Tagged: editing

Should You Take The Job?

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Today I led a session called Should You Take The Job? at a professional development day on Editing For Fiction organised by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders here in London.

Freelancers usually know where their strengths lie, and what their skills and preferences are, so they can make sure any job is a good fit – most of us are suited to some editorial tasks more than others. At the start, I described those main tasks in editing fiction as:

  • developmental editing
  • structural editing
  • line editing
  • copyediting
  • proofreading

In practice, of course, various of these functions are merged as editorial stages – line editing can often be done with copyediting, for example. (I’ve blogged about this and various other matters in more detail in another post: Definitions in Editing: Key Terms.)

When working with less experienced writers or self-publishers, it can help to explain these terms to clarify what you can do, and what the book might need. And a clear brief can help when working for a publisher too. I am sure every freelance editor can think of a ‘light edit’ that needed more work than was bargained for.

I emphasised the principle of transparency in communication. Email can be useful, particularly for straightforward copyedits, but when working on developmental edits I often find that meeting clients or speaking to them on the phone or Skype at some point really helps us to clarify the intention and expectation of the writer (and/or publisher).

It’s possible for any editorial job to go on and on, of course – there is always room for improvement or experiment. We have to keep check on how we spend our time – and our clients’ money. So we often need to be clear about a budget too. Maybe the principle of transparency needs to be joined with the principle of sufficiency: what is enough to make the book work? (The idea of sufficiency is something I sometimes raise in another context, when working on a manuscript that can feel overwritten.)

Someone asked a good question about working with self-publishing clients who have a limited budget: thinking realistically, should they (we) focus on structural editing, or copyediting? On reflection, it occurs to me now that the above list of editorial functions moves from the idea of improving the writing (let’s say: making it more interesting) through to the idea of correcting the writing (making sure it abides by conventions of practice and usage). And though we all probably like the idea of making a book more interesting, I’m inclined to think an editor’s first duty is to make sure there are no howlers of spelling and grammar and punctuation. Deciding upon the merits of a book can be subjective; some books that I feel are overwritten are certainly enjoyed by other readers. But typos are typos, and are often read as the sign of a sloppy mind: they should be fixed. So perhaps this too is something to ask the author (tactfully!) – are you more interested in being improved, or in being corrected? (A good question, perhaps, to ask of the many imitators of Fifty Shades of Grey, hahaha.)

I do think it’s more important to prioritise structural editing on other occasions, e.g., when unpublished writers ask to get their manuscripts copyedited to increase their chances of getting taken on by an agent or publisher. Any book that is acquired should be copyedited by its publisher, so I often stress to such writers that copyediting might seem premature, and that an editorial report might be more valuable. This might cover matters of developmental or structural editing, and perhaps use a few examples of edits on the text to model ways to strengthen the voice in writing too, assuming that style as well as structure can be improved through future drafts (and that the writer is actually interested in doing future drafts). The occasional slip of the keyboard can be easily fixed, after all, and will surely not discourage a good agent or editor as much as a manuscript that lacks suspense or engaging characters or lively prose.

I discuss some of this in more detail here: When Does A Writer Need An Editor?

I also suggested that editors might gain from studying creative writing, either taking a course, or simply reading useful books in the field. Many of us became editors instinctively, learning from collating proofs and proofreading before diving into manuscripts ourselves, fixing clunky sentences or awkward transitions simply because they, um, sound clunky or awkward. But sometimes we need ways to describe matters more coherently, and we can also gain from a little guidance in what to look for. I don’t think I used the word ‘transition’ about writing until I was myself later studying for my MFA, for example, and it’s such an efficient way to describe features in writing that commonly present editorial flaws.

