to be spotlessly professional in how we present ourselves, and errors can create a sloppy impression. But writers tinker with words, and typos do slip in.

A letterpress printer once said at a Naropa summer school: typos make us human. I guess this is one context where we don’t want to be too human. But typos can at least be easily fixed; clotted syntax and leaden prose and boring characters cannot. Fretting over editing and proofreading could in fact cramp your style. A good agent or editor will (should) be forgiving of a typo if a voice is telling a story and your characters are grabbing our attention.

Concern yourself with telling your story, and don’t worry too much about typos. Proofreaders need jobs, after all.

Definitions of Editing: Copyediting


This post continues this short series about different types of editing with a look at copyediting.

Copyediting takes place after structural editing and rewriting have finished and the commissioning editor has taken delivery of the author’s final draft. To return to the gardening analogy, copyediting is like garden maintenance: pruning, mowing the lawn, tidying up the flowerbeds. Maybe a shrub can be moved to a sunnier spot, but reorganisation usually isn’t too extensive. Copyediting is a form of spadework, turning over every word to be sure it’s fresh and alive – though of course, in practical terms, sometimes all that’s needed is a trowel and a hand fork, rather than a bulldozer.

The work involves a wide variety of tasks, depending on the needs of the book, and whether a light edit or a heavy edit is expected; the commissioning editor should give a clear brief to the copyeditor.

The Basic Tasks: Correcting And Standardising
A light edit will fix only obvious errors, and be little more than a proofread of the writing (see future post on proofreading); you sometimes see the terms mechanical editing and technical editing used to describe these sorts of tasks too.

Mistakes will be corrected. Some will be mechanical or technological errors – careless things that slip through our drafting: typos, missing words. Slips of the keyboard and word-processing mistakes arise because composition usually takes place on screen and we are continuously tinkering with our sentences and introducing errors in the process (you might spot a few here): incorrect verb agreements; the Cut & Paste that cuts too little or pastes over one word too many; an earlier Search & Replace of ‘-ise’ endings that has resulted in ‘advertize’ and ‘televize’. Many of us even write or revise on the hoof nowadays, editing documents kept in the Cloud, and we know how the autocorrect has a life all of its own … (Yes, I really did intend to say its there, Apple, not it’s. And I did not mean duck off.)

Other outright errors might need fixing in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, though such matters are rarely straightforward. As Steven Pinker has pointed out, many of the rules of grammar are open to interpretation. I prefer the idea of usage to grammar, and aim to follow a writer’s preferences. Though I do have a few bugbears: after I saw the light on the difference between that and which, there was no going back. But even so, there is no point in changing whiches to thats if it’s not really necessary.

The idea of consistency is perhaps an easier rule to follow. Certain forms will be standardised: hyphens, capitals, abbreviations, the use of italics, the treatment of numbers and dates, variations in spelling. Copyeditor, copy-editor, or copy editor? Even the experts can’t agree: all are right, and none are wrong (or should that be none is wrong … ?!). But on the whole we should choose one standard and avoid mixing forms within a document. Consistency is perhaps a golden rule in copyediting.

Publishers’ guidelines often make decision-making easier, with a house style imposed upon the text for these and other matters, e.g., Oxford commas, -ise/-ize endings, single/double quotation marks. In practice, house style is often loosely employed, though again internal consistency is usually expected.

Either British or US conventions in both spelling and punctuation will be followed more strictly. If a US author is being published in the UK, US style will be followed – and in practice US manuscripts are not likely to be copyedited in the UK anyway, as a UK publisher will simply take the copyedited, typeset and proofread text from the US. But for some reason – age of empire? – you sometimes see American publishers changing UK spellings and terms. I never forget finding Wite-Out in the American edition of a bestselling, prizewinning British author’s coming-of-age novel set in the Midlands; we use Tipp-Ex in the UK. Don’t American publishers trust their readers to have imaginations and contextual reasoning?

Beyond matters of form, copyediting also addresses aspects of content. Continuity errors, ambiguities, anachronisms, points of confusion, and biased expressions might be flagged. Sometimes these can be easily fixed, but sometimes they need to be queried with the author.

