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Editing: The Invisible Art talk and handouts

(Presented at the 2009 NCPA Conference)

Editing: The Invisible Art that Takes Your Book from “Self-Published” to “Professionally Published”

Good afternoon!

My name is Sandra Williams, and I’ve provided writing, editing, and design services since 1996. Before that I ran a marketing and publicity office, and before that I edited a weekly newspaper. My first love has always been books—I still have a few shelves of Nancy Drew books that back in the day cost only 60 cents—and in recent years I’ve been thrilled to work primarily with authors and publishers.

Something else about me—I like to work in t-shirts and sweats, and when the weather’s warm I rarely wear shoes. But today I dressed a little more formally. I put on some nice pants and a buttoned shirt because all of you here, no matter how open-minded you are, are going to get some kind of impression of me, are going to base your opinion of my credibility, on my appearance. Seriously, could you trust my judgment if I walked in here wearing a bathrobe and one shoe?

Similarly, your books will be judged by reviewers, distributors, and bookstore owners.

Don’t let your book dress in a mixture of straight quotes and curly quotes, misspelled words and misused words! Don’t let your book leave home dressed like a drunken clown!

On to the meat. If you have questions, I’d love to answer them. Please save them till the end, and I’ll take questions then.

What is editing?

Let me warn you now, there is NO standard definition for the terms editing and copyediting and proofreading. Different editors, different publishers, different authors have their own individual ideas of what it means to “edit.” Editing is not a regulated profession, and there is no licensing board that defines the terms. You can’t assume you and your editor are on the same page. Spell out exactly what services you want when you contract with an editor.

That said, the editing functions can be divided into three basic areas. Let’s start with substantive editing.

1. Substantive editing aka line editing aka content editing aka structural editing aka developmental editing

Substantive editing involves the most work on your editor’s part. If you consult with your editor before actually writing or in the process of writing, it’s generally considered developmental editing. For this talk, we’re going to assume the manuscript has already been written.

So—what’s involved?

Let me put on my Editor hat.

In substantive editing (aka line editing aka content editing aka structural editing), an editor looks at the overall structure of your manuscript. This is NOT the time to worry about grammar and punctuation; first you have to make sure the ideas and language are right.

For nonfiction, is the premise valid and logically presented? Is the manuscript well organized? Does it make sense? Are sections repeated? Are parts of the argument missing?

Is the author’s tone and language suitable to the audience? A manuscript about molecular genetics that’s aimed at scientists can be loaded with jargon that would baffle a general readership. The same manuscript written for the lay person might insult—or worse, bore—a molecular geneticist who doesn’t need to have terms explained.

For fiction, are the characters developed? Are transitions seamless? Does the middle sag? Is there too much telling? Do some parts need to be expanded and some parts cut? Does the author achieve the desired emotional effect? Does the author overuse certain words or phrases?

For both fiction and nonfiction, the editor may suggest changes in wording, but it’s up to the author to take (or not take) the editor’s suggestions. The author may very well find a better solution than the editor’s. All the editor wants is to help the author make the book the best it can be.

Now to change hats. This is my Copyediting hat.

2. Copyediting aka line editing aka manuscript editing aka mechanical editing aka “light editing” aka “proofreading”

Wait a minute, didn’t I mention line editing when I was wearing the Editor hat? Why, yes I did. I have seen “line editing” defined as both structural editing and copyediting. You better nail down the meaning with whoever you’re talking to if you’re going to use the term “line editing”!

Copyediting can be divided into heavy, medium, and light copyediting. Of course, none of THOSE terms have a standard definition either. So let’s talk about the different tasks that may be included.

At this point, the plot and structure should be firm. The copyeditor will be looking primarily at spelling, grammar, punctuation, and style. Style is whether a comma is used before the last item in a series, how headings should be capitalized (sentence style or headline style), which numbers to spell out, how words with variant spellings will be spelled, and the many other details that give a publishing house consistency and its own look.