I have a post on creating your own programme of studies in creative writing here: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing, and I am also teaching an afternoon-long workshop on this topic at this year’s Festival of Writing in York. I recommend various resources on this site, and particularly recommend the following books on creative writing for editors:

  • Alice LaPlante, The Making Of A Story
  • Stephen King, On Writing
  • Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer
  • Constance Hale, Sin And Syntax (fantastic for grammar and usage)
  • Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots
  • Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, How Not To Write A Novel
  • Susan Bell, The Artful Edit
  • Ursula Le Guin, Steering The Craft
  • Harry Bingham, How To Write
  • Steven Pinker, The Sense Of Style
  • and good books on genre can be invaluable (and not just for specific genres, but for their practical grounding in craft as well as commerce), e.g., Emma Darwin’s Get Started In Writing Historical Fiction

And though I am sure all editors will have a copy of Judith Butcher’s Copy-editing on the bookshelves beside their desks, I also recommend the following American works on editing for their practical advice and detailed examples:

  • Carol Fisher Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor
  • Scott Norton, Developmental Editing (mostly nonfiction, but super insights on working with writers)
  • Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook
  • Mary Norris, Between You And Me: Confessions Of A Comma Queen

Copy-editing, copy editor, copyeditor: we can’t even agree among ourselves, can we?!

Thank you to Jane Moody and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders for asking me along.

When Does A Writer Need An Editor?

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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). 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.

Definitions of Editing: Proofreading

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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.

Typesetting
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.

Errata
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: Structural Editing

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It’s useful for any writer to understand different editorial terms. They can bring clarity to what your writing needs or is ready for at any stage of creating a book.

The definitions of editing I describe in this series of posts are not hard and fast descriptions. Not all of the tasks they explain are necessary to every book that’s written, and sometimes these processes are merged or in some way going on simultaneously. These terms can be used interchangeably, or in different ways by different editors or in different fields or territories. If in doubt, ask for clarification.

I tend to see editorial production as three broad stages: structural editing; copyediting; and proofreading. In this post I’m looking at structural editing, which, using my gardening analogy, is like redesigning and landscaping your garden.

Structural editing refers to the editorial work that deals with aspects of the bigger picture of a manuscript, addressing matters of content, organisation, and pacing. Does it take too long to get to the essence of the story, in which case should we cut all the background in the first two chapters and open with that scene from the middle of Chapter Three? Do key revelations in the plot create the most effective narrative tension: might they need staggering throughout rather than being loaded into a big reveal at the end? Is the conclusion sufficiently rewarding, or is it too rushed, or overly protracted? Are characters’ motivations clear? Are settings distinct enough? Could some slow-moving sections be tightened or cut, and might other scenes warrant expansion?

Structural editing often also takes account of the telling of the story. Is the voice persuasive? Does the point of view do justice to the outcome, or could it be deployed in a way that commands greater dramatic tension? Is present tense really serving this story well? Might extended sequences of dialogue be more effectively summarised in reported speech?

Sometimes structural editing is done by professional editors, who’ll actually carry out the work of cutting and pasting and even rewriting the text, knowing that it can be shown to the author for approval and for dealing with any queries. Sometimes (often, for many freelancers …) structural editing is combined with line editing and copyediting, particularly when the publisher is in a rush (often, for many freelancers …).

(And long gone seem those days of publishers’ ‘rush rates’, it seems, in which case maybe freelancers should set the rates themselves.)

Structural editing is the term you tend to hear describing the primary stages of editing in a publishing house, and this work usually takes place when a first or at least an early draft has been completed; the fundamental elements of the book will have been decided upon and bedded down, even if there is still some shaping and tweaking to bring out a desired emphasis.

Other terms introduce slightly different shades of meaning, and perhaps subtly different tasks for writer or editor.

Developmental editing often covers some of the ground of a structural edit (cutting, expanding, clarifying motivation, changing point of view, and so on). But it can also refer to types of editorial work that occur even before structural editing is needed, specifically at the conception of a book and frequently with particular markets or contexts in mind. Broadly speaking, writers who’re serious about publishing can be helped in directing their energies; writers determined to write and publish a vampire novel might need thoughtful input about the sort of vampire fiction that might succeed in a popular but still saturated market, or at least get supportive advice from an agent or literary consultant about what is strong or fresh within their writing, and also where they might gain from doing further work, or experimenting with a new approach, or developing topical themes.

The term developmental editing is often used in educational and scholarly publishing, where, for example, acquisition editors might be actively developing content for new textbooks, taking into consideration particular specialisms within fields of studies or even curricula.

