Many writers often ask how their first draft gets turned into a polished manuscript that is ready for publication. This first step is called the developmental edit, which takes place after the text has been completed. This is one of the most in-depth parts of the process because it’s when the manuscript as a whole is refined and cleaned up. With that being said, it is also one of the most confusing parts in the process. Most people think of editing as just grammar, punctuation, and proofreading, but those are more line level elements; developmental editing, or substance editing as it’s sometimes called, is all about the content: the meat of the story and what form it will take by the time it reaches readers. This is the phase where we analyze characters, plot, setting, and even the pace of the story. These are the big issues that require the use of three techniques to help refine the story: growing, pruning, and shaping.
When a writer or editor is looking for places to grow the story, they are often looking for scenes and elements that can be expanded in order to better serve the story as a whole. These are often places where there is confusion or where additional content can be added to provide clarity. In some instances an element may need to be added such as stronger character development or world-building in order to round out the story or clarify a specific plot point. When looking at the text it’s important to ask yourself: What does this story need in order to make it feel complete?
Pruning is useful for cutting out elements that don’t fit with the overall story, but it’s more than just trimming away bits and pieces. It’s more about providing space for adding elements or details that might work better for the story. It’s important to use this technique in places that stand out. Ask yourself: Are there pieces that feel out of place, unnecessary, or repetitive? Keep in mind that repetition isn’t just repeated words, but also repeated elements, characters, and plot devices. While some repetition isn’t bad, it’s important to make sure that repetition is clearly intentional and not just the by-product of creating a longer manuscript.
Shaping the story is more than just adding and subtracting pieces to the text. Sometimes you need to change the order of events, clean up errors in continuity, or change the overall structure of the text. Sometimes this can mean breaking up a longer paragraph into smaller paragraphs that don’t tire a reader or cause fatigue, but it can also mean turning chapter six into chapter two, and reorganizing the events of the story to better fulfill the overall narrative. Sometimes this reorganizing creates a better opportunity to go back and try growing and pruning again. When shaping your text, ask yourself: Do the events of the story make sense? Are there places in the text that are too wordy? How can I restructure this to make it better?
Developmental editing requires time and patience. It may even take several rounds to create the best version of the manuscript, but these tools and techniques can help guide you through the process.
The words that we use matter. Language holds incredible power, and harnessing it is a delicate process that requires hard work from both authors and editors. The fascinating thing about language is that it’s always changing and evolving alongside our societies, cultures, and ideologies. This is especially true of more sensitive (and powerful) language, like the kind we use to describe things like appearance, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Choosing the right words and using them well can uplift, empower, and support even our most vulnerable communities, but using the wrong words can just as easily do them harm. With this in mind, it is imperative that editors educate themselves on the best practices of conscious editing.
Before we dive into conscious editing, let’s discuss conscious language. To put it simply, this is language that has been thoughtfully chosen with an eye toward how the writing will be perceived by readers from various backgrounds. Karen Yin, founder of the Conscious Style Guide, describes it as “kind, compassionate, mindful, empowering, respectful, and inclusive language.” Regardless of what kind of copy you are editing, it will only benefit you to ensure that the words are carefully chosen by the author with an eye toward the way readers will perceive and interpret them. If an author has not considered how their writing might affect different groups who may encounter their work, it is the editor’s job to bring it to their attention in a respectful, yet firm way.
How does one edit consciously? One of the first steps is to consider what harm a manuscript or piece of copy is capable of producing. Here are some questions to ask:
- Does it contain language, descriptions, or dialogue that reinforces racist, anti-fat, homophobic, or xenophobic ideas?
- Does it rely on harmful stereotypes of a particular group to make a point?
- If a person or group is portrayed in the piece, how will they feel when they read it?
- How will those portrayals affect others’ views of these people?
During this step it is important to consider your implicit biases—especially if you are a white, able-bodied, cisgender editor. Step outside of yourself and think about how this writing might affect more vulnerable communities. If the piece has the potential to cause harm, let the author know. Harmful portrayals often find their way into an author’s work without their explicit intention, so explaining it to them and offering suggestions for revision is essential. If the author is aware that their piece might do harm and refuses to revise it, or if the author explicitly intends to do harm, reconsider whether you want to be part of the project at all.
The best way to edit consciously is to make it a standard practice within your work and continuously educate yourself on best practices using reputable resources. The Conscious Style Guide is an excellent starting point, as is the Diversity Style Guide. Overall, being a conscious editor involves being aware of how language changes over time and updating terminology appropriately, self-education of your own biases and how to combat them, and a willingness to use your work to support equity and social justice.