Spelling, grammar, punctuation, style—those are the basics of copy-editing. Also basic is marking the manuscript for the typesetter. Every design element, such as chapter numbers, chapter titles, epigraphs, or verse, needs to be coded in some way, as determined by the publisher. For manuscripts that are edited on a computer, the easiest way is to assign styles. As long as each element is given a named style, the typesetter can easily convert those styles to the actual book style.

So: spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, type marking.

Now add all the details that were missed in the big-picture editing. Characters whose names or eye color change halfway through the story. Tables whose captions need to be rewritten to be parallel. Phrases that can be misread as a cultural slur. Famous streets in famous cities that actually run east-west but as written run north-south. Author’s pet phrases that occur again and again. And so on.

The copyeditor also prepares a style sheet listing the styles and preferred spellings for that manuscript. The style sheet may be used by the . . .

Time to switch hats.

3. Proofreading

Now, a lot of people say “proofreading” when they really mean “copyediting.” In publishing, “proofreading” is exactly that: reading proofs. It’s the last stage before going to print.

Can I have a volunteer? Thank you.

This is a page proof. It’s a page from the book that’s been laid out and made pretty.

This is the actual manuscript with the edits. The author approved the edits, and the changes were accepted and the file sent to the typesetter.

Let’s make sure no errors crept in somewhere. I’m going to read the edited manuscript out loud while my volunteer here reads along on the page proof and checks that the book page matches what I read aloud. Ready?

[read a paragraph or so, noting all capital letters and pronouncing all punctuation marks]

Thank you. Did you find any errors? Okay.

That was the old-fashioned way to read proofs. No one wants to pay two people to proof anything anymore. Well, maybe lawyers can afford it.

Two ways to proof: The first is comparison proofreading, like we just did. It can also be done by one person who reads a line of the manuscript, then a line of the page proof, and compares the two. Any corrections are marked on the proof.

Second way to proof: Cold proofreading aka blind proofreading. The proofreader gets only the page proofs and reads for typos, misused words, anything that’s obviously wrong.

In both cold and comparison proofreading, the proofreader also checks that pages which are supposed to be numbered are (and with the right number), that chapters are numbered in sequence, that the layout is consistent and correct, that the correct styles were applied to verse, headings, tables, and so on. The proofreader is your last chance to wipe off the clown makeup.

And let’s get rid of this silly hat.

Can anyone edit, copyedit, and proofread?


A good editor can help you find the pieces you didn’t know were missing. When the editor makes wording suggestions, they should reflect the author’s style. Experience helps, but some people just don’t have the aptitude to hear the author’s rhythm and sync with it.

A good copyeditor knows what she doesn’t know and looks it up, and what she thinks she knows, she checks. She recognizes when to use the author’s preference, and when it might be better to suggest a different word or phrase. She is generally curious and knows a little about a lot. Again, experience helps, and so can training, but there should already be a love for words.

A good proofreader needs to be able to spot that one straight quote or that comma that’s supposed to be a period. Lots of people just don’t have that eye for patterns and detail.

What skills and tools are needed?

Editors need tact, skill with words, and the ability to see the big picture. Copyeditors need tact, skill with words, and a broad general knowledge of history, science, and the world around them. Proofreaders need to be able to recognize patterns and be able to hold them in their head for comparison.

A formal education in editing isn’t a requirement; many editors found their way into the field from biology, history, or in my case, English. Let me emphasize this: an English degree isn’t a prerequisite or even necessarily a good indicator for editorial skill.

There are certificate programs; CSU Chico, UC Berkeley Extension, and the USDA Graduate School, among other institutions, offer certificate programs. A certificate means the student passed the class. That’s an excellent start. And sometimes experienced copyeditors obtain certificates to brush up on their skills and get professional feedback on their work.

There’s only one certification program in the U.S. that I know of, the one by the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences. Editors must pass an examination to be board-certified. Note that obtaining a certificate and becoming certified are two different processes.

