The Editorial Process

by Steve Laube

It is important to understand the process through which a book takes under the umbrella called “The Edit.” I meet many first timers who think it is just a one-time pass over their words and that is all that will ever happen. And many who self-publish think that hiring a high school English teacher to check for grammar is enough of an edit.

There are four major stages to the Editorial Process. Unfortunately they are called by various names depending on which publisher you are working with, which can create confusion. I will try to list the various terms but keep them under the four categories.

Rewrites / Revisions/Substantive Edit

These can happen multiple times. You could get input from your agent or an editor who suggests you rewrite or revise those sample chapters of the full manuscript. Last year I suggested that one of my non-fiction clients cut the book in half and change its focus. We sold this first time author. But the writer had to do a lot of work to get it ready for the proposal stage.

There are some publishers that will do this stage after a book has already been contracted because they saw the potential in the proposal. And note that this stage isn’t always necessary. It all depends on the quality of that final draft you turned in to your publisher. Few get it perfect the first time.

Line Edit / Substantive Edit/Content Edit

Already you can see a descriptive term repeated. This stage is where the editor, usually a senior editor, or an editor is hired by the publisher to look at the book closely. This stage can morph into a rewrite (see above) if there are substantive changes. In some ways it is like a mechanic pulling apart an engine and inspecting the parts, and then putting it all back together again.

Sometimes this stage is very light sometimes it can feel heavy handed. Neither is wrong. Trust the editor to have the desire to make your book better.

Remember that this stage can be a form of negotiation. Ultimately it is your name on the finished book. An editor should not dictate but should facilitate. It is ultimately a partnership. And if you find that perfect partner…do what you can to work with them over and over. But also do not blind yourself into thinking that you are always right.

Copyedit

This can be done in-house or with a freelancer. One friend of mine calls this stage “The Grammar Police.” The copyeditor’s job is to check grammar, punctuation, spelling, and consistency. If your book has unusual spellings (like characters with Czechoslovakian names) consider creating a separate document called a style sheet which should be submitted with your manuscript so the copyeditor will know you meant to spell a word that way. Consistency is the key.

This edit takes a special skill. The editor is technically not reading for content. They are looking at each word for accuracy in communication.

It can be a stage fraught with humor. Like the time a copy editor changed the phrase “woulda, coulda, shoulda” to “would have, could have, should have” because the first was grammatically incorrect.

Unfortunately this stage can also be fraught with danger if the copyeditor suddenly takes the role of substantive editor, after that stage has already passed. I’ve heard stories of character names being changed, entire scenes rewritten, etc. If you have trouble at this stage, appeal to your senior (or acquisitions) editor and see if the changes had been approved before being sent to you.

Again, remember that this can be a place for negotiation. But if you are breaking the rules of grammar or spelling be prepared to defend yourself. But please, “Never Burn a Bridge.”

Proofreading

If the line editor is looking at the paragraph for content, and the copy editor is looking at every word for accuracy, the proofreader is looking at every letter and punctuation mark for perfection.

Again, this takes a special skill. I once sat on a plane next to an amazing freelance proofreader. I proudly showed her an article I was writing. She found ten mistakes per page. Every one of them was my fault for being sloppy. I ate humble pie with my bag of peanuts.

This proofreader is the last protection you have before the book is tossed into the market.

Error Free Publishing!

With all these eyes on your book you are guaranteed to have a product with no typos or errors of any kind….oops…that isn’t true.

Despite every effort and a lot of smart people working on your book, an error is bound to slip through. I remember one book where we had the author, three of his students, myself, a copy editor, and two proofreaders go through a book. Eight people. The book was published and the author’s critics found a dozen errors within the first week. Sigh.

Do your publishers a favor. If you find an error? Make a note of it (page number, line number, and error) and write a quick note to the editorial department of that publisher respectfully pointing it out. A file is usually kept of every book and when it is time to reprint the book they can go in and correct the error. And in the ebook world the digital file can be corrected fairly easy.

Your Turn

Does this explanation match your experience with a Traditional Publisher?

Does your editor use “track changes” on screen or a red pen on hardcopy (like shown in today’s picture above)?

25 Responses to The Editorial Process

  1. Sue Harrison February 6, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    Thank you for this post, Steve. Your explanation matches my experiences with my US traditional publishers. I wish I would have known about/thought of a style sheet! My former novels were based on the ancient Aleut culture and language, and a style sheet would have saved my line editor a lot of headaches!

  2. Gillian Marchenko February 6, 2012 at 7:10 am #

    Thanks for this information. I am a newbie in the publishing world and don’t know much about the editing process. This post terrifies me because of the daunting process, and encourages me because of the possible opportunity to work with other professionals to make my manuscript the best it can be.

  3. Lindsay Harrel February 6, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    Steve, thanks so much for this post. I’m an editor (and writer) myself, but haven’t done any book editing yet. This helps me to understand the process a lot better from an editor’s POV and from a hopeful author’s.