It’s not a term that you encounter often in trade publishing houses, but then this is not always the sort of work that nowadays takes place between first novelists and editors at publishing companies: usually an editor buying a first novel today is pretty much committed to the story idea as well as its style and execution; there might be some structural editing, but if a book needed serious attention to voice or character in the first place, an editor might not take it on, as it could be something of a risk to commission a novel whose final execution remains uncertain. And editors need to be able to get their marketing colleagues on board, and there are lots of books out there, and editors can afford to be fussy, and they don’t have the hours in the day to invest in this sort of time-consuming work.

Developmental editing can often come with subsequent novels though, by which time editorial relationships have a surer footing and a publisher has a long-term commitment to a writer that justifies going back and forth, bouncing around story ideas and thinking about other aspects of the creation of a book and planning a writer’s career.

Developmental editing often takes place between writers and literary agents, as agents are nowadays frequently the professionals who’re working on what might, in other industries, be called talent scouting, nurturing creative professionals towards completing and then publishing a book.

Developmental editing is also relevant to much of the work that goes on within and around what might be called the creative writing industry: manuscript critiques from literary consultancies, meetings with professionals at writers’ conferences, writing courses at universities or within commercial organisations. It also borders on a lot of the activity that can take place in writing groups or among beta readers. In all of these instances, feedback is usually given on writing that is at an early stage of drafting, and in the knowledge that a project could change significantly.

I find developmental editing the most apt description for much of the work I do as a book doctor or writing teacher in fiction and general nonfiction – helping writers sift through their narrative content to work out the best focus or direction for a story and the best way to tell it. Sometimes I might even be helping a writer figure out where to place the work in terms of genre: does a writer want to develop this autobiographical content as a memoir, and if so might it gain from a briefer timeframe that creates a more intense story? Or does it make sense to allow for the more imaginative spin of fiction, which can often free a writer to be truthful in other ways?

Though developmental editing often deals with aspects of the concept or bigger picture, an editor or book doctor sometimes goes into more detailed or granular aspects of writing too. Sometimes I find myself helping a writer who wishes to develop a stronger voice – for example, highlighting the use of verbs in sentences in a sample of writing as a means of illustrating ways to achieve a tighter prose style, or suggesting other ways that syntax could be made tauter, or more pointed, or more moody. Performed more extensively, in a comprehensive edit of a whole manuscript, this would amount to what I call line editing (to be discussed in another post), but in my role as a tutor rather than an editor I like the idea that a few sample edits can model what writers could do themselves with their own words, so that they learn to hone their voices as they take books through different drafts. In many ways, developmental editing has much in common with teaching and coaching.

A further difference between developmental and structural editing is that with developmental editing a writer might solicit feedback on a partial draft rather than the whole book, getting the voice and tone right in the opening chapters, for example, before launching ahead into the rest.

Developmental Editing, a guide by Scott Norton that is published by the University of Chicago Press (one of the leading publishers of books on publishing), offers this clarification, which recaps some of the above:

For our purposes, developmental editing denotes significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse. The [developmental editor’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.

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.

I’ll talk about line editing, substantive editing and copyediting in a future post.

Content editing is a related term. I tend to think of this as focusing on the internal logic of a work, and it often involves many of the tasks in developmental and structural editing, as well as more detailed aspects that usually come up in line editing or copyediting, such as fact-checking, flagging inconsistencies, or smoothing out the pace. Basically, content editing spans both the bigger picture of a structural edit as well as more detailed work. You often encounter this term in the editing of nonfiction.

Macro editing is a useful idea too. I borrow it from Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, a fantastic book on revising and self-editing, and I think it is a good way to describe the work writers do themselves, particularly at early stages of drafting. Bell relates it to aspects of the bigger picture of a manuscript: intention; character; structure; foreshadowing; theme; and continuity of tone.

With any of these types of editing, it’s hoped that the process is dynamic and engaged for all parties involved. If you’re a writer, the most important developmental and structural editing is probably that that you do yourself during stages of drafting, revising, and self-editing, of course. But perhaps you can be clear about what you want from an editorial relationship: go in with your eyes open, and also be ready for feedback that can improve your work or even take it in a new direction. Ask a book doctor for a critique that focuses on developmental editing, tell beta readers you’re working on a macro edit, know what to expect from a structural edit from a publisher – or be sure to have taken yourself through some of these stages before self-publishing.

(And definitely, if you’re self-publishing, don’t neglect copyediting – more on that next time, and proofreading after that.)