The copyeditor might do some fact-checking or at least flag points that might need confirming. The New Yorker famously has a whole department of fact-checkers, but verifying every nugget of information in a manuscript could take an impractically long time. On the whole, book publishers rely on their authors to be authorities in their fields, and there is only so much that a copyeditor can be expected to know. That being said, it’s not unusual for copyeditors to have their own niches (gardening; crime fiction), and if necessary publishers will send a manuscript out to specialist readers, just as writers might include experts among their beta readers (e.g., a medieval historian for that novel set during the Crusades).

Copyeditors might flag any permissions that need clearing, and also note possible legal problems (e.g., libel, plagiarism), but it’s not really their responsibility to find solutions to such matters, and any concerns should be addressed with a legal read by a lawyer, which is in fact often a condition of a publisher’s insurance protection. In practice, legal matters are rarely an issue, and they tend to be more important for works of nonfiction, but fiction is not exempt from the eye of the law; that disclaimer about all characters and events being fictitious and resemblances to persons living or dead being coincidental counts for little if someone can prove damages. Publishers and authors want to avoid the cost and inconvenience of lawsuits or settlements, but, as in many matters of the law, much is a matter of interpretation and risk.

In addition to such basic matters of handling content, a copyeditor is usually tasked on marking up the text for the designed page, e.g., organising and indicating levels of headings, indenting extracted text, flagging positions for inserting illustrations. Other aspects of cleaning up the text include, for example, making sure that chapter headings in the text match those on the contents page. Editing front and back matter could be a job in its own right for works of nonfiction that have detailed notes, bibliographies, and appendices.

Sometimes copyeditors working on screen are also asked to format text in some way, e.g., coding headings or styling them as bold, and making sure there is only one character space after the full stop at the end of a sentence. But in many ways this sort of technical work is best performed by a typesetter. Copyeditors are not always trained keyboard operators, and a typesetter can be faster and more accurate.

Going Further: Improving And Refining
Anything more than the minimum requirements of copyediting requires a degree of editorial judgement that goes beyond simply correcting mistakes. I often use the term line editing for this sort of work, as it reflects the fact that the editor goes over the writing line by line, not only checking the words but assessing how they fit into sentences and paragraphs and analysing how they can be improved. Other specific terms introduce nuances to the sort of editing that is required; substantive editing, sub-editing, content editing, stylistic editing, creative editing, micro editing, and language editing. They all amount to much the same thing.

Clunky syntax, repetitions, non sequiturs, irrelevancies, digressions, fluffy clauses, excessive detail, weighty explanations, distracting miscues, clichés: various stylistic infelicities are subjective matters, but a good copyeditor can trim, tweak, and recast sentences to improve on them.

Editorial changes can, if desired, go even further in the refinement of prose style. The passive voice can be made active. Emphasis can be created through rhythm and echo. Verb use can be tightened, and excessive adjectives or adverbs can be pruned. Long and unwieldy sentences heavy with subordinate clauses can be broken down into shorter, clearer sentences, or maybe lots of choppy, short sentences can be smoothed together into a longer, sinewy one. Word choices can be made more concrete and specific. And it’s not always about the words; even subtle things such as commas and paragraph breaks can make a difference to voice and pace.

And edits can go beyond syntax, too. Whole paragraphs of description might be cut to leave that line of dialogue that now conjures up a character more forcefully. Lengthy sequences of interior monologue can be focused into that strong central image that would otherwise be lost. Suggestions for clarification or expansion can be made.

Such smoothing of form and content, word by word, can not only enhance the coherence of writing, but also create mood and introduce energy. An author once thanked me for ‘tightening and brightening’ her text. I think tightening and brightening are excellent ways to think about this sort of editing.

Ideally, as edits get heavier, word choices are derived from the original text, even if, for example, nouns are recast as verbs. But sometimes more substantial rewriting does happen. It depends on what is expected, and goes back to the editor’s brief. ‘Good copy-editing is invisible: it aims to present the book the author would have written if he or she had had more time or experience – not, as some new copy-editors think, their own improved version,’ says Judith Butcher, author of the standard UK manual Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press enjoying the hyphen in that instance).

Deeper and more extensive editing for voice and style that extends into rewriting does, in fact, beg the question of how a commissioned manuscript is suitable for publication in the first place. A heavy edit or rewrite might be desired for various nonfiction writers who are not professional writers but have credentials in other areas (yoga teachers, business leaders), or perhaps they’re academics whose style is rather dense for a trade book and needs some untangling or lightening. Translations often need some assistance on their way into English. Sometimes it’s the content of a novel – the concept, the storytelling, the characters – that was compelling to a commissioning editor, and the pace and voice can be improved through copyediting.

