Why a Book Needs More than One Editor


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Traditionally published books undergo an extensive editing process. Rather than merely crossing the desk of a single editor armed with a red pen and a hatred for grammar errors, each book accepted by a traditional publisher is assigned an editing team. While the precise breakdown varies from company to company and there are instances when one person will fill more than one of these roles, such a team generally consists of a developmental and/or content editor, a line or copy editor, and at least one proofreader—whose work will often be followed by the work of yet another proofreader just prior to the printing phase. For this reason, Christian Editing Services offers clients the chance to partner with a group of skilled professionals dedicated to developing each manuscript to its potential.

The first phase of editing—critiquing—is best understood as a pre-edit that provides basic developmental feedback. In this step an editor well versed in the specific genre will pinpoint any major flaws, like plot underdevelopment or a faulty premise, which would likely earn the client scathing Amazon reviews no matter how hard the editors work to overcome them. In other words, while not exhaustive, critiques are designed to give an author a general idea of how much work a book will need before the content edit can begin. For instance, one writer may need to partner with a ghostwriter or researcher who can help her pad out her ideas. Another may need to start over, revisiting a character or concept in a way that will make his book a better read. Perhaps the critique editor will decide an author’s vision is too similar to something already on the market and will suggest changes geared toward setting the work apart. The developmental team at Christian Editing Services starts each critique by reading a manuscript in its entirety, working to make sure they know the book well and seeking to get to know the writer through message and ability level. Once that step is done, he or she will supply 2-4 pages of typed feedback geared specifically to the manuscript. Among the repeat offenders this step pinpoints are major switches in point of view, or what we in the industry call head hopping; poor character development; confusing narrative; switches in verb tense; flowery over-writing; sparse under-writing; lack of believability; theological concerns; structural issues; proof texting—that is, taking Scripture verses out of context to “prove” a point; weak or unbelievable dialogue; churchy language that can alienate non-Christian readers; and just plain bad writing. In every case, the completed critique will be handed to the writer with the expectation that he or she will make any necessary revisions before proceeding to the second phase of editing.

During the content edit, finer story and message shaping take place—though there is a limit to the development that can be done in this phase, thus making the critique all the more necessary. It is in the content editing work that the rough draft begins to read more like a final paper—though that paper will still have plenty of spelling and grammar mistakes when this phase is completed. (More on that in a moment.) Content editors read a manuscript as a whole and come alongside the writer to untangle any knots, fill any holes, and to generally smooth a manuscript to its best. They work on things like text organization, transitions, readability, style issues, more intensive idea development, paragraph and chapter agreement, and focus. They will ask hard questions like, “Does the language the author is using really fit the intended audience? Is this plot or dialogue believable here? And if not, how can I fix it?” In the case of fiction editing, the content editor goes a step further. He or she gets very picky about matters like consistency and whether a writer is showing what he wants readers to see or is merely telling them about it. The content editor thinks in terms of presenting buyers with a better read.

It is in this phase, usually worked through one chapter at a time, that a really good editor will seem like either an author’s biggest ally or the enemy picking on his or her work. That’s because it is the nature of the content editor’s role to take the lead in making a book what it could be, often rewriting sections and reorganizing content in ways the writer never before considered, thus professionalizing the whole.

Next is the phase of editing that most have in mind when they hear the word, editor. Copy editors, or line editors, do exactly what that name implies. Line by line they tighten and smooth and clarify, checking a manuscript’s details. Chief on their list of duties is catching anything overlooked during the content edit, polishing the content editor’s work to its best. They focus on spelling; punctuation; grammar; finer consistency of story, message, or character; best word choice, transitions, and verb tenses. They keep an eye out for sentences that are too long or wording that feels awkward, redundant, or choppy. A good copy editor will also be alert for clichés, tired expressions like “clear as crystal” that can make writing feel dull. If a writer has included illustrations or charts with his work, a good copy editor will let him know what fails to earn its spot on the page. They can also, usually for an additional fee, verify Bible references or external source materials cited in a work. And best of all, unlike content editors, who often make their changes and send the writer only a clean copy with a list of questions needing clarification, copy editors work in Microsoft Track Changes. The client will be able to see and/or reject every little thing a copy editor tweaks.

So, to summarize, an author who takes advantage of this team editing approach has her work critiqued for big picture feedback. She makes some changes based on what she learns in that step and then submits the manuscript to a content editor who polishes it and possibly reworks sections to make it stronger. She then hands it off to a copy editor and decides that she loves what the team has accomplished thus far. Now her book is ready for one final—and very important—editing step: the proofread. Here a detail editor will read the completed book from the title page through an index, eyeing every word for anything the writer and the other editing team members might have missed.

While an aspiring author may at first feel overwhelmed at the thought of having the eyes of so many professionals on his manuscript, he is wise to remember that the more effort is expended in making a book shine today, the more readers can enjoy and benefit from it tomorrow.

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.”
 (Colossians 3:23)

 Posted by Bethany McShurley, CES Editor and Critique Specialist

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