So, You Want to Be an Author
You’ve probably spent years of your life hunched over your newest novel, affectionately referring to it as your “baby.” This is the culmination of your life’s work. It’s got it all: an interesting protagonist, a brewing mystery, the perfect romance, and an idyllic setting to ground it all. You’ve eagerly sent it off to all the local publishers who have reputable connections under their belt to launch your dreams of being published. Now you are impatiently waiting for that acceptance letter to hit your inbox.
You finally hear back from those sluggish publishers, and there you see it: rejected. Rejected. And rejected, again. It feels like years of your life have been thrown away like it was a haphazard poem scribbled on a Denny’s napkin, submitted on some drunken whim.
Think Like an Editor
Each year publishers receive thousands of submissions from hopefuls just like you. According to Sophie Playle, a writer for Liminal Pages, publishers receive “between three and ten . . . of thousands” of manuscripts per year. While editors would love to slush through each and every submission for the next best-seller, it just isn’t feasible.
Imagine you’re an editor at one of your local indie publishing houses. A slush pile of submissions stares back at you every day, overflowing your submissions inbox. One of your volunteer readers acquires one manuscript among every fifty; the first page kicks off without much of a bang, and the setting is described in a way that is reminiscent of the pastoral poetry of (way) yester-year. Maybe the volunteer reader has the time to graze the second page. More rolling hills. More “a whole lot of nothing.” The manuscript is tossed into the rejection pile along with eighty to ninety percent of the other submission hopefuls.
Now, imagine you’re an editor for a mid-range publishing house. They’ve got the higher-up connections of your dreams, and a few catchy titles to back them up. Their slush pile is about twice the size, if not more, of the indie publishers’. You pick up a manuscript, eye the lengthy, adjective-laden prose, and off it goes into the rejection pile. You dive into the next submission without a second thought, just waiting for the magic.
Publishers often have volunteer readers perform the preliminary acquisitions process in order to sort through their growing mound of submissions. These readers are typically undergrad or grad students who are engaged with literature in their programs. These readers don’t have time to sift through one hundred pages of every manuscript to wait for the storm to finally brew: if the magic isn’t there from the beginning, forget about it.
Think Like a Reader
According to Michael Shymanski, one of Ooligan’s Acquisitions Managers, think of your first page as the reader’s initial impression, much like “meeting your friend’s spouse for the first time.” First impressions can be insignificant, even disastrous, or they can be absolute magic. If the magic is there, an editor will know it immediately.
It’s no surprise then that pacing is crucial. While you wouldn’t want to jump straight into all the juicy details in the first paragraph, the first impression needs to “hint at an underlying theme,” and demonstrate a “nuance that provides depth to conflict and characters” (Shymanski). You want to give away just enough so that the reader gets a sense of the story’s direction and they can’t wait to continue reading.
Creating the Magic
So how do you create that “magic”? Shymanski suggests that it’s pretty simple: be original. A submission that may need some developmental or copyediting will receive more attention if it’s “beautifully written” and utterly original.
Hammering in on the importance of the first page, Lincoln Michel, author, editor, and Buzzfeed Contributor Extraordinaire, suggests that if your story can’t captivate the editor in the first page, the chances of it capturing a “random reader” are nil. Michel suggests constructing your story backwards if all the action begins on page three hundred.
Don’t be afraid to dive deep into “diversification and experimentation of voice” (Shymanski). Let your characters shine in a new light. Keep your reader craving more. And if the magic is there, maybe that editor will turn the page.
Oh, and please read the publisher’s submission guidelines before you submit your Harry Potter fan fiction to a poetry house.
Interest in true crime has been on the rise since the mid-2010s. Hundreds of podcasts, documentaries, TV shows, and books have all emerged for the consumer to learn about legendary serial killers and cases like Ted Bundy or the O.J. Simpson case. Surprisingly though, fascination with gruesome crimes has been a part of societies for decades, if not centuries, and research shows that nearly 85 percent of consumers are female. Just in the past fifty years, books such as The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule and Party Monster: A Fabulous But True Tale of Murder in Clubland by James St. James have flown off the shelves. While many of the books focus on the murders, madmen, and crazed, one wonders how the survivors and victims, who are generally women, walk in a world where their deepest traumas are made permanent on ink and paper.
