As writers, we spend months and even years getting that perfect story down on paper. But, as many established authors know, that’s only the beginning of getting a book published. A critical phase that ensures your work shines involves the role of an editor.
Today, The Writing Well delves into the often hidden world of book editing. Jamie Chavez, a developmental editor and writer who has worked nearly 20 years in the publishing industry, shares her process of enhancing manuscripts from the moment that they first land on her desk.
Having said that, though, an editor can’t edit what’s not on the page; the writing, the voice, the story—those are the most important elements. The editor gets to waltz in after the author’s done all the heavy lifting. 🙂
Q. What is your “process”?
The basic plot (ha) is the same, in that I read the manuscript once to react emotionally to it (making some notes in the margin); a second time to take notes (timeline, characters, story arc outline, and on and on) and also make more margin notes; then I write up my editorial notes. During that process I’ll end up reading most of the manuscript again. I like to use examples from the MS to make my points. Then I send the MS and my editorial notes back to the author, who reads and absorbs and questions and tweaks, and sends it back to me. We might go back and forth two or three or ten more times, depending on the publisher’s precise assignment (sometimes a copyedit is requested as part of the package, for example). The process is different, of course, in that every manuscript presents its own unique set of things to work on.
Q. What is the most challenging aspect of editing for you personally?
More importantly, though, is the way I communicate my critique to the author. I mean, let’s face it: an editorial letter is criticism. I was/am the bossy older sister, so this role (ahem) comes naturally to me. But communicating in writing can be touchy. I want to be businesslike—after all, my job is to work with the author to improve the manuscript, and we both know that—but I also want the author to feel I’m on his or her side. Because I am. It often takes me a week just to write the ed notes.
There are two schools of thought regarding working with a professional editor before seeking an agent or publisher. (I’m working on this blog post too! Stay tuned.) One says it’s expected an author will do what she can to improve her skills and present the most polished manuscript possible … and publishers prefer getting a MS that’s in great shape. The other says a manuscript that’s been heavily edited by a professional isn’t, perhaps, a true representation of an author’s skills. That said, I’ve had several clients go on to get agency representation after we worked on their manuscripts, so clearly it wasn’t a detriment in those cases. If you don’t want to say you’ve been edited, you could choose to have a critique instead; it’s less thorough but should tell you where your MS needs work.
After you’ve already gotten a contract, the editorial work will be paid for by the publisher. If there’s an editor you’d like to work with, though, tell your agent, tell the publisher.
It is not fair to ask for anything else—like a work sample—without offering to pay for it. Also, you should expect the editor will ask for word count and a sample of the manuscript (a couple chapters and a short synopsis, say); I use this to quote a price and to decide if the project is something I want to take on.
There are a lot of blogs that offer good advice on this subject, with actual checklists of things to look for. It’s very useful to read through multiple times, looking for one particular issue each time. For example, just look at dialogue tags in one round. Just look at chapter ending and beginnings in the next. Look for head-hopping and POV issues in one read. And so on …
Finally, there are books you might read. Self-Editingfor Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King is a good one, but I know there are many others.
Q. Any final insights for my readers?
About Jamie Chavez