If you’re thinking of writing a novel, by now I’m sure you’ll also have heard about the dreaded editing process that’s sure to follow, (hopefully) at the hands of a professional who’ll take their scalpel blades to your manuscript and go at it. And authors often tell horror stories of beloved manuscripts that returned to them bleeding at the margins, full of changes and thousands of tabbed comments.
But an editor isn’t some spooky, red-pen-wielding maniac who can’t wait to gleefully attack your precious darling. Also, not all editors do the same work – by the time you hold your next favourite read in your grubby little mitts, several professionals will most likely have spent many hours shaping those words after the author so diligently pooped them out.
Think of editors as part-time alchemists – we transfigure base materials into gold.
So what is it that an editor does, exactly?
Let’s start with what an editor does not do. An editor is not there to rewrite your novel, thereby rendering it unrecognisable as your work. Under no circumstances must she smother your voice or crush your spirit either. In other words, a good bedside manner is vital. When an editor is done with your writing, her changes must have made the writing flow better but maintain that which makes it uniquely yours – her work is invisible, in other words (and this is something I say often). An editor will know when to push you to do more or rein you in when you’ve gone off on a tangent.
At the first stage of being edited, you may be fortunate enough to receive a reader report. Bigger publishers pay experienced readers to go over manuscripts for which they might potentially offer contracts. The reader will a) see whether a novel is suitable for a particular imprint and b) advise if there are any areas where the novel may be improved. The latter will be of benefit to the editor eventually, as often the author must make these changes first before a novel is then worked on further.
As for how many rounds of editing will happen on a novel before it goes to print, there are several levels of work that will happen, for however many rounds an editor will feel necessary.
First is content or developmental editing, where the editor won’t focus too much on grammar or typos, but will pay attention to the plot, characterisation, voice – all the broad-strokes’ elements. For instance, an editor might suggest that the author combines characters, delete chapters, revise endings or write deeper. This is all about making sure that the story is structurally sound, and that the worst of the rough edges have been filed away or filled in.
Once the developmental edits are done, the novel will move into the copy editing phase where special attention is paid to grammar, punctuation sentence structure and any other errors that may have crept in during developmental editing – like eyes that change colour, or bald characters who suddenly sprout a mop of unruly curls. After a round or two of this, the novel is ready to go for line editing.
Line editing does what it says: line by line editing looking at the sentence structure, repeated words, phrasing – basically anything that will clarify languages usage. Essentially, the line editor makes sure that the writing is smooth, consistent and cohesive, that passages transition clearly, and that meaning is unambiguous.
Often a novel will be formatted and be laid out for print after the line editing stages are complete. Proofreading generally takes place once the file is almost ready to go to print. This is also to pick up any formatting/layout glitches that might creep in (for instance, bad line breaks). Also, the proofreader is there to catch anything the author and the other editors may have missed. I can promise you, having a fresh set of eyeballs at this stage is absolutely vital, because everyone else will most have likely read the manuscript several times, so it’s ridiculously easy to miss dropped words or to have strange gremlins that have crept in and quietly inserted themselves. (Ask me about the ‘cup of cigarette’ incident the next time you see me.)
I’d like to state that no matter how thoroughly a novel is edited, I can pretty much guarantee that you will open that final printed document on the day of release, and you will find a typo. Murphy is a bitch. Proofreading matters, and this is often a highly underestimated skill set in this industry.
Who’s responsible for your edits?
There’ve been a few occasions where I’ve had authors come crying to me that their publisher expects them to do their own edits (yes, this happens). If you EVER encounter a publisher like that, RUN. You’re better off self-publishing than getting them to ride on the coat tails of your hard work without putting in effort as well.
If you’re looking to get published the traditional route, your manuscript will go through several stages. If you have a literary agent, they may make some suggestions in terms of your novel’s development. After that, a novel might be picked up by a publisher, where you’ll work closely with an editor the publisher provides (and pays for) through all the stages until your novel eventually lands on a proofreader’s desk. This will often require several rounds of editing, but by the time everyone’s sick of the manuscript, it will have been edited to within an inch of its existence (and most likely shines, thanks to this hard work). Many people don’t realise the kind of hard work that goes into publishing a novel; there are many people behind the scenes, all of whom are dedicated to the process of making books. The benefit of going to a reputable publisher is that your novel should be in the hands of people whose business it is to know your particular genre inside out.