Michelle McNmara was obsessed with the Golden State Killer (she even coined the name) and worked with the police in Sacramento, CA, to find them. For the last six years of her life, she worked on a true crime piece called I’ll Be Gone in the Dark that detailed her work to find the serial killer and rapists while also telling the stories of the survivors. Ms. McNamara unfortunately passed away before it could be finished, but it was later published with the help of her husband, Patton Oswalt, and detective Paul Holes. Due to this, the reader sees editor’s notes and rough versions of the author’s writing, giving them insight on how she chose to write the stories of the victims and survivors. The author made it clear that the research took a psychological toll on her, but rather than focus on the killer himself she made sure to place the victims “at the center of the story instead,” according to the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her ultimate goal was to show the strength of those who faced these traumas rather than the man who caused them. It offered those individuals a voice that was usually overshadowed by the public’s fascination with the perpetrator.
Ann Rule, a renowned true crime novelist, is best known for her book A Stranger Beside Me. This autobiographical and biographical piece details the demented killings of Ted Bundy and her time working at a sucide hotline call center with him before discovering who he really was. From 1980 to 2014, Ms. Rule published over thirty true crime books and was well-respected as a victims’ advocate who, like Michelle McNamara, focused on them. In a statement from the president at Simon & Schuster, Ann Rule’s decision to center her books around the victims “reinvented the crime genre and earned the trust of millions.”
With studies showing that a majority of true crime consumers are women who are often interested in the psychology of the perpetrator and the strength of the survivors, it’s clear just how important it is for a victim’s story to be heard. The researcher and social psychologist Amanda Vicary concluded that women wanted to read about “survival, whether it was preventing or surviving a crime.” There is a desire to read about the trauma of the survivors and victims, not only because it shifts the light away from the killer, but because it allows the consumer to understand how to avoid the situation themselves.
By being sensitive to the victim and allowing their voice to be heard, a true crime author can provide information for the reader without dimming the impact that the assailant had on their lives. The goal of the true crime genre is not to glorify these wrongdoers or give them an opportunity to share their side, but rather to teach us—the consumers—just how crazy the world can be and how it can alter a person’s life forever.
I think we can all agree that fact-checking is important. There have been several high-profile cases over the past few years that have had authors and publishers scrambling to make sure their books are perfect. Overlooking fact-checking can lead to an ill-received book at best and a controversial book at worst.
For example, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson wrote a book titled Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts which “sparked a major controversy when multiple people featured in the book said she had misrepresented them.” Some of these stories included misgendering (which was later fixed), instructions given to a reporter regarding personal protective equipment during the Ebola outbreak, and the fact that people were never contacted by a fact-checker after their initial interviews.
Now where’s the problem with that? According to The Chicago Manual of Style:
In book publishing, the author is finally responsible for the accuracy of a work; most book publishers do not perform fact-checking in any systematic way or expect it of their manuscript editors unless specifically agreed upon up front. Nonetheless, obvious errors, including errors in mathematical calculations, should always be pointed out to the author, and questionable proper names, bibliographic references, and the like should be checked and any apparent irregularities queried.
However, according to Abramson’s title as executive editor at the New York Times, one would think she would be a qualified person to speak on fact-checking in journalism and would fact-check her book about fact-checking. But the dilemma here is that fact-checking is a time-consuming, expensive project to take on. Some books will be easier to fact-check than others—a fantasy set in a new world won’t need much, if at all. On the other hand, a book about climate change would need a lot of fact-checking in order to be portrayed as an accurate source of information. According to the Editorial Freelancer’s Association, the going rate for freelance fact checkers is forty-six to fifty dollars an hour. That’s a lot of money for many authors. Not everyone is going to have large advances or people backing them, nor is everyone simply rich. Authors come from a variety of backgrounds including stay-at-home parents, teachers, and students. It may not be in their budget to pay someone forty dollars an hour to check work when they’re already pretty certain they’re portraying the facts as accurately as possible.
The Chicago Manual of Style does state that glaring issues should be pointed out to the author. Even though the brunt of the responsibility is placed on the author, it doesn’t mean that publishing houses can turn a blind eye to something they know is incorrect. But, if that’s the case, why don’t publishing houses just foot the bill for fact-checking? For starters, it means they aren’t liable if a controversy does happen. All of that responsibility has fallen to the author and while the publishing house may get some backlash, they can ultimately say that it wasn’t their fault. Another reason is simply that it’s an expensive process. When you’re a larger press, a good chunk of your money is going toward paying royalties from the author and promoting the book. At a small press, it’s mostly just printing and promoting the book.
Publishers are beginning to look more into fact-checking! Whether it be hiring fact-checkers or, in Ooligan’s case, having a team dedicated to fact-checking manuscripts, the publishing world is shifting so that the responsibility is on both parties. While the author ultimately needs to be fact-checking, publishers cannot overlook fact-checkers and just assume that authors have done their research anymore. Doing so will leave a big, red mark on their backlist that can never be removed.
