I always cringe when someone calls or emails and says, “I wrote my book last weekend. I need an editor.”
Yes, you do need an editor, but not yet. What you did was write a first rough draft. That’s why I also cringe when I see webinars promoting “how to write your book in 30 days” or “write a best seller in six easy steps.”
You can’t write a publish-worthy book in thirty days or in any easy steps. Writing takes time. Writing is rewriting, as so many successful authors say including my new boyfriend Stephen King, and nothing is that easy about writing.
You create a working draft and then revise. But when do you stop revising and turn your precious baby over to an editor?
I like to tell authors, “Don’t come to me until you are sick of looking at your manuscript.” “I want you to be completely done, not just tired of it.” “I want you to have written and rewritten more than you ever thought you would.”
You will, no doubt, always find places to tighten, words to sharpen, redundancies to fix, and writing to revise. But if you feel you’re at the point where you truly are sick of your working draft, contact an appropriate editor.
Of course, some authors tinker forever, and I have to nudge them to let it go. They rethink and rewrite. They are always questioning whether this word is the perfect one or whether that scene is expressed exactly right. At some point, they need to step away from the keyboard.
PRO TIP: If you just can’t let go, try this test. See if you can read at least ten pages without making a single change in a word or punctuation. If you can get through a random ten pages from the middle of your work, you’re ready for an edit.
Also consider this. When you revise your work, are you starting at the beginning every time and moving through to the end and maybe you don’t get through it all every pass? If so, your earlier chapters are going to have been reread and revised more than the latter half of the book. I see this all the time—polished material at the beginning and half-baked chapters toward the end. Longer chapters at the beginning, shorter chapters in final sections.
ANOTHER PRO TIP: If you insist on going over your material yet again, start in the middle. Or revise your chapters starting from the last one. Now wasn’t that tip worth the time to read this blog?
If you have specific questions for your editor, make a list of concerns to submit with your manuscript or use the Comment feature in Word’s Track Changes and flag items in the manuscript.
Your Editor Is Not Your High School English Teacher
Your editor is not (or should not be) a rigid tyrant with a red pencil. You are the author. Your name is on the front cover of your book. Your editor is a professional who can guide you in writing the best book you can.
We’re also not your high school English teacher, so we will actually make editorial changes for you and leave you kind notes in the margin. We’ll explain why you might consider different phrasing, and we’ll suggest alternate words for you. We don’t use red marking pens or keep you after school. We also don’t grade you, and your graduation doesn’t depend on your writing a sterling essay. Exhale now.
Your Editor Knows the Rules of Writing and Helps You Apply Them
Use our expertise to decide which level of editing your manuscript needs and follow a few smart steps to come to an agreement with your editor before any proverbial red pencils hit the paper:
• Submit your entire manuscript to an editor. We need to see the entire beast, not just a sample (which is usually your first chapter, and often the most rewritten).
• Let us evaluate the level of editing and decide whether your work requires a line edit or copy edit to move your work along toward publication.
• Ask an editor to perform a sample edit of, say, five pages or several hundred words. Then you can see the level of edit the editor is performing on your work. Let the editor choose where to draw that sample from (I randomly scroll and stop in the middle).
• Make sure the editor knows your goals for the edit. If you just want your words cleaned up, or if you’re not open to making changes in structure or letting someone tinker with your words, then go with a copy edit (I don’t recommend this, however; that’s like getting half a haircut).
• Be open to editorial suggestions but know that you have the final say.
• Know when you want to break the rules. Editors should be open to capitalizing key phrases in your industry, even when the Chicago Manual of Style would not suggest caps. For example, when I edited When the Mob Ran Vegas, the author and I agreed that we would capitalize Mob and Mobster. We did. Consistently. That’s the key. If you break the rules, be consistent.
Don’t do this:
• Editors cannot be expected to write best sellers. If we could, I’d write one with my name on the front cover. An edit will help you put your best work forward. I call the process of editing like a dry cleaner getting the mustard stains out of the blouse or tie, so they’re not distracting.
• Don’t ask the editor, “Is this good?” Here’s what I tell authors I work with: I can tell you if I enjoyed your story or the history or memoir or leadership advice. I am one person and I may not be your target reader. I can give you my opinion. If you want to test your work on the market of target readers, consider a beta reader process with a dozen or more test readers. I can make your manuscript mechanically sound and ready for publication. The goal of an edit is not to create the next Pulitzer Prize–winning work. It’s to help you be as close to error-free as possible after you have written that award winner.
Sandra Wendel is a highly experienced nonfiction book editor. She is a published author herself, sharing the authorship of two award-winning, empowering consumer health books with Edward T. Creagan, MD, a Mayo Clinic physician who blogs at (www.AskDoctorEd.com). Her new book has just been released: Cover to Cover: What First-Time Authors Need to Know about Editing (Insider Secrets Nobody Ever Tells You). Sandra teaches highly popular continuing education classes on book writing at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha. She reviews books under consideration for NFAA and Eric Hoffer Awards. Visit her website at www.SandraWendel.com. Email her at Sandra@SandraWendel.com. Join the Facebook group at FirstTimeAuthorsClub.
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