Sunday, October 5, 2014

How to Edit a Book: Six Easy Steps

This document is in response to my boss's  request for me to say a few words about the process of turning a raw manuscript into a publishable trade book.  In expressing some of the things I’ve learned about this process, I must acknowledge that I owe much of that to the people who’ve been my mentors--above all, to Kendra Crossen Burroughs--but many of these observations are simply my own, based on years of experience doing this work.  If you’re a good Buddhist, you’ll know that you should test what I say against your own experience to see what elements of it are true for you or not.  If you’re a Christian, Jew, or Zoroastrian you should do exactly the same thing.

            Those I’ve worked with in copywriting will be aware that it’s my belief that good writing is always primarily about love, and that that’s equally true of any kind of writing, whether it’s Anna Karenina or an ad for shaving cream.  The  writer, having determined he has something to say—whether it’s something profound or insignificant doesn’t matter so much—is making an effort through words to effect a mind-to-mind or heart-to-heart transmission to the reader.  It’s a humbling thing—or at least it should be. Understanding that love is (or can be) the foundation can rearrange your head when it comes to written self-expression.

            If I’m correct in this belief that writing is about love, then in relationship to a writer an editor can be seen to take on the role of Cupid:  one who facilitates the love’s happening.  An editor at his best is concerned with skillfully helping the heart-to-heart transmission between author and reader happen, sometimes helping the tongue-tied author find his voice, other times just recognizing when the author has all the skills in love  he needs, and not presuming to butt in.  If the love analogy makes this process sound exalted, I should emphasize from the start that book editing is not rocket science. Those who create a mystique about the process are for the most part just making that up.  With the exceptions of the last two steps I’ll enumerate below, it’s mostly pretty mechanical.

            For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to focus on the process that happens between the time we receive a completed manuscript in house and the time that manuscript is ready for the copyeditor’s fine-tuning. As we know, there are numerous other ways that books happen, but the situation I’m describing here is probably the most common one for trade publishers like us.

The process can be envisioned as one of approximately 108 discrete steps--but for the purposes of this short piece, I’m going to reduce it to six steps, which will work just as well. One should come up against each step just as one would one of the precepts and consider it against a particular situation, deciding what it requires: sometimes a lot of work, sometimes a little, or sometimes just the wisdom to let it go.

            With this in mind, I’ll take the beginning of this process to be our receipt of a completed manuscript from an author, one that we contracted on the basis of a proposal, a sample, or something even more ephemeral than that.  Step One begins with asking a question and seeing if the answer requires more work on the author’s part or yours.  Many of the subsequent steps follow the same pattern.  

Step One: Is this the book we contracted?  

            Though this may seem like a stupid question, it’s surprising how often the answer is no--or at least something other than an emphatic yes.   If it’s not an unqualified yes, we have to reexamine the work to determine whether it’s publishable by us as is anyway.   In a case where the manuscript that’s taken us by surprise is not publishable by us, we must begin the process of dialogue with the author in order to determine whether or not it can be turned into the book we originally offered on.  This may be a process of the author’s  going back to revise or even start over, or of our working with her to accomplish that.  In any case, Step One is the beginning of what’s referred to as developmental editing. Steps Two through Four can also be considered  part of this process.

Step Two: Does the manuscript contain everything it needs? 

            If the author is presenting an argument, are all the points there?  If they’re all there, are there further points that could be made in support of his argument that he missed?  Are there elements he’s taken for granted on the part of the reader that he shouldn’t have?  (This happens more often than you’d think, due to our natural human tendency to myopia.)  Are there elements that would be more effective with illustrative examples (and can the editor suggest some)?  If it’s the sort of book where it would be appropriate, would exercises or practices be useful?  This is also the step at which we consider the addition of ancillary materials. Would a glossary be useful?  A bibliography or list of suggested further readings—and is it a case where annotation would help?  How about a list of non-book resources?  Authors are sometimes resistant to writing up their work if they consider their manuscript finished.  For that reason it’s helpful for an editor to identify which additional elements he finds completely essential and which can be seen to fall under the category of suggestions, just as a way of strategizing for the discussions that will need to take place with the author about the further work he may have to be persuaded to do.


Step Three: Does the manuscript contain more than it needs?

            Would abridgement be appropriate to keep the thing focused? Is it simply too wide-ranging?  Are there two or three books there instead of one? (This last can sometimes be attractive to an author, as it may indicate he’s got a lot of work on his next book in the can.)  The too-much problem is especially prevalent in first time authors and, I’ve found, especially with dharma teachers and their first books. There’s an impulse to make sure this book contains All My Teaching, which is generally a bad idea. A more focused book is usually  better and almost always a better sell. Unlike in Step Two, a lot of this work in Step Three  can fall to the editor if the author is resistant to doing it himself.  Sensitivity is needed.


Step Four: Is the manuscript reasonably well organized?

            This is a relatively simple process that gets shrouded in mystery unnecessarily. It’s simply a matter of reading and noticing that elements of the narrative are in logical order on the macro level: that two follows one and three follows two.  No rocket science involved.  But it often happens than an author, even a very brilliant one, is too close to the work to notice that the ordering is illogical. Or he may simply not be the sort of person who thinks in a linear fashion.  There are very brilliant people—and even some excellent writers—who don’t have organizational skills.  Some of them will consider you a genius if you can point out that their chapter that is arranged 1-4-3-2 would convey their love to the reader better if arranged 1-2-3-4. Funny thing.

            In this process we also consider whether it would be helpful for the manuscript to be broken down into parts or if it makes sense to leave the chapters undifferentiated. We also look critically at what elements belong in the front or back matter versus what belongs in the body of the book.