Tools . . .

The Chicago Manual of Style, now in its 15th edition, is THE bible for American publishing. Chicago’s recommended dictionaries are Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. One or both of these dictionaries, The Chicago Manual of Style, and word processing software are the copyeditor’s main tools.

Some big publishers still have manuscripts copyedited on paper, but in my opinion that process allows too much opportunity for error. Microsoft Word gives you the option to track all changes made to a manuscript; you can see every edit made and reject any you don’t like.

Sometimes The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t address all the issues posed by a manuscript in a particular field—say, cooking or law—so other style guides may be needed. I’ve compiled a list of the ones I hear about most often and added that list to the handout.

How do you know which kind of editing your manuscript needs?

Probably the easiest way is to finish the manuscript and request a quote from a few different editors. You need to finish the manuscript so you can provide a total word count and a sample chapter. The editor should be able to tell you the level of editing required and what it will cost, assuming your sample chapter is representative of the rest of the manuscript.

You might not like what the editor says. But if you were able to see all the errors, you would fix them yourself, and a fresh-printed manuscript looks deceptively neat. If two editors say your manuscript just needs light copyediting, and a third says your manuscript isn’t ready to be published—well, you might consider asking the third editor if she offers manuscript critique services.

Sometimes a manuscript just isn’t ready for publication without extensive high-level editing, but there’s also no guarantee anyone (either publisher or reader) will buy it after editing. That’s an expensive gamble. For fiction manuscripts, I recommend the author attend workshops and critique groups. The writing and plot has to be good enough to provide pleasure to readers.

Nonfiction is a different matter. If the manuscript provides useful information, it’s usually worth fixing. Nonfiction readers are more likely to look past undistinguished writing: Just the facts, ma’am, works for nonfiction.

How do you find the right editor for your manuscript?

In the handouts there’s a list of online resources where you can find listings of editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, and indexers.

Editors may or may not specialize in a particular subject matter. If your material is technical and aimed at readers in that field, you probably should look for an editor who specializes in that field. If your audience is the general reader, it may be good to hire a general subject editor.

While editors are evaluating your manuscript in order to give you a quote, you should be evaluating them: how they treat you and how well the editing sample they give you matches up with your expectations. Do they treat you with respect? Do the in-manuscript comments make sense? Are comments and suggestions offered in a helpful and neutral tone?

If you have never been edited before, it may be painful to have someone say your work isn’t perfect, no matter how politely it’s said. In that case, try waiting a week or two and then rereading the comments. With a little distance, the sting usually goes away, and you may find the comments are valid.

You don’t have to hire the first editor you contact. You need to be able to work closely and productively with your editor. To really get a feel for how you’ll work together, you can hire someone to edit just your first chapter.

What is your role as author or publisher in the editing process?

Allow enough time in your production schedule. A good estimate is one week per 100 pages (the standard manuscript page is 250 words) or 25,000 words per week.

Expect to pay a professional fee for professional work. The handouts include a couple of tables showing typical fee ranges.

If you have any strong style preferences, tell your copyeditor! If there are reasons why your style is a bad idea, your copyeditor will tell you. Tactfully, I hope. You have the option to disagree. If you want to spell purple P-E-R-P-U-L, that’s your choice. The Chicago Manual of Style clearly states: “An author’s own style should be respected, whether flamboyant or pedestrian.”

Copyeditors are used to deferring to the author’s or publisher’s wishes. Thus, the Copyeditor’s Mantra: “It’s not my book, it’s not my book . . .”

Does anyone have any questions?

The Handouts

Handouts for “Editing: The Invisible Art” (PDF; 521 KB)

About Sandra K. Williams

Sandra K. Williams loves books, both printed and digital. Since 1996 she has worked with authors and independent publishers, editing and designing books for print. Since 1999 she has built easy-to-use, accessible websites, and she uses her HTML and CSS skills to design reader-friendly e-books.