Larger publishers will obviously have more resources on hand, but sometimes you will work with a smaller publisher. The reasons for this might be entirely personal – that you like and respect the publisher’s work or it could be that the particular publisher caters for a very particular niche in the industry. The downside is that they might require you to be more hands on from your side or have fewer staff to handle all the work. I generally see this as an opportunity to get more involved, but that is only borne out the fact that I’ve been working in the publishing industry for more than a decade now. If you’re a relatively inexperienced author, and a publisher asks you to edit your own writing, that’s generally not a good sign and I suggest running for the hills. Even small presses should provide a basic minimum of a few developmental and copy editing rounds before they publish your work. And proofreading remains a vital component to this too. If a proofreader isn’t on hand, I suggest printing out your novel’s final layout, and taking a red pen to it yourself. The fact that you hold a physical copy in your hands should defamiliarise you enough from the text so that you can pick up any errors.
Now, if you’re an indie author, the onus lies fully on you to ensure that your novel is edited to within an inch of its existence. I’ve noticed an alarming trend among indie authors these days that involves hacking out a novel in a matter of a month (if not less), then giving it a cursory read through before heading straight to formatting and publishing.
As an editor and author involved in this industry long enough to have seen all manner of atrocities, this gives me the horrors. I’m pretty hot stuff in terms of self-editing, but every book I self-publish, has at least 2-3 beta readers, a round of edits with an editor, and then an extra pair of eyes for the proofing stage. And by the time I’m done, I’ll have read the book at least half a dozen times, if not more. This process takes time. And often a book lies fallow for a few months or longer, because by the time I return to it, I have fresh eyeballs and you don’t even want to know how many mistakes I find. Or even feel that I need to add extra layers or scenes.
Sure, if you’re aiming for the minimum viable product, go for it, but realise that your writing will only ever just be adequate. Do you want to be adequate? Or do you want to be awesome? The former might rake in the bucks but is that all you ever want from your career? And let’s not even begin talking about burnout. That’s another story for another time.
I will mention vanity presses here. If any so-called publisher ever approaches you with some sort of ‘publishing package’ that involves you shelling out piles of clams, RUN. Run for the hills and don’t look back. Especially for pre-published authors, when the offer comes to publish your novel, it may be too good to be true. (And believe me when I tell you it is.) These folks often offer you expensive deals to publish your book, but invariably results in you paying through your arse end for the pleasure. Every one of these ‘vanity press’ published books I’ve ever seen have been riddled with mistakes and have had next to no editing. Trust me when I tell you that you’re better off self-publishing a book and will often spend less than half the money you would on a vanity press when you pay your own editors, cover designer, illustrator and so on (and if you don’t know who to use, make friends with self-published authors and find out who they’ll recommend). Those sorry excuses for ‘publishers’ exist solely to separate overenthusiastic newbies from their money. A reputable publisher provides you with editing, free of charge. End of story.
A good editor’s work is invisible
Before I go, I’m going to remind you of this: a good editor’s work is invisible. They won’t rewrite your entire novel to the point where it is unrecognisable, employing ‘by the book’ editing that kills your voice. Just as too little editing is damaging to your novel, so is over-editing. A good editor may deftly slice out filter words, rearrange sentences slightly. Suggest that you flesh out particular scenes or drop scenes entirely. They might indicate where you can cut back on exposition or rework chapter endings to make them more dynamic. But they will not do your work for you. (And trust me, I’ve been around long enough to hear some horror stories about too little or too much editing.)
Whether you elect to be an indie author or have the privilege of working with publishers’ preferred editorial staff, as an author you’ll learn that the relationship you kindle with your editor is that of trust. Allow them to guide you. You’ll know when to push back or when to listen. A good editor is part patient gardener, part agony aunt and mostly a passionate wordsmith who cares deeply about ensuring that your story is one that will be a pleasure to read. For us, there is no greater pleasure than seeing authors have lightbulb moments and watching their careers (and writing) go from strength to strength.
Nerine Dorman is a South African author and editor of SFF currently residing in Cape Town. Her short fiction has been published widely, her YA fantasy novel 'Dragon Forged' was a finalist in the 2017 Sanlam Youth Literature Prize, her short story 'On the other Side of the Sea' was shortlisted for a Nommo in 2018, and she is the curator of the South African Horrorfest Bloody Parchment event and short story competition. In addition, she is the founder of the SFF authors' co-operative Skolion.