Chris Reese, Developmental Editor, reveals the behind-the-scenes work of the editor and author’s refining process of a book before it hits the press.
Few authors enjoy having their work edited. Most everyone who writes (including me) tends to cherish their own prose and believe that it can’t possibly be improved on. After all, you’ve spent months, maybe years, writing these pages, you’ve probably revised them yourself several times, you’ve had friends and family read them over. You’re confident they’re ready to go to press without further ado!
Yet, in all my years of editing, I’ve never received a manuscript that was ready for the presses on arrival. While it’s helpful to have good writers look at your work before it goes to the publisher, I’ve discovered that there’s no substitute for a thorough review by a professional editor. Doing this full time does give one an advantage, just as the full-time car mechanic is usually more reliable than the weekend handyman.
Your editor will look at everything from the overall structure of the book, to the flow of individual chapters, to the coherence of paragraphs, to the small details of grammar, style, and formatting. He or she will check facts, inspect for clarity, examine for consistency, and bring all the elements into line with the house style (which for us, for example, includes capitalizing pronouns referring to God, and using Chicago Manual of Style format for endnotes).
The car analogy seems appropriate again, because your editor will help fine tune and detail the “car” you’ve constructed. The author and editor are partners in this process, because we both want the same thing—an elegant, efficient vehicle that will be a pleasure for the end-user to drive. Neither of us wants the steering wheel to unhinge during an afternoon cruise, or the air conditioning to go out when the road trip was just getting started.
Sometimes I’m asked how I can maintain a good relationship with an author when I have to tinker around so much with what they’ve written. This is, after all, “their baby.” A few guidelines I abide by have helped this process go smoothly, so that the author and I work toward a common goal rather than at cross-purposes.
- First, I let the author know that the editing process is a dialogue, and that he or she is free to disagree with any particular edit. Most changes are negotiable, and sometimes we’re able to decide on a third option together that we’re both happy with. Ideally, we should both be satisfied with any change, and I’m always happy to listen to the author’s concerns.
- Second, I clearly indicate any significant changes I make with a software tracking option, or in colored text. This way the changes are apparent, and the author can easily see what I’m suggesting. There are no surprises, and everything is clearly laid out. This builds trust between the author and editor.
- Finally, I try to maintain the author’s voice, tone, and style even as I add and delete text. My goal isn’t to conform a manuscript to my own personal preferences, but to make the author the best communicator he or she can be. I’m looking to carve out of the manuscript the best version of the book that the author and I can collectively create. In the end, we both want the reader to be informed and inspired, all without them noticing the behind-the-scenes work that creates the experience.
Although the author often enters the editing process with trepidation, in nearly every case they are happy with the end result, and thankful that the sum of our efforts turned out better than what they could accomplish on their own. I enjoy my own part in this process, and have discovered that a special bond often forms between author and editor. As Johnny Cash once said, “We’re all in this together, if we’re in it at all.”
What has your experience with editing been like?