Thursday, October 19, 2017

Editing; or, Stages in Book Preparation

On October 14, 2017, libraries around the country celebrated Indie Author Day by sponsoring programs for independent authors. Libraries held panels, readings, workshops, and group signings. During an Indie Author Day at a community library, the librarian handed out a guide to different kinds of editing.

As a former freelance editor and ghostwriter I was interested in the way the guide described the levels of editing. Things have changed a great deal since I was freelancing, but I question the divisions and descriptions, largely because they don’t match up with what freelancers were expected to do prior to POD and self-publishing. For my own peace of mind, I want to describe the breakdown for the stages of book preparation.

Before self-publishing, writers who wanted to write and publish went through traditional channels to reach an acquisitions editor. If the manuscript was written but not finished, which was often the case with nonfiction and less so with fiction, the editor might accept the ms provisionally while the writer worked on substantive issues, or the ms was handed off to an editor for developmental editing. The latter was often the case with textbooks and with ms by people who were not writers but professionals in their field.

Developmental editing for nonfiction involves fleshing out ideas, working through and rounding out discussions, reorganizing and sometimes adding material that is logically necessary to the text, and making sure the arguments presented make sense for the whole. This is where ghostwriters come in, and some earn a very good living finishing books for other people. In fiction, the developmental editor might suggest adding a scene, combining characters, increasing tension in certain scenes, or clarifying a subplot.

When the ms was completed, it might be passed along to a fact checker. These are often librarians who can take the time to do the work of checking facts in addition to their own duties. At a private library where I often did research, some of the assistant librarians were regularly engaged in a fact-checking job, and had to track down unusual or interesting details. The publisher pays for this in important nonfiction work such as a biography by an important historical figure by a well-known author.

After developmental editing, which the author must approve, the editor managing the progress of the ms sends it along for copyediting. This is where a lot of confusion comes in. What exactly is copyediting? When I began freelancing for university presses as well as trade houses, copyediting was everything covered in the Chicago Manual of Style. If you have seen the reference book, you know exactly what that means. Copyediting covers a lot. Yes, it covers spelling, punctuation, and grammar, as well as the specific style chosen for the book (AP, MLA, a specific university press style, or any other style).

In the simplest nonfiction ms, this means editing the bibliography, the notes, and the text, in that order, and making sure all relate appropriately. (Footnotes have a tendency to drift away from their anchor, landing in the middle of a paragraph where they are confusing rather than elucidating.)

Because of the technical aspects of university press publications, editors must rely on experts in various fields, such as mathematics or chemistry, to edit technical work. A good copyeditor in her chosen field learns to recognize something that sounds off and will either check it herself or call attention to it. If the author remarks that the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington State occurred almost exactly 100 years to the day after the explosion in Krakatoa, the copyeditor can easily check that. (No, they are not so related. Krakatoa erupted in 1883, and the other one in 1980.) But if she is unsure, she can tag it for the author. But she cannot miss the correct styling of the names. Mount Saint Helens? No. The correct form is Mount St. Helens. The editor must know how to style signs, lakes, artwork, plays and poems, and anything else that appears in letters.

Proofreading is sometimes mixed in with copyediting, but this is a different function tied to print, the version that is going to be checked and then bound and sold to bookstores. The purpose of the proofreader is to make certain that everything that was approved in the final copyedited ms appears in that form in the proof copy. If it is not there, the proofreader marks it to be inserted. If the author discovers an error that can be corrected without undue changes, she notifies the editor. Writers are warned not to start rewriting the book at this point. It’s done. Leave it alone.

Proofreaders are not perfect, as editors are not. The easiest way to discover if errors have crept in and not been corrected is to read the index (if there is one—a disappearing feature of books). Sometimes a reader will find two versions of a proper name listed in the index because the copyeditor failed to notice one of them was different, failed to query the author, or the author failed to answer the query. By the time the index is done, it’s too late. Some things you just have to live with.

These divisions are straightforward and logical. A writer who wants more help with developing the story or theme remains in developmental or substantive editing until she has a version she is happy with. Copyediting is a final polish, a way to catch minor errors (and, one hopes, not big glaring ones). The proofreader makes sure the entire ms is correctly transferred into the form available to buyers.

Self-publishing and POD services have changed publishing dramatically, but the process from first draft to final form should still follow a logical path to ensure the final result is as near perfect as possible. Yes, I’m a bit fussy about this. But the reader will appreciate the writer’s and editor’s careful work.

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