In his novel A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway offers some “helpful” advice to overcome writer’s block. “All you have to do,” he says, “is write one true sentence.” Well, if it were always so easy to write one true sentence, then we would not need his advice in the first place.
We all experience writer’s block from time to time. It might be a novel. It might be a technical report. It might be a research paper. Maybe you are tired. Maybe you are uninspired. Maybe you are lacking confidence. Whatever the project and whatever the reason, you just can’t get the first few words down on paper.
When this happens to me, I try to remember some sage advice from three fabulous authors not named Hemingway. Here is what they have to say:
Think first, then write. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Robert Caro spends years researching and writing his books. In Working, he explains that he writes quickly but “it’s the research that takes the time.” We mere mortal authors don’t have years to devote to research before we start writing. Nonetheless, when I’m struggling to get started, it’s often because I have not thought enough about what I want to write. If I stop trying to write and go do more research or just go spend time thinking (best done on my bike, of course), I find that themes and ideas begin to form in my head and the writing begins to flow.
Write the first draft for yourself. Other times, I struggle because I’m worrying about who will read what I’m writing and what they will think about it. Stephen King, in On Writing, advises authors to write their first draft “with the study door closed.” In other words, he explains, write the first draft for yourself, not for whoever will read it. There’s time enough during the editing phase to worry about what others will think, but the first draft is just for you.
Be cheerful about that awful first draft. As I am writing, I find it easy to critique myself (This really stinks!) to the point of paralysis. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, explains that my critique is likely accurate: it does stink. But, she says, we should embrace our “shitty first drafts” because “all good writers do them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” Her advice is incredibly liberating. I am confident that my first draft will be really bad, so I might as well keep writing.
If I were to add my own helpful tip, it would be this: Every writing assignment is a creative writing assignment. Often what gets in the way of starting a writing project is worrying about meeting the rubric or the requirements. This is particularly true for technical reports or research papers. I tell myself to throw out the rules and just be creative. Eventually I will have to bring the manuscript into conformity with whatever rules are applicable, but the first draft is my own creative writing assignment with no rules other than the ones I choose.
I find that if I follow these bits of advice, I typically end up with a collection of words on paper. It might not be a terribly good collection of words. It might not have even one true sentence. But it is a first draft that maybe, just maybe, has the potential to go from shitty to good to terrific.
There are many perks to being a freelance editor. You can set your own schedule, choose editorial tasks that suit you and play to your strengths, and you can often work from the comfort of your own home. But if you’re a new freelance editor on the scene, you might have some trouble breaking into the field and establishing yourself as an authority in your particular specialty. Whether you specialize in developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading, or some combination of the three, there are a few great online platforms you can use to kickstart or revamp your career.
The first platform is great for editors who are just getting started and want to establish themselves in the field. Upwork is a platform that allows freelancers of all types to find remote work opportunities posted by companies and individuals looking for experts. All you need to do to get started is create a profile on their site, upload some personal information, and provide your past relevant work experience. Once your profile has been approved, you’re all set to start applying for jobs.
Reedsy is another great site for freelance editors to find work, and it has the added bonus of focusing specifically on the development and production of books. If you’re a freelance book editor looking to expand your client base and get more projects, this is a great place to start. As with most sites, it may take a little time to get fully established, and Reedsy is especially useful for editors who already have a portfolio of work they can showcase.
Another popular platform for freelancers that editors can make use of is Fiverr. While this particular site doesn’t focus exclusively on book production like Reedsy does, it still offers numerous opportunities for editors to find work, especially those who specialize in copyediting and proofreading. It also gives you the opportunity to curate your own presence on the site with images and work samples so you can attract the kind of editorial clients you’d ultimately like to work with.
These three sites are all great starting points for editors looking to find their first clients or for those looking to revamp their careers. They allow editors to start out and get some basic editorial experience, and your success on these sites will compound the more experience you get. Be sure to collect work samples from each project you complete, as well as testimonials from clients you work with so you can add them to your profile to attract future clients. There’s a lot of competition for editors out there, so it’s important to make yourself stand out and highlight what makes you unique.
When setting your rates, be sure to refer to the Editorial Freelancer’s Association and their editorial rates page as well as considering the going rates for comparable editors on the site you choose. Remember that one of the biggest mistakes new editors make is not charging enough for their services, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve! You want your rates to be competitive, but above all, to reflect your talent, expertise, and the value of your work.
There are several different types of editing, but the two main edits that happen for the majority of books are developmental edits and copyedits. For many editors, there is a strict line between the two, but this line is easy to cross when they become enveloped in the manuscript. Here are some tips on spotting the difference and knowing what each manuscript means.
