You have finished your best draft of your first novel—at last. What next? Start e-mailing queries to agents? Make contact with CreateSpace or some other self-publishing vehicle?
Before you begin querying agents, your writers’ group colleagues warn, you should have your book edited. That recommendation was reinforced in the May/June 2015 issue of Poets & Writers, in the “Agent Advice” column. Danielle Svetcov of Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency answered the following question from Richard in Wichita: “How strongly do you believe in paying to have a manuscript edited?”
Svetcov’s condensed reply: “One way or another you need to have your manuscript edited before you send it to an agent.” She went on to say that you can have a writing group colleague or a talented writing friend do the work for free, or pay an expert, “ideally one who’s worked as a professional book editor for a long time. . . .The thing about the last option is: You usually get what you pay for.” Svetcov then enumerated the many elements of your copy that an editor will consider, before concluding. “If you have a burning desire to get your book published by a big press, and you have the money to pay an editor, spend it.” [Svetcov’s article is not accessible online.]
Even if you decide from the start that you want to self-publish, proper editing matters. One of the FWB’s writing colleagues told of the great disappointment generated by another colleague’s newly self-published novel. It was not because of the content or the story but because of the errors in composition, grammar, spelling, punctuation and the like. You want your work honed to a professional sheen, whether you are submitting to an agent or publishing it yourself.
Nowhere in Svetcov’s P&W answer did she use the terms “manuscript assessment,” “developmental editor,” “line editor,” “copy editor,” or “proofreader.” When you embark on the editing process, though, those are labels that you encounter at each stage of your manuscript’s path toward publication.
In an attempt to clarify those five different stages of editing, the FWB has assembled definitions from a host of online sources:
- NY Book Editors (NYBE);
- the website of editor and author A. Victoria Mixon (Mixon);
- an interview by Chris Jane with book-manuscript line editor Jim Thomsen at former Writer’s Digest Editor Jane Friedman’s blog (Jane/Thomsen);
- the “Writers Beware” section of the website of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA); and
- penultimateword.com, the website of Arlene Prunkl, a longstanding member of the Editors’ Association of Canada (Prunkl).
The editing stages are presented in the sequential order in which they would be executed on the path to publication.
Manuscript Assessment or Critique: “A broad overall assessment. . .[it] pinpoint[s] strengths and weaknesses” and makes “general suggestions for improvement.” (SFWA). “A [c]ritique will lead you to revise sections, make cuts, restructure material.” (NYBE)
Developmental Editing: “[R]efers to storytelling, both the art and the craft.” (Mixon). Evaluates a story’s coherence, clarity and completeness, as well as its cast of characters. “Flags specific problems—structural difficulties, poor pacing, plot or thematic inconsistencies, stiff dialogue, undeveloped characters. . .flabby writing.” (SFWA)
Line Editing: “[R]efers to prose.” (Mixon) “A line edit addresses the creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level. But the purpose of a line edit is not to comb your manuscript for errors—rather, a line edit focuses on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader.” (NYBE) “Line editing improves the quality of the prose, red-flags story implausibilities and inconsistencies, removes unnecessary repetition, checks the subtleties of word usage, and restructures sentences and paragraphs so that they flow more smoothly together.” (Jane/Thomsen)
Copyediting: “[R]efers to grammar and punctuation. . . .It’s just following the rules [of accepted style]. . . .Very little of it is judgmental.” (Mixon) “[M]ake[s] sure the writing that appears on the page is in accordance with industry standards” for elements such as “spelling, hyphenation, numerals. . .and capitalization. . . . [S]hould always come after line edit. . .The page-by-page, sentence-by-sentence content of your manuscript should be completely finalized before being fine-tuned on the level of a copyedit.” (NYBE)
Proofreading: “The final stage before printing or uploading. In the old days of publishing, proofreading literally meant reading the galley proofs—always after typesetting. Today. . .the proofs come as a PDF.” (Prunkl). Besides reading the text for typos and bad word breaks, the proofreader checks such design elements as page numbers, display typography, margins and alignment.
So there they are, the stages your story should—or ought we say must—undergo prior to its publication.—Alex McNab