All writers need good editors. Even successfully published authors need “outside eyes” to help perfect their work (and many more understand this than do unpublished folks). Once upon a time, a writer would work with her book editor at a publishing house to make the book the best it could be, and to further the author’s career as a writer. Well, Dorothy, that was before the tornado blew through town.
The business has changed. Radically. With POD and e-books, now you can whip something off of your computer and see it “published” quicker than a wave of Oz’s wizard’s hand. Gone are the days of waiting and waiting and striving to secure an agent, a publisher. And that has been to the huge detriment of books in general, as editing has often gone out the window. And it shows.
Even if you still strive for the brass ring—traditional publishing—the way things are done has changed. Once editors at publishing houses spent most of their days editing books. Now, that is rare. Today’s editors focus on acquisitions; on selling the books they want to publish to editorial committees and the sales force; and on positioning those books in the list while keeping an eye on production (jacket copy, etc.). In essence, these editors’ jobs too have changed radically over the last 20 years. And so has your relationship to them.
Publishers are no longer willing to spend the time with a “project” book—one that shows promise but needs a major or often even a minor overhaul. Manuscripts these days must pretty much be camera-ready when reaching an editor’s desk.
So where does that leave you, the writer in need of a manuscript editor? Adrift in a sea of editors and editing services, that’s where. This has been a consistent thread in many of the writing forums I visit, and almost everybody out there is, well, confused. So let’s sift through what’s available and then see what fits your needs.
First off, a lot of editing services, groups, and websites offer manuscript evaluations or critique services. At this level, you’ll receive a (hopefully) thorough reading of your work and an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses. It’ll tell you where you stand, quality and market-wise, and how much revision is left to do. This should provide feedback as to the major elements of your book—characterization, plotting and pacing, organization and structure, flow, voice and tone, literary devices and stylistic issues, and overall substance. And it should do all of this within the parameters of the genre in which you’re writing, including specifics about word counts, plot points, etc. For example, an evaluation of a political thriller is by its very nature quite different from that of a literary work.
This service can be of help to two divergent groups—the newbie and the seasoned pro. Many new writers are hesitant to plunge into in-depth editing for a host of reasons, and this provides a way to get your toes wet. When you’re looking for your sea legs, and trying to make sense of what makes for a good book (or short story), getting a barometer reading helps to chart your course.
But where does that leave the rest—the vast majority—who have been writing and getting critiqued and rejected, and still need direction? The ones who need the benefit of a really good editor’s pen, as they once would have received from their publisher? We all know the stories of Maxwell Perkins and his stable of writers, of relationships with Hemingway and Marjorie Rawlings, et al. Where do you find that today?
This is where developmental editing comes into play. This person will go through your book with a fine-toothed comb, attending to all of the problems and also letting you know what’s working, so you don’t reinvent the wheel. What shines clear in our minds as writers sometimes doesn’t translate to the page, and your editor should point out these glitches. He’ll write between the lines, in the margins, and give longer examples on the back of pages. All of the aforementioned elements of novel development will come into play. For example, are the characters realized? If not, why? Not only does this sort of editor address all of that (as in the evaluation), she also then goes much deeper into why the problem is a problem, with suggestions of how to fix it, when to do so, and specifically where. In other words, you won’t just receive a “this character is flat,” but also an explanation of why he’s flat, what it means to the story, suggestions of ways to deepen him as he relates to said story, and page numbers and sections of places to do so. The critique that comes with the edit should be in-depth, comprehensive, and correspond specifically to the manuscript. A developmental editor must attend to both the forest AND the trees, simultaneously.
One of the most vital aspects of working with such an editor is the “after care.” Upon receiving your edit and critique, you’ll have questions. It’s imperative that the editor be available to walk you through any revisions, to answer questions, to bat about ideas, and to generally help guide you along. You need someone to bounce off of as you go—a writing coach—and this has “made” more authors than any single element of which I know. Writing well isn’t learned in a vacuum!
Finally, the copy edit. This is the last step in the process. And while we all want our manuscripts to be as clean as possible, the straight copy edit offers the least bang for your buck. Many writers, especially new ones, confuse the copy edit with the true edit. And again, while the manuscript needs to be clean, it’s not going to do you a lot of good to have one devoid of misspellings, typos, and grammatical errors that’s still lacking in the major components of what makes a good book. At that point, the person you’ve queried (or the one checking out the e-book on Kindle) won’t get past page one anyway, so he’ll never know how clean your text is. Save this as the very last step—when you’re sure the deeper elements are perfect.
Writing well, and being published and/or selling like hotcakes with e-books, is a team effort. John Donne was really writing about us when he said that no man is an island. Of course, being a poet, he would know!