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Being Published Part 2: Editing

This is the second in a series of posts inspired by my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, which was published in February. In each post I'll try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways that each stage of the writing life can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here.


If you've ever had good, experienced feedback on your work, in some ways being edited by a publisher isn't that different. It can even be better, because a professional editor's basic duty is to help you write the book that you thought you'd already written - and why wouldn't you want someone to do that? But a publisher's editor must also embody your potential readers: the thousands who must be lured into handing over the cash that will pay your publisher back for what s/he has just paid you and the much greater sum that they are spending on publishing it. This is closer and sharper than you've probably ever been to the detail of how publishers stay solvent: and your book is part of that how.

And it's not only about that: your editor is your main interface with the whole publishing house. They will be your book's chief champion, gingering up publicity, sales, marketing and everyone to be excited about it and do their best for it - and they'll champion it outwards, too, to booksellers and journalists. An editor is up there with the person marking your MA portfolio in terms of the power they have over the fate of your work.

So it's important to maintain a good relationship with your editor, so that each of you can exercise your respective expertises - theirs as a reader and seller of your book, yours as the writer - and integrate them on the page. Since you must also be prepared to kick up a stink with your editor if the publisher is really falling down on the job, it helps enormously to have an agent, who can have those fights on your behalf while you and your editor stay friends - or at least friendly.

But you are entitled to your expertise, and so it's not a matter of just "doing what you're told"; it's your book, and your job to find the right solutions to the problems that your editor raises. What you can't do is ignore those problems, since they are problems that will make readers not like your book; but how you solve them may very well not be the solution your editor first proposes. You may find my posts on how to handle feedback useful, and the Fiction Editor's Pharmacopoeia might help you decode the more baffling kinds of feedback into something you can act on.

All the authors I know are profoundly grateful for being well-edited - and most would say that although the Gordon Lish degree of intervention is pretty much unheard of nowadays (which may not be a bad thing) it's simply not true that "no one edits any more". But that's not to say it's always comfortable. Being edited can feel a bit like having teacher mark your work, and thereby stir up some dormant teenaged wiring you thought you'd long outgrown - and not every editor "gets" every book they work on as the writer would wish. So it's important to remember that this is collaboration: the aim is to have an editorial conversation which results in a better and more saleable book than either you, or your editor, could have created on your own.


Who will edit you? It's probably an acquisitions editor or senior editor who acquired - as in, bought - your book, and they may well go on to work with you on it, and to champion it throughout its life. However, it may be that your book was bought by an editorial director, say, or the acquiring editor leaves, and your editor will be someone else. There may also be an in-house desk editor, experienced but more junior, or an editorial assistant (which is where all editors started) who's in charge of tracking all the stages and processes, the communication with different departments, the freelancers involved, and so on. In a small publisher one person may do all those jobs, and any of them may be done by freelancers: it's especially common for your copy-editor to be freelance.

Editorial Processes. Traditionally, there are several separate editing stages, and for a very good reason: the different kinds of work need different spectacles and mind-sets. There is overlap between them, so that it's quite possible to combine the structural and line edit, for example. Exactly what your publisher does will depend on both them, and your book, but it's still useful to understand the nature of the different kinds of editing you should get. 

The Structural Edit. This is all about the storytelling: the shape and pace; the order of events, and the order that the events are told in; the development of characters and themes and the resolving of plotlines; the overall voice; the choice of viewpoint characters and the moves between them, and so on. If the book was finished when the publisher bought it there may not be much of this, since it was the rightness of these things which made them want it in the first place. With a book written under contract, (or one where the voice and the premise are so amazing the publisher's taken a gamble on sorting out the plot and bought it anyway) it's likely there will be a good deal more. 

The structural edit is most likely to come back to you in the form of notes, or even an editorial conversation with a follow-up email, and then you will get to work. 

The Line Edit. This is all about how the big storytelling issues play out line by line: picking up where the voice wobbles, or any surplus explaining and "filtering".  Are there point-of-view slips or places where things aren't clear? Are characters' voices consistent? Are settings earning their keep in enhancing the mood and theme? Are there any little gaps or contradictions in what people say or do? This is immensely slow and focused work; in the best book I know on this stuff, The Forest for the Trees: an editor's advice to writers, editor Betsey Lerner says that the fastest she can do this is about five or six pages an hour. Fortunately, with a traditional publishing deal you won't be paying for it. And it can only be done by someone who already knows the book, picking up these things in the light of what the book's trying to be.

The line edit is very likely to come back to you as a Word file full of comments, and track changes, for you to click "accept" or "reject", or use as a cue to rework - but whatever you do it will be in a form they can then review. Do check you know how they want you to deal with it; it's unlikely to be just sending them a new, "clean" version where they can't see the history of what's changed. 

I have also had line-edit feedback as a list of notes, with the references, given as line numbers: "p.6 l.14: sounds a bit grown-up for a 6yr old"; "p.264 l.8 up [i.e. from the bottom]: but what about the trip to Skye?". With this, you'll need to make sure you're working on a matching manuscript (I think you can even set Word to show line-numbers?). I've even had line-edits arrive as notes handwritten onto a pdf copy of the file on a tablet, and emailed to me as a .pdf. And yes, pdfs are a pain, and yes, publishing does work with them; they may send you a .docx version if you ask. 

