Monday, September 10, 2007

My Editing Process

When I edit a manuscript for a friend and/or client, I go through a process very different from when I just read a book. For me, editing is nothing like reading for pleasure.

Usually I get the manuscript via email in a Word document. Often I’ll ask for a hard copy to also be mailed. I start with the emailed copy. It’s in standard submission form (12 pt. font, preferably Times New Roman or possibly Courier New, double-spaced, one-inch margins). First thing I do is turn on the Track Changes option. Then I start reading.

Unlike when I read for pleasure, I read slowly, word by word by word. I’m looking for errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, even things Word won’t catch for the writer, like the use of “their” when “they’re” was needed. I make corrections and add comments. Both of these will be visible to the writer and they can accept or reject my changes. I’m also looking for continuity problems, like an unexplained eye color change or sometimes a change in a character’s name. As crazy as it sounds to non-writers, things like that can happen. I ping on phrases or scenes that bug me. If they bother me, they’ll probably stop a reader. Particular uses of words stand out. And that’s usually okay. The problem is when I notice that same phrase repeated three, four, times. A wonderful turn of words loses its impact the third time.

And when I’ve read through the entire book, I take a break, then start over. Reading. Noting. Marking. Then when I’m done with the second read, if I have the hard copy, I start reading it. That’s because I – and I know this is true with other people because they’ve told me – see different things when I read on a computer than when I have the paper copy to peruse. Any new things I see there, I transfer to the Word copy, and it’s ready to go back to the writer.

After three reads, I know that book backwards and forwards. Not.

It’s rather like walking into a forest and cataloging each tree – height, girth, shade span, type, color, bark – then emerging and being asked to paint a picture of the forest.

This really came home to me recently. Months ago I did an edit for Diane Fanning for her latest book, Bite the Moon. There wasn’t a lot to catch, she’s an accomplished writer nationally known for her true crime books, one of which was a finalist for an Edgar Award. Bite the Moon was her first mystery novel. Then a couple of weeks ago I got a copy of the actual published book. I took it with me on my recent vacation.

I read it not as an editor but as a reader. For pleasure. For fun. Quickly. Savoring the wording, the phrases. Discovering the twists and turns. Yes, I remembered the plot, I knew the characters, I’d been to the different settings of the book. But it was new, different. It was fun.

If I were her publisher, I’d nominate it for an Edgar. Not because I edited it. As I said, I had very little to do with it. I’d nominate it because it was good, because the settings were real, the characters alive, the words flowing like a stream, bubbling in places, frothy in others … and because it captured me – someone who had already read it twice.


  1. Your description of seeing every tree but not being able to describe the forest is very apt. I have the same experience in editing.

  2. I think it's a wonderful experience to read the published book after you've read the manuscript several times during an edit. Sort of like the joy of seeing an old friend you haven't seen in ages.

  3. I read several successive drafts of a colleague's book manuscript in the manner you describe. I nit-picked; I fact-checked; I quibbled with him about sentence wording.

    And because he is originally from the UK, but was writing now for a mostly American readership, I tagged all the British spellings and certain "Britishisms" that had sneaked into his manuscript.

    His book was published by NYU press in June. He gave me one of the first copies. Even though I had read every word again and again during the editing process, I finally got to read it as a whole work, and it was a real pleasure.


  4. Hi Bobbie. I am so glad to hear from other editors that they have the same experience. It's rather amazing to go back and read a finished book after you're edited it. One of the great perks of editing!

  5. Thanks for sharing your process.


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