Editing Process

What's going on here? Is Patty done editing the book, or not? One post says she's editing, the next says she's done, and the one after that claims she's editing the same book again.

While it may be confusing for someone trying to follow the process from the website, the fact is that there are several different editing steps between the rough manuscript and the final publication. I'm going to try to map the various editing steps Patty goes through while writing a book. There are some variations between authors and publishing houses, but the major steps are pretty consistent.

Rough Draft

Writing the first draft of a book-length manuscript is a tough job. Authors adopt all manner of strategies to facilitate this phase. Some outline, some don't. Some try to write a certain number of pages each day, others take weeks off then write whole manuscripts in a few days of hyper-intense activity. Because this step is highly creative, it's the rare author who reaches the end of the manuscript and finds that pacing, grammar and characters have been consistently well-moderated throughout. There are a few authors who produce amazing rough drafts -- John Dalmas for example. However, most authors are happy if at this point there is a beginning, a middle and an end to the book, and some general sense of coherence to the whole.

Patty doesn't outline, she kind of navigates by braille when writing -- feeling her way forward, then retreating if something isn't working. This advance-and-retreat writing has some advantages: since she doesn't know where the story is going, it doesn't usually feel static and predictable. It also produces an unevenly-finished manuscript. Some parts may have been gone over three or four times, while many others are in the roughest of draft form.

Many new authors are discouraged at this point. They've spent months laboring to produce a finished manuscript -- their baby. However, a quick pass through the manuscript shows that it's an ugly baby. Many authors feel depressed: all those hours, all that effort, and their masterpiece is flawed, sometimes seriously flawed. They read a few pages of their favorite author and despair -- their prose is weak, their character's motivations uncertain, dialog is mushy. The good news is, that's normal. That's how rough drafts look. There's a long and winding road of edits between here and the published novel.

Author's Edits

A rough draft usually calls for some fairly heavy-handed editing. If there are sections that are particularly bad, an author may concentrate on those first, but eventually most authors do a couple of full-manuscript edits. If a stone mason concentrates on bits and pieces of the surface, the resultant surface will be uneven, some parts polished lower than others. The same thing can happen with a manuscript; the wording, pacing, or imagery may become uneven. By working the whole manuscript, front to back, the author can make sure that it maintains a consistent feel throughout.

There's a trick to doing author edits, and that's knowing when to stop. The manuscript may still need major changes, so you don't necessarily want to have a fine polish on the manuscript at this point. Authors sometimes talk about overworking a manuscript. If a manuscript is polished too often, it starts reading like poetry rather than prose. Having beautiful imagery, vibrant vocabulary, and full sensory-immersion is a good exercise for authors, but four or five hundred pages of it is too much. It's tiring for the reader to process. Ideally, for most authors, your words should become invisible, and the story should take center stage. If the reader is continually awed by your linguistic gymnastics, your prose is competing with the story for the reader's attention.

Now it's ready to leave the author's hands, and go to your first readers.

First Readers

Having gotten the manuscript into a reasonably presentable form, most authors turn the manuscript over to their first readers. A first reader is not a professional editor, it's someone you can trust to deliver honest feedback about the manuscript. Often these are friends or family, members of a writer's group, or other authors you've met. The purpose of the first reader is simply to provide feedback. After finishing a book, the author knows what they intended to say, and how things are supposed to work. However, they're too close to the work to judge whether or not it worked as they'd intended. This is a delicate time; the manuscript is rough, possibly seriously flawed, and the author hands over the results of many hours of labor to someone (or several someones) to be judged, weighed and evaluated. It's a hard thing for many authors to do.

First readers are sometimes called "trusted readers", for obvious reasons. The author needs an honest evaluation. A brutal screed pointing out grammar or spelling errors in contemptuous tones would be devestating. A sugar-and-spice feel-good letter doesn't provide enough information to make meaningful improvements. Somewhere in the middle there's a sweet spot, and authors may have to do some work to find readers that hit that consistently. If it's done well, this input can be invaluable.

So, armed the reactions of your first readers, you know where your manuscript was superb, and where things didn't quite do what you'd hoped. You can make another round (or two) of edits, fixing those problems. And now, your manuscript needs professional help.

Production/Publishing Editor

The big publishing houses all maintain professional editors. Authors are accustomed to thinking of these as "book buyers", but that's only part of their job. After they buy your manuscript, it's their job to help you produce the best possible book. After writing a book, authors are often too invested in the work to evaluate it honestly. An editor brings a fresh perspective and years of experience to the table, and can offer valuable advice and insight.

The editor will offer suggestions, and may act as a sounding board for proposed changes to the story, but it's the author's responsibility to make the changes. Remember that editors are busy people, and don't have a lot of time to play "what if" -- if they make a suggestion, evaluate it carefully. Patty often doesn't change things in quite the way they suggested, but she looks very carefully at the things that bothered her editor. If it stopped the editor, there's something wrong, and you need to fix it. This is a great time to do some additional polishing and make sure you're happy with the manuscript.

When you've brought the manuscript up to a professional level, the editor will accept the manuscript. Acceptance means it is "good enough" to publish, and the publisher will now pay the author any monies due on acceptance. It's possible that a manuscript may go through several rounds of edits with an editor prior to being accepted.

When the editor accepts your revisions, it's time to move on

Copy editor & Line Editor

The publisher also employs a couple of specialized editors. Your manuscript is sent to one or more of these specialists who offer further suggestions to help you make your book the best it can possibly be.

A line editor reads through your manuscript and makes sure that it is internally consistent. Does magic work the same way throughout? Do dwarves become dwarfs halfway through? Does your character's hair color or horse's name change for no reason? Line editors look for these sorts of errors. They can be the author's best friend, and are ignored at your peril. They catch the kind of stupid errors that readers will tease you about relentlessly.

A copy editor goes over the manuscript making sure your grammar and syntax are correct. There seems to be quite a bit of variation among copy editors -- some read very closely and have quite definite opinions, some are far more relaxed. As an author, remember that while you were doodling cats and horses in the notebook margins during English, this was the student in the front row taking notes. Some of them may be a bit dogmatic, but they're generally better at grammar than you, so evaluate their suggestions carefully.

Sometimes authors complain that these editors are making too many changes and ruining the "feel" of the book. Remember, these are just suggestions. The author ultimately has to decide whether to accept a proposed change, reject it, or do something else altogether. Your book. Your choices.

Page Proofs

Your manuscript should now be edited to a high polish. The publisher took the very best manuscript you could produce, and has paid to have several highly-skilled professionals assist you in making it even better. You've had some time to gain a little perspective, and several chances to make changes. The publisher now pays to have the book typeset, and generates page proofs.

This is a throwback to the days of lead type, when a typesetter would read a manuscript and then assemble the type required to print it, letter by letter and line by line. That process was labor intensive, and it was easy for mistakes to slip in. Now it's usually done electronically, and it's pretty darn accurate.

The page proofs are typeset just like the final book will be. You're given one final chance to read through the pages of your book and make changes. Changes at this point are expensive to make, and if they affect pagination whole chapters may have to be typeset again. It's not quite as troublesome as it used to be, but it's worth noting that your editor will not welcome substantial changes at this point. There's another reason not to make big changes. If you completely replace chapter four at this point, the new chapter four won't have the benefit of the other layers of editing.

When you send the corrected page proofs back to the editor, you're done.

Published Book

No more changes. What you've written will be wrapped in glossy covers and shipped to readers, who will immediately find the ten glaring errors that somehow still made it through the whole process.