And a reminder: I’ll be discussing these and related matters in a Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon held at Waterstones Piccadilly on 31 July 2015: Self-Editing: Revising Your Words. Debi Alper and I will be holding specific sessions on revising and prose style, and in breakout sessions we’ll also work through some examples of editing.

Definitions of Editing: Key Terms

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All writers need to understand editing.

Editing can involve many different types of editorial activity, from straightforward matters such as correcting spelling or making usage consistent, to subtle matters such as smoothing out the voice, to broader tasks such as changing the setting of a novel or streamlining an unwieldy cast of characters or cutting a chapter or adding a prologue. Specific types of book can demand other types of editorial work too, such as commissioning photographs or artwork to sit beside the text; this can be particularly important for works of nonfiction.

In a series of forthcoming posts I’m going to share some of my own working definitions. To make a start, I’m digging through various manuals and textbooks as well as recollections of my own experience, collating terms that describe different types of editorial work, and I’m finding that this list keeps getting longer … And then various terms can describe subtly different things, or even have different senses in different contexts or for different people. It’s worth clarifying what they mean.

I post the growing list below. It starts with editing that addresses the bigger picture, then moves down to forms of editing that pay attention to more detailed and refined aspects of writing, and then it adds sundry other terms as well. If you’ve anything to add, including other terms, please do so in a comment below.

In the beginning, of course, editors are involved in acquisition and commissioning, though for these purposes I’m singling them out as, let’s say, commercial processes rather than editorial ones – not that editing isn’t commercial … but I’m focusing on specifically editorial tasks in creating rather than buying a book here.

Subsequent editorial activities can be roughly divided between three main stages of editing: structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading.

To use analogies from gardening, structural editing would be the equivalent of redesigning your garden, perhaps redoing its hard landscaping, for example, replacing tired flowerbeds with raised beds, as well planting some trees and shrubs as focal points. Copyediting would be like routine garden maintenance, which might involve some straightforward pruning and clipping, and a bit of tidying of the borders here and there, and also mowing the lawn, and maybe repotting a container or two. And proofreading would be a final clear-up: weeding, and power-washing the paving, and storing the tools in the shed at the end of the day so that all the work that’s been done is invisible.

Terms loosely associated with structural editing also include:

macro editing
developmental editing
content editing

Terms and activities related to copyediting that I’ve encountered also include:

micro editing
line editing
manuscript editing
stylistic editing
sub-editing
mechanical editing
language editing
technical editing
fact-checking
mark-up
clean-up
formatting
design

The manuscript is usually next sent for typesetting, and after that it will need proofreading, and related to that:

collating proofs
checking revised proofs
proofing (I’m adding this as a related term here – explanations to come)

It’s worth understanding other terms that define specific editorial roles or stages in book production. They include:

project editing
editorial production
desk editing
product development (eek! that sounds so wrong, but I saw it used in a popular textbook about publishing) (‘popular textbook about publishing’ does sound like something of an oxymoron, doesn’t it?!) (but eek! let’s not forget that publishing is a business, or rather than publishing, like all of us, resides within a global economy of supply and demand, ker-ching)

And we can also think about the nature and degree of editing, e.g.:

editing on screen vs editing hard copy
light editing, heavy editing

And then there are other functions allied to editing, e.g.:

picture research
clearing permissions
indexing
illustration
cartography
legal read
copywriting
specialist editing
ghost writing
rewriting

These are not hard and fast categories. Substantive editing, for example, can be seen as a task of structural editing, but in practice it is often done during copyediting. And proofing is something that can be done at every stage; a writer will probably proof a draft before sharing it with a beta reader, even before it’s sent to an agent or editor, and long before it’s proofread in a formal sense.

In future posts, I’ll look at some of these different types of editorial activity (and maybe some others) in ways that I hope will be useful for writers: shedding light on what happens to your book in a publishing house; suggesting work we can do in our own revising and self-editing; and presenting ideas that self-publishers can build into their own work flow. I’ll also discuss how and when writers might need to use the services of an editor.

(I’ll also touch on some of these matters in a Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon held at Waterstones Piccadilly on 31 July 2015: Self-Editing: Revising Your Words. Debi Alper and I will be holding specific sessions on revising and prose style, and in breakout sessions we’ll also work through some examples of editing.)