Step Five: Line editing

            With this step we finally leap off the cliff of developmental editing and into the proverbial nitty-gritty.  This is the first step, to my mind, that begins to require some art and skill.  If a line edit needs to happen—and it doesn’t in every case—it can be not only the most difficult part of the process, but also the phase where there’s the greatest danger of making the author your enemy. Conversely--and more rarely--it can be the phase where the author begins to regard you as savior, even if that’s a total projection in his mind.  The handful of authors who have come to hate my rotten guts have mostly done so over line edits. In any case, once the manuscript has been determined to contain what it needs and to exclude what it doesn’t need, and when it has been organized sensibly, we evaluate to see if line-editing is needed before it goes to the copyeditor for fine-tuning and imposition of a consistent style. 

            Line editing is, like it sounds, the process of going through the manuscript line-by-line, and making suggestions for rewrites.  It’s playing Cupid between the author and the reader on a fine level.  Though the reasons for line edits can be extremely wide-ranging, a surprising number of them fall into a handful of recurring categories. Here are a few those:

  • Word misuse:  Writers sometimes use the wrong word or term, and that has to be fixed.  It’s pretty simple when it’s simply wrong (if they’ve used enormity to mean vastness or fulsome to mean abundant), and it can be fun to call them on it, but it’s a bit more complicated when what they’ve used is close to what they want to say but not quite right, or if it’s technically correct but misleading or misread-able. 
  • Clarity: Does the author say things in a way that is confusing? Can we help him effect this mind-to-mind transmission better? It’s the line-editor’s job to create clarity where it may have been lacking.
  • Transitions:  Does one thought follow reasonably from another? Do we find ourselves stumbling over non sequiturs or coming across places where the narrative changes so abruptly that it’s confusing, or feels weird, or leaves us with a vague sense that something’s missing?  This is an amazingly common problem. It’s the line editor’s task to suggest smooth transitions, whether those consist of a word or two or a sentence or two. A transition longer than that will generally have to be come up with by the author.
  • Logical order:  This is basically the micro-version of the earlier Step Four, applied to individual paragraphs and even sentences. Does idea A follow from idea B? Is there a confusing C between them that needs to change position?
  • Awkwardness:  Or “AWK,” in editor-ese. It would be nice if author and writer were always synonyms, but, alas, they’re not. Some writers just can’t write in a harmonious way and need help doing so.  Half the skill in making changes to improve unskillful writing is in doing it without calling attention to the fact that it’s unskillful, and words like “awkward” are your friend in that delicate calling-of-attention. You don’t say your change is made “because you’re an awful writer.”  You say that it’s made to improve an awkward passage. Another useful accusation is “nonidiomatic,” which is generally a way of saying, “let me change this so that it reads the way people on Earth generally speak,”  but nicer.
  • And Everything Else:  The above mentioned items are common enough issues that a line editor knows to look out for them, but then he must also be on the alert for any other issue that arises outside those categories:  the author must be queried on any passage that might be confusing to the reader, or misleading, or that presents information that seems suspicious and that’s not supported by evidence in the text or in a note, and the author must respond to these queries satisfactorily before we proceed further.
But line-editing is more than just line-editing. Some very important principles must be kept in mind as you attack the manuscript with your real or virtual red pencil:

  • Prepare the author for the edits: Discuss with him in detail what’s going to come his way and/or provide him with a cover memo explaining the kinds of line edits you’re going to make and why. If you then make a change that isn’t covered in the memo, you must explain it in a query to the author where the change is marked. Or else be prepared to explain it to the author if he challenges you.
  • Justify your tinkering: Every change you make must be justifiable, and the author is of course completely justified in asking you to explain every edit. Your explanation should never be something like “It just sounds better to me.”  Even if that basically is the reason—if the author is simply a terrible writer. You must learn to couch your queries in language like I’ve suggested above. Call it “awkward” or “nonidiomatic” or make up some other term. Or offer a genuine compliment along with the criticism. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, as someone said.
  • Understand who you are: In most cases you’re not the author’s colleague, or his friend, or his secretary. Don’t take on one of those roles, and don’t allow yourself to be pushed into one of them. Avoid the feeling of talking down to him. Avoid the stance of knowing more than he knows about his subject (even if it turns out that you do). But also avoid the kind of obsequiousness that signals you shouldn’t be taken seriously, because that will pretty much guarantee you won’t.
  • Be invisible. The editor’s voice shouldn’t be inserted into the work--and there’s a seductive tendency to make the author’s voice into yours that you have to work against.  With every rewrite suggestion you do, step back and see if it’s you or the author. If it’s the former, rethink. Remember that you’re playing Cupid. Cupid makes the love happen, then respectfully goes away.  If someone reads the book and recognizes you in it, you’ve failed.

Step Six: No editing and also no extinction of editing.

             In addition to being aware of when one or more of the above steps needs to be evaluated and let go of, one must also be aware of editorial needs that fit none of the above categories.  If you’re prepared for there to be issues not covered by the steps above—if you’re prepared to be surprised, horrified, puzzled, and delighted--you’ll be just fine.


            Once one has made it through these six steps, a manuscript is generally ready to go to a copyeditor, who will then make final corrections to and who will impose a consistent style on words, terms, punctuation and such. The copyeditor will also usually put us in our place by discovering various very obvious blunders and inconsistencies that that the author and his Cupid overlooked a thousand times without seeing them.  But then, as I said, we’re not rocket scientists.  This helps us not to lose sight of that.









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