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From First Draft to Finished Product: The Editorial Process

By Kelly O’Connor McNees

editorial process self-publishingYou’ve decided to publish your novel or nonfiction book independently, and that makes you more than just the author—you’re also the project manager. As a wise manager, you know that you can’t—and shouldn’t—try to do everything on your own. You need to recruit a team of experts who can help make your book shine, and an experienced, reputable editor should be at the top of your list.

But what, exactly, does an editor do?

As a way of answering that question, let’s examine the editorial process. A book begins as a first draft. Then you revise, revise, and revise some more. Then you ask some early readers—your friends, your mom, teachers or colleagues—to help you figure out what else might need work. You revise a little more. Then, finally, you have a draft you’re ready to share.

Phase One: Substantive/Developmental Editing

You might consider hiring an editor at this phase in the process to get focused, specific feedback based on your goals for the manuscript. Some editors call this substantive/developmental editing, or a manuscript evaluation. An experienced editor understands what makes a novel engaging for readers, and what makes a nonfiction book informative and compelling. She can provide an evaluation that outlines the steps you might take to get the manuscript closer to your goals: Engaging your reader and building an audience for future titles. Specifically, this kind of editing addresses things like organization, structure, plot, character development, pacing, and dialogue.

With this evaluation in hand, you can make one last revision. Now, after all this work, your manuscript reads just the way you want it to. Each chapter begins and ends with a bang. If your book is a novel, each scene is vivid, and the characters’ conflicting desires lead to conflicts that propel the story forward. If your book is nonfiction, your prose is concise but packed with the results of your careful research. This manuscript is ready to become a book! Well, almost.

Phase Two: Copyediting

An important, sometimes invisible last step is copyediting. I say invisible because it seems that we only notice copyediting when it has been done poorly or not at all. And nothing says amateur like an e-book full of grammatical errors, punctuation missteps, and cut-and-paste blunders. Copyediting clarifies meaning, eliminates jargon and repetition, and polishes word choice; it also addresses grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, and other mechanics of style so that your manuscript will be clean, professional, and ready to publish.

Finding the Right Editor

The abundance of freelance editors available online is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you have plenty to choose from. On the other hand, some of them don’t really have the skills to serve you well. Before you commit your time and money to this relationship, be sure to find out about a prospective editor’s level of experience, and what kinds of projects he or she has worked on in the past. Ask for testimonials from past clients because good editors will have plenty of happy customers ready to sing their praises. And don’t work with an editor who doesn’t put everything in writing up front: schedule, fees, and a detailed description of the services he or she will provide.

How long?

The editorial process can take a few weeks or a few months, depending on the editor’s schedule and the length and complexity of your manuscript. Be patient—good editorial work and revision take time. Focus on doing it well, not quickly. Besides, while you’re waiting to hear from your editor, you can get started on writing your next book!

Kelly - Word Bird EditsKelly O’Connor McNees is the founder of Word Bird Editorial Services, and along with colleague Kelly Harms Wimmer, edits traditionally and independently published books by writers of all stripes. She is also the author of two novels, In Need of a Good Wife and The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, published by Berkley/Penguin. Follow @wordbirdedits on Twitter.