For the last two years I’ve had the wonderful pleasure of working as an acquisitions and content editor for WhiteFire publishing. So I thought I’d pass on a little of what I’ve learned to the aspiring authors in our audience. Publishing companies take manuscripts through a series of edits in a strategic fashion from macro editing to fussing over every last comma and period. By following the roadmap that publishers use, you too can learn to edit like a pro, producing a quality manuscript while saving time and effort along the way.
I know in my case, I wrote my first novel, and then spent countless hours proofreading. Then I changed the whole book, and spent weeks line editing and proofreading again. And I followed that cycle through at least five rounds of edits. Goodness only knows how much time I wasted. Don’t make my mistake. Instead, follow this outline to edit in the proper order.
* Strategy - Purpose, Audience, Genre
At the publishing level, this first step in editing takes place even before we acquire a novel. And ideally for an author, this step should take place first as well. Of course newbie authors are still getting their feet wet. They often just follow the story or characters where they lead. Even experienced authors might do some pre-writing of this sort to get in touch with their idea. However, it is advisable to know where you’re going before you get too far into the process. You need to know why you’re writing the book, who you are writing it for, and what genre you are writing in.
These three factors will guide many important decisions along the way including things like point of view choices and length. Don’t make the newbie mistake of thinking, “This is a cross-genre book that everyone will love.” Translation: “No one in particular is going to want to read this book unless they are related to me.” Publishers need to know your purpose, audience, and genre before they even consider your book, so you should consider those factors first as well.
* Macro Editing
This level of editing can also be called content or substantive editing. Publishers generally content edit after they’ve purchased a book, but if an editor really likes an idea but sees too many problems, they might send content suggestions at this level and ask for a resubmission. Similarly, content editing by the author could take place at different points in the process—but it must take place! Some authors like to write “organically” or “by the seat of their pants” as opposed to planning and outlining in advance. That’s fine. But at some point you must go back and take control of your story.
Major content editing generally looks at issues like plot structure (proper introduction to the story, turning points, mounting tensions, climax, and resolution), characterization (consistency, goals, motives, and conflicts), proper pacing, themes, and point of view choices. All of these need to be working well before a publisher can consider your manuscript. And there’s no use fussing over scenes, paragraphs, or sentences until all of these major elements are solid and in place.
* Scene by Scene
Once a publisher has acquired a book and made certain the big elements are all in order, they move to editing on a scene by scene basis. This could also be considered part of the content editing, but for the writer, this level needs to be addressed separately.
After those big elements are in order, each scene should be carefully examined. First, decide if the scene even earns a right to be in the book. Something significant should happen in every scene that drives the story forward or adds to character development, preferably both.
When you’ve decided that the scene stays, make sure that it’s strong and active. Check if you have entered the scene properly. To enter a scene you should quickly establish the time, place, and point of view character. These elements are necessary to pull your reader into the fictional world. This can be best done with some sensory details about the setting from the point of view character’s perspective. While you might choose to start with a few lines of dialogue, within the first few paragraphs, you need give us this information.
Once the scene is going, make sure that there is conflict (or tension) in the scene and something happens that shifts the dynamic in the scene. You don’t want a static scene. Examine the scene to make sure that there is a nice mixture of dialogue, action, description, and internal monologue from your point of view character. The best scenes weave these all together. Also check that the five senses and adequate emotion are used throughout. Finally, exit the scene with a strong closing hook that will drive the reader to keep going into the next scene.
After the content of a book is all finalized, the next level of editing is line editing. At this level the editor examines sentences and paragraphs to make sure the writing is effective, tight, and properly communicates the author’s intent. Often sentences can be combined or restructured to better express the meaning. Sometimes connectors or further description are required. Sometimes redundant words or lines are cut. Another main goal of the line editor is to make certain that the prose is fluid and pleasurable for the reader. When line editing your own work, it is very helpful to read the text out loud to yourself. Your ears will catch many problems that your eyes are not likely to see.
Next comes copy editing. Copy editors study all the words, looking primarily at grammar and punctuation. They know the publishers style guidelines and apply then to the manuscript.
Finally, the publisher will take the manuscript through the proofreading stage, in other words, looking at every single letter and punctuation mark for typos. Often this is done by a number of people after the book is available in the “Advanced Reader” format. You might want to ask friends, family, or your beta readers to help you with this stage. When looking for last minute errors, it is helpful to read the manuscript on a printed page, read out loud, and if possible, have a text to speech program read it to you. These last three stages are sometimes compressed into only one or two stages by publishing companies, but be sure that you treat each one separately.
So that’s the road map. Notice how it starts big and works it’s way in. Remember, by using these techniques in proper order, you too can learn to edit like a pro.
Writers, what are some of your editing secrets? Readers, what are you pet peeve problems that you find in books and wish authors would do a better job at editing out?