At a certain point, of course, rewriting is so extensive that it is basically ghostwriting, which creates a whole other set of conditions for the creation of a book. Usually the ghostwriter or cowriter has a particular agreement with the author; sometimes the ghost is an experienced journalist, with skills in interviewing and drawing material out of a subject. And then the manuscript gets shaped and typed up – and this too will need copyediting and often structural editing too. In my experience some ghostwriters – like many journalists – need quite a lot of editing, perhaps reflecting the fact that they are used to having their copy rewritten by sub-editors.

How Copyediting Is Carried Out
Once upon a time, publishers employed full-time in-house copyeditors, but the work is now usually done by freelancers who can devote time to projects with fewer interruptions; this can be painstaking work, and it might take at least twenty or thirty hours (or more) to lightly copyedit even a short 200-page book.

In-house editors are more likely to manage other desk-based work involved in editorial production; different publishers use different job titles and job descriptions, but you might encounter a managing editor, a desk editor, or a production editor, and thus the terms editorial managementdesk editing, and production editing. What they do is basically project management. They line up suitable freelance copyeditors or proofreaders. They integrate an author’s responses to an edit into the final manuscript. They collate proofs, write cover copy, brief designers and illustrators, and carry out numerous detailed functions that ensure the best book is produced on time. Sometimes they work on structural edits, or even find time to copyedit. They’ll also deal with all sorts of other editorial and administrative activities: preparing costings, checking contracts, chasing royalty statements, reading submissions, liaising with marketing and publicity managers, and generally acting as an in-house sponsor and support for the author. Depending on the size and organisation of the publisher, certain editorial activities might be carried out by a commissioning editor, a desk editor, or an editorial assistant.

Manuscript editing is another term you come across, though it seems to be a loose definition. Sometimes it describes the work of a manuscript review or critique, which amounts to a structural overview. But I’ve also seen this used to describe all the work of handling a manuscript. I guess it’s useful to be clear about what is meant by people you’re working with.

Traditionally, copyediting was done on a hard copy of a manuscript; when I first started out in publishing, many books were still typed, and even those that were word-processed were printed out for editing and eventually rekeyed by the typesetter. Edits were made in pencil, in case anything needed erasing. Queries were noted on Post-its, or even written on slips of paper that were pinned (yes, with pins) to the manuscript (I guess pins were more secure than paperclips). A typed list of queries could be more practical though, especially if a manuscript was to be photocopied for showing to the author.

Eventually, technology caught up, and publishers were able to take authors’ text in electronic format, but careful protocols are needed for incorporating editorial changes to the text. Nowadays, Tracked Changes and Comments functions are frequently used for editing and querying on screen, though these are not always easy to handle; it can be wrist-numbing to go through a document Accepting or Rejecting changes one by one, and versions of documents sometimes get confused … To my mind, nothing really beats copyediting a master copy in hard format. Not least, I am sure the eye catches things on hard copy that it misses scrolling down a screen.

A copyeditor will also produce a style sheet, which confirms variants in usage that have been followed, e.g., that copyeditor is one word, that the king takes a lower-case k, and that words rather than figures are used for numbers up to one hundred. Preferred spellings will be listed too, e.g., judgement (rather than judgment), leaped (rather than leapt).

It is important for an author to see the copyedited manuscript, though I am surprised how often this seems not to happen. An author usually needs to answer a copyeditor’s queries, e.g., simple checks about the intention of ambiguous wording, or notes about inconsistencies that need resolving with fresh copy. But an author also needs to see that all of the copyeditor’s changes are acceptable. It is the author’s name on the cover, after all.

Subsequently all of the author’s responses will be incorporated into the manuscript (by either the freelance copyeditor or an in-house editor). This can involve follow-up for clarifications. After that, a master copy of the manuscript will be ready for typesetting, and then proofs will be proofread ( more on that in a future post).

Do Writers Need To Get Their Own Work Copyedited?
On the whole, the answer is No if you’re submitting to an agent or publisher, but Yes if you are self-publishing. If you are being published, your publisher should take care of this. I’ll address these matters in more detail in another post.