The Copy-Edit. A copy-editor's primary job is to mark up the manuscript for the typesetter, in accordance with what the book's designer has decided about typefaces, sub-headings, point-sizes, italicising, how letters and quotations will be set out, whether there are any traps of unsual spellings (such as Elysabeth/Elizabeth in the two strands of A Secret Alchemy) and so on. The copy-editor is the reason that how you present your manuscript needs to be clear, but shouldn't be trying to look like a book. The copy-editor will correct any mis-spellings and inconsistencies in, for example, how you have spelt names; they will also correct punctuation, which in my case leads to some lively fights over commas. They will apply house-style to things like hyphenation and capitalisation, and -ise or -ize endings; check foreign words and obvious historical references; check that timelines actually add up; check that chapters are numbered sequentially. 

Good copy-editors have the most extraordinary capacity to think their way into your book's voice and intent, and then read it simultaneously at micro- and macro levels, and thereby to save you from your own idiocies. It's a very different skill from even the best writers'-circle feedback, and I'd say it's the one thing that a seriously self-publishing author should unquestionably pay for, however much else they do themselves. It's also slow and detailed work, and not cheap, though again, with a traditional publishing deal you won't of course be paying for it. 

But it should be said that your copy-editor may not "get" the book's voice in grammar, syntax or punctuation. The thing is, a surprising number of authors are distinctly wobbly on all those, and genuinely need sorting out, and more authors still are just not good proof-readers of their own work. Copy-editors - and line editors, come to that - will therefore tend to default towards more standard, correct-but-not-necessarily-right rule-keeping. That's not because they're prissy, tone-deaf grammar nazis, it's because they haven't, in this instance, realised that this non-standard "slip" is part of a larger, and consistent voice in the book that will work effectively on the reader.

Of course it's your right to bend or even break the language for your creative purposes, but if so are you, actually, being consistent and effective in how these things work in the narrative? You do have ultimate authority over your text, but you must give readers what they will need to read the book as you want them to, and the editor is trying to help you to do that. So, while for the sake of your blood-pressure it's worth remembering that everything, always, is only a suggestion, you should always consider why an editor has suggested a certain change, before you reject it. My Facebook timeline is full of writer friends posting bits, to see if the rest of us think that the editor, or the writer, is right.

Again, the copy-edit will probably come back to you as a .pdf or a .doc for "accept" and "reject" or reworking - and yes, it may be combined with the line-edit. In either case, it's very tempting to use the margin or comment balloons to justify your choices (a.k.a argue with Teacher), but a copy editor is not your teacher. Just "reject" or mark it "stet" - book-trade-ese for "let it stand" i.e. don't change it - and carry on.

One more, and crucial, thing about the copy-edit: all this editing can highlight things which you've never spotted before, and this is your last chance to make any substantial changes or re-writes. Unless you want to seriously piss your publisher off that doesn't mean you can rewrite the entire book, but certainly it may be a chance to wrangle small of text, change your mind about things, or cut or amplify stuff. But do bear in mind that any editing may introduce more errors, so it does create more work - and increase the chance that the book goes out into the world with annoying errors in it. 

The Typeset. Now the text will start to look like that of a book. Proper typesetting is quite different - a real craft skill - from just letting a programme like Word do its thing. You won't have anything direct to do with the typesetting, but it's the reason that from now on, even quite small changes will have implications for the book as a whole. It'll be in your contract that the publisher is only obliged to pay for up to 10% of the text being changed (which I confess to being a bit vague about, as a measure, but it's certainly not 10,000 words in a 100,000 word book); the typesetter's fee for any bigger changes than that will be charged to you, the author. 

Proof-read 1. The first proof-read happens when the book has been typeset: this is your truly last chance to pick up any absolute howlers, and at least one other person should be proof-reading too; it's notoriously difficult to see errors in things you've written yourself. These days the true typo - "typographical error" where the wrong letters have been set - is rare, because of spell-check. But "literals", correctly-set words which are nonetheless wrong, including homophones, are horribly hard to spot: should it be there, their, they're, th'air or th'heir? Proof-reading is surprisingly tiring, because it requires you to stay aloof from engaging in the story so as to read what's actually there, not what the story leads you to imagine is there - while also being involved enough in the story to pick up on those pesky literals. Reading aloud helps, as does coffee, water, fresh-air breaks, or anything else which improves your concentration.

This version may well be the one that goes out to the big buyers, journalists, big-name authors, reviewers and bloggers as electronic or physical Advance Reading Copies (ARCs), "bound proofs" or just "proofs". The idea is to create a buzz round the book, and garner quotes (= AmEng "blurbs") to help in the publicity push, and go on the cover and inside the published book. You will notice that ARCs say somewhere "Uncorrected Proof" and something about not quoting from the book without checking the published version, which is important: for The Mathematics of Love, my editor asked me to change the first page, after this stage, and a reviewer who'd quoted the proof without checking later if there was a final version, would have looked very silly.

Proof-read 2. This should be after everyone's corrections have been incorporated, since it's almost inevitable that an error or two will have been introduced. Again, two people should do it, but I wouldn't bet on it. The only changes that can really be made now are those which would otherwise cause deep, deep embarrassment to your publisher. To which end, one final thought: it's well known in the trade that the bigger the point-size, and the more standalone the text is, the easier it is for the eye and brain to slide straight over without really reading it. Headings and chapter-titles, blurbs and epigraphs - book titles, even - are famously at risk. Do triple-check that your debut novel isn't going out as Captcha in the Roy, or Woof Ball