Developmental edits happen in the very beginning stages of the writing process. According to Tucker Max at Scribe, developmental editing looks at the bare bones of a manuscript, allowing an editor to see the big picture of the book and know what needs to change. This means editors ensure that arguments are consistent throughout the book, that plot lines tie up, and that ultimately everything flows as it should. In short, developmental editors:
- Make sure the big picture of the manuscript makes sense and remains consistent.
- Organize the plot and content of the book.
- Highlight scene changes and character shifts.
- Ensure that the plot and characters of the book are as polished as they can be.
- Provide manuscript feedback and commentary on the whole book.
How does this differ from a copyedit? Reedsy describes a copyedit as bringing the completed manuscript to a more professional level. In doing this, a book will be coherent, concise, and correct in all forms. So, where a developmental editor will look at the big picture and overall progression of a manuscript, a copyeditor looks at the nitty-gritty, minute details that give a book that polished look we see on bookshelves. To sum it up, copyeditors look at:
- Spelling, grammar, and capitalization. They often track this with a style sheet, which indicates the publishing house’s chosen style guide, like the Chicago Manual of Style or MLA, as well as an in-house guide, and the specific terms and writing style that the author uses and should be consistent in the manuscript.
- Word usage and repetition, as well as usage of numbers. This information also belongs on the style sheet, but is more specific and often strictly follows a style guide. Noting how these are used helps the copyeditor ensure consistency.
- Point of view (POV). It is very easy to miss a shift in POV when an author stares at a manuscript for hours on end. Copyeditors make sure that POV and tone doesn’t take an unusual shift throughout the book.
- Inconsistencies. This can be in locations, characters, spellings, etc. Copyeditors find and correct inconsistencies to the best of their ability to create a polished manuscript.
These editorial jobs might appear easy to differentiate, but there are small crossovers in each position that often allow editors to cross the line in their job. When a copyeditor is entranced in correcting inconsistencies, they can get trapped in suggesting rewrites and spending too much time leaving comments on plot, which is the job of a developmental editor. Sometimes a developmental editor can be so distracted by the grammatical errors that they end up scanning the whole manuscript before proceeding to plot hole corrections. In each case, it’s easy to get swept up in the moment, but there is a line that editors should respect (for themselves and the author) and know when to return to their specified job for the project.
In the developmental editing process, you might notice an author relying on similar images and words that are repeated every so often throughout the manuscript. As editors, we can facilitate and expand the growth of our authors’ prose through poetry to inspire fresh language and images. By encouraging the author to read poetry for specific craft skills and ideas, they can translate what the poets are doing to their prose writing, and add more diverse elements to their style. Some of the takeaways you can have your authors focus on include:
Rhythm and Sound
Rhythm and the sound of words are key aspects to poetry, but prose writers can utilize similar techniques to enliven their sentences. In her article for NY Book Editors, Tania Strauss says through your control of rhythm and pacing, “you can manipulate the speed at which the reader reads, emphasize certain thoughts and ideas over others, and even affect the reader’s perception of the narrator’s personality.” With new perspectives on syntax and structure, your author can play around with the variability of their sentences. They can choose to lull the readers with their rhythm or to pack a punch into their prose with a staccato sentence, among other techniques. This is a good aspect of poetry to have authors focus on if you feel that their sentences could be more diverse or if you feel the author could lean into their style more.
Compelling Images and Metaphors
Many poets do a great job of creating lines that captivate the reader’s imagination. If you feel like a scene could use another memorable image or two to really solidify it, you can have your authors focus on how poets create interesting images, as well as how they build complex metaphors. Often, the images to look for are those that don’t rely on what we are used to as readers. Exciting and vivid images will build more intrigue into the descriptions a writer employs, and they won’t rely on the same, rote language that’s been used plenty of times before.
Pivot points, turns of phrase, subversions, and strong word choices are all ways a writer can surprise their readers at the sentence level. In poetry, this often comes in the form of line breaks or an interesting word or two, but the prose writer can use these small moments to keep readers interested in what your author will say next because they have already shown they take care in their craft to write thought-provoking sentences.
These can be ways an author builds momentum over the span of the scene, chapter, or manuscript to carry the reader through the story. If you find yourself pulled by the narrative but the sentences could have more moments of subverting the reader’s expectations, this is a fun space to have authors think about.
I’ve only included a few ways poetry can help your author’s prose, but it’s safe to say that there are many more craft elements to glean from poetry. However, you don’t need to prescribe poetry simply because the manuscript could use some sort of a boost. The venture into poetry can help a writer throughout their lifetime, and this is a great time to dive into poetry with all of the excellent contemporary poets publishing incredible work.