How to Edit a Book Manuscript – the Overall Process of Manuscript Editing
By Karen S. Cole
How do I edit – how to edit a book manuscript?
When a client first contacts me, they may not give me a lot of information. I need enough info to give them a ballpark figure or quote. I need to know: how many total pages the manuscript is at present; how many total words it is too. I need to know the topic, the genre, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, and any important details. Once I have this basic info, I have a better idea of what to charge the client.
Next, I usually ask to see the first 20 pages of the manuscript. Sometimes, in order to impress the client, I offer to do a free five-page rewrite out of those pages. I am doing this in order to show the client my writing style. How I can fade back and stick with the original “voice” of each client, which shows in my editing samples. I send these to the client in a zip file, with each prior client’s voice shining on through.
Once the client is happy with the sample edit, I ask for the complete manuscript. I also sign the GWI Editing Contract with the client, which lays out all our mutual responsibilities and rights regarding working on the book manuscript. My first attack on the manuscript is to read it over, absorbing everything and reviewing it to see what exactly needs worked on, changed or rewritten for the client. This is done by skimming the manuscript quickly. Sometimes I make minor corrections as I go while doing this first overall review. Often I even launch right in to make major changes.
I highlight in yellow whole areas I feel need reworked in a minor or major way. I red mark areas I think are excessive, extraneous or which I feel are redundant. The idea is to remove or change those so the manuscript flows more smoothly. If I am mostly grammar, spelling, syntax, color and style editing, I don’t always bother with this. I just begin at the front of the manuscript and proceed through to the end.
How to edit a book manuscript – what is your specific process?
Usually, the beginning of the manuscript needs to be rewritten. I make it more colorful, pithy, “in your face” or otherwise a standout. Sometimes I write up a whole new beginning, depending on the author client’s needs. This gets floated past the client one segment at a time, so I don’t go too far without the client’s permission. Often I do this in the free five-page sample, so the client knows exactly what to expect. If I’m working from notes, I hang everything together professionally, writing it out in a grammatically sound, polished manner. This shows the client exactly what I can do.
If the GWI Editing Contract specifies that I will be working on the book manuscript for four months, I will prepare one-fourth of the manuscript per month. Out of 200 pages, for example, I will work on 50 pages at a time. I find in most cases that my color and style editing adds in about five pages per each 50 pages, or more. So this is figured into the overall amount of pages when finished. Sometimes, though, there are enough redundancies that several pages are subtracted from the final figure. As I edit, I may use the Chicago Manual of Style. This is in the case of nonfiction manuscripts mostly. Those often need certain elements of writing, such as annotations. I have to ensure they are entered appropriately.
Lately I’ve been editing lots of fiction manuscripts. Mostly other members of my team handle nonfiction manuscripts with special needs, such as technical or academic writing. Fiction tends to flow along without any such problems, so I don’t have to worry. The main thing with fiction is to retain consistency with the characters.
As I edit, I do my best to think in terms of the future readers of the work. I ask myself questions: does this sound interesting? What would make this read punchier and more evocative, more charming and more sophisticated? How can I make this exciting, grabbing the reader’s attention? Should I add in some new information, risking the client’s wrath if it’s not to their liking? I use notes to catch the client’s attention about things when they get questionable; anything can be changed or removed.
What types of book editing do you do?
By the time I’ve edited the first ten pages, I have developed a feel for the overall nature and structure of the book. Often, my client is such a good book author, all that needs done is basic grammar, spelling, syntax, color and style editing, with redundancy removal and thorough fact checking. These are among the services I offer.
For works that require more, we offer you content and developmental editing. The grammar et al editing is much less involved. It entails rewriting just to make the writing sound better, well-organized and more professional. The content and developmental editing involves total restructuring sometimes, often only in certain parts of the book. The ending may be removed and placed at the beginning, the middle may be completely thrown onto its ear, the whole book may be taken out of its original voice, etc. But it may be merely a case of turning around certain boring, undeveloped parts of the book.
The commonest developmental editing I do is restructuring subplots and the less major characters. Too often, these are bogging down the work, especially in a fiction novel. I weave things in and out seamlessly, enabling greater fluidity in the writing. If something seems too old, cliché or “done before,” I discuss changing things with the client. But many times, the writing is all that needs alteration, the style, thrust and direction of it. The way it reads, how it moves and breathes.
Also, I concentrate largely on the removal of any frequent redundancies. These can happen when certain words, favorites of the author client, are repeated throughout the manuscript. Also, some scenes may be boring and redundant, the same thing happening over and over, and are easy to remove. They may be favorites of the client, but they are clearly bogging down the book. Some clients refuse to remove these, however.
As I approach the middle of the manuscript, I may ask the client what he or she thinks of things so far. Is there anything further you would like to see done with this? In most cases, they tell me things are going fine and they are enjoying my style. I accept my pay in advance of delivering each installment. Once it’s delivered, the client tells me what they need to see changed, and I enter in all of the changes they request. We hash it back and forth with the client making any needed corrections in my rewriting. Sometimes this goes out of the standard editing outlined in the GWI Editing Contract, but I don’t mind if it’s done during the initial process of editing the book.
I believe it’s relatively easy to answer the question: how to edit a book manuscript. Each editor does it in their own individual way. When I finish up the editing, I always allow for one final, complete revision of the entire book manuscript. This is included in the GWI Editing Contract, where I assign two revisions of each manuscript segment and one full final revision. You don’t want a client to keep having you make changes over time. Some overly picky clients will make you work on a manuscript for no further pay for years, if you don’t specific a limited amount of manuscript revisions.
So I finish up the manuscript, thinking in terms of developmental editing throughout if it appears to be needed. The client usually has a strong vision of what is desired, though, so normally I don’t go outside the periphery of their vision. Then I help them put together a splendid, life-affirming ending, which will lead their readers on to their next book. It’s always best to have a slam-bang beginning and ending, especially in a fiction novel. The beginning keeps them reading, the ending makes them come back for more. The middle can contain nearly anything, but should be riveting from page to page. All the plots, subplots, main characters and lesser characters should be completely limned, treated well, and made into something utterly fascinating.
When sizing up the editing of a book, the client should review whether or not the editor kept to their “voice” and tone throughout the writing. They should, all through the editing process, fact check to ensure the writing reads consistently, and all their ducks are in a row. Finally, they should be happy with what their professional book editor has done, and pleased with the entire final results. More editing and revisions may appear to be required. If so, if they are not allowed in the original contract, a new agreement may be signed. This ensures that the book editor is paid for any further such work. No work except for the free sample edit should ever be done for free.