  4. Rick Barry February 6, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    The excellent points you make above apply to the academic world, too. I worked five years as a project manager for a publisher of textbooks. We had to keep a close eye on enthusiastic proofreaders who sometimes altered facts (due to their misunderstanding) or who tried to rewrite sentences to match their own writing styles. Also frustrating was one author who, after seeing a galley of revisions, took a red pencil and tried to order us to change every edited word back to the way it was in her original, imperfect manuscript. I daresay the public doesn’t realize all the headaches an editor can endure. It’s fun, yes, but headaches still come…

  5. Debra E Marvind February 6, 2012 at 7:43 am #

    I’ve even seen discussion (bordering on argument) about the process authors go through before it even hits the publishing world.
    I basically call everything I do after the rough draft ‘editing’. I’ve been told it’s ‘revising’ and is only an edit when it is completely ready to go and a ‘real’ editor gets a look at it.

    is it all that important?
    Besides, I don’t think an author can ever really stop editing their own work. We edit grocery lists and evaluate the church bulletin…

    • Timothy Fish February 6, 2012 at 8:52 am #

      That’s an interesting question. When we look at the definitions, revise refers to looking over something again, in order to improve it. To edit is to prepare for publication or to cause it to conform to a standard. I would think that an author can do either or both. The argument could be made that an editor cannot revise because they didn’t originate the work. But most certainly, an author can make corrections for publication or to conform to a standard.

  6. Sundi Jo February 6, 2012 at 8:55 am #

    I haven’t hit the editing stages yet of my book, but I’m both excited and dreadful. I know the process will include tearing my baby apart, telling me what sucks and needs fixed,then putting it back together.

    This is where the “thick skin” part comes in.

    I’m ready!

  7. Robin Patchen February 6, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    As always, great information. I look forward to the editing process, because I believe that in many counselors, or in this case, editors, there is success. (Prov. 15:22)

  8. Janet Ann Collins February 6, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    I assume the typos in this post are deliberate since I don’t remember noticing any in other posts. That’s an interesting way to show that everyone needs editing.

    • Steve Laube February 6, 2012 at 9:57 am #

      Like what?

      • Janet Ann Collins February 6, 2012 at 10:48 am #

        You said ‘last year I suggest’ instead of ‘suggested’ and ‘there’s bound to be an error slip through’ instead of ‘slipping through.’ Perhaps ‘an error is bound to slip through’ would be a better way to say it.

      • Steve Laube February 6, 2012 at 10:54 am #

        Thank you. Errors corrected.

        I am now up to seven corrections on the original post. I found one. Readers found six more.

        Someday I will be inerrant.

      • Janet Ann Collins February 6, 2012 at 11:09 am #

        Now, don’t let this go to your head. Only God is inerrant. ;-)

      • mo February 11, 2012 at 6:28 am #

        “Sometimes this stage is very light sometimes it can feel heavy handed.”

        Impromptu grammar and punctuation testing! It’s not a flaw, it’s a feature.

    • Steve Laube February 6, 2012 at 10:35 am #

      Someone else just wrote me and gave me a list of the errors in the post.
      I just LOVE eating humble pie.
      Fortunately I’ve never claimed to be a great writer or proofreader. And I continually prove that fact in a public blog.

      Steve

  9. Ruth Douthitt February 6, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    Yes! Great post. This post aligns with what I experienced with my first book. I work with a very thorough editor who does both the copy edit and the substantive edit. He finds gaps in my story that I never even realized!

    As a result, the book was much better. However, the publisher’s editor found many repeated phrases and words that even my editor missed. And even after all that editing…I still found errors in the published book.

    But, it is all a learning process! I still enjoy the process, too.

  10. Peter DeHaan February 6, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    Whenever I have worked with editors they have always used the “track changes” option. The last time I had a paper version edited with a pen (as in the picture) was in college, which was more than a few years ago.

  11. Iola February 6, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    Excellent article, but I do have one question.

    I’m the person who always finds mistakes in print, and I have emailed the publisher a couple of times but have not received a reply. Is this normal? Because the lack of a response makes me think they are not interested in the fact that the novel mentions (for example) ‘heroine dealers’.

    • Steve Laube February 6, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

      Never expect a reply. Merely volunteer your editorial eye and hope it gets to the right place. The publisher has enough to do without having to respond to everyone who sends in a note. They aren’t being rude. Just efficient.

  12. Roberta Hegland February 7, 2012 at 12:18 am #

    Excellent! I’m doing a major rewrite of my novel and hope those farther up the chain will only have to make minor alterations (right, I wish). I follow the Grammar Girl blog/podcast and have learned that even the pros squabble about punctuation, spelling, etc. – this has kept me looking to improve without becoming paranoid.

    Steve, has the downsizing of publishing houses resulted in more typos? It seems so to me. I follow a well known author’s different series and the last installment (2011) had some glaring typos. Most notable was a paragraph which had the lines switched up. It took a bit to realize that the sentences made no sense until I did a ‘cut and paste’ in my head. Didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the novel,though.

  13. Carrie Daws February 26, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    Thanks for this easy to understand explanation! I’ve often wondered exactly what each particular editor handled. I love my editors for helping me to look (and sound) so good!

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