Hooray – you sold a book! Or you’re going to. When not if! Believe it’s true etc. Anyway, you edit and polish before you submit and by the time it’s sent off, you’re probably ready to stab yourself in the eyes rather than look at your book again. But, sorry, you will indeed be seeing it again, and again and again, for more edits, from your publisher.
There seem to be a lot of myths around about publisher’s edits, ranging from “they just correct spelling and grammar” to “the editor must be fought at every turn as their goal is to rip the very heart and soul out of your story!”
Neither is true of course, at least not when you’re dealing with a good publisher who does thorough edits. You will have content edits as well as line edits. Content edits will help iron out plot problems, improve the pacing, and keep characterisation consistent, that kind of thing. Then after that the line edits will clean up the language. While there may be some grammar correction in this phase, it’s more about making the language more effective. You probably won’t even have got this far if your grammar needs a lot of correcting. And as for spelling – if you need your spelling corrected for anything other than US/UK differences for example, then I must point you at the F7 key that starts your spell-checker. I’m a terrible typist and quite a bad speller, so my first drafts are full of typos. But I know where my spell checker is.
Here are the tips I can pass on from having gone through three novel edits now. All of those have been with the same publisher, so I can only vouch for my experience there. But talking to other writers with different publishers, the experiences seem to be about the same, so I hope it’s useful.
Before the edits arrive
The first thing I’d say is learn to use Track Changes in Word. Many publishers will want to do the edits with you that way, so learn now, before you get your novel back with all that weird stuff on it and have to figure it out when you should be using your brain power on the actual edits. Fortunately, Track Changes is pretty easy to use. There isn’t much to learn. Use the Help in Word and tutorials on the Microsoft website or elsewhere on the web.
Connect with a friend who either already knows or wants to learn Track Changes and exchange test bits of text to mark up. It only needs to be a couple of pages. Be hypercritical with each other so you can see every kind of change. Go back and forth a couple of times like that and you’ll have it figured out and be ready to rock when you get the real thing.
When the edits arrive
Don’t open up your novel and work on the edits right away (unless they’re just final tweaks or your deadline was yesterday of course.) Skim through them, then go away and recover/get drunk/cry as appropriate. Between the criticism of your
baby book and the sight of what looks like a mountain of work, you’ll need some time to take it in. Sleep on it if you can. Then come back the next day and get working on them. They will look less scary the next day.
Don’t work start to end. Do it in a few sweeps. First do all the easy bits – mostly just clicking “accept change”, etc. Then do a sweep of the small rewrites, ones that are just a sentence or two. Finally do the BIG stuff that needs much more thought and time. Strangely, this is the exact opposite from the way I work when doing my own edit, presubmission, where I work big to small.
Getting all the small easy stuff out of the way reduces the sea of red on the document and makes the amount of work appear less oppressive, even though there is still a lot of work to do! It’s something that probably fits the old 80:20 rule. Maybe 80% of the changes marked are small ones and can be done quickly – in, say, 20% of the overall editing time. The other 20% take 80% of the editing time. The percentages will vary of course, but that’s the basic principle.
You learn a lot about your weaknesses from your edits, but don’t let it get you down. Rather turn it to your advantage. Treat it as a lesson for the future. Use the edits – especially line edits – to create a checklist of your overused words and phrases, grammar blind spots and other weaknesses and use it before you submit your next one. My first line edit for Liar’s Waltz was, I think the word is excoriating. Or in more everyday terms – it was like being scrubbed with a wire brush. But I made that checklist of my weaknesses and applied it when I edited Stowaway and then Higher Ground. Result – far fewer eye-wateringly painful line edits. Though I still apparently know Jack Shit about commas.
You and the editor
Don’t think of what the editor does as making changes, but rather as offering suggestions. You can always take a suggestion and make a slightly different change instead. If the editor likes it, you’re golden, and it shows you’re thinking, not just blindly accepting suggestions.
Trust the editor to know what she’s doing, but remember that you are the only one who knows for sure what you intend with a scene. If the suggestions given make it appear the editor doesn’t get what you’re going for then you’re probably failing to achieve the effect you want. Tell her what you’re trying to do and let her help you get it right.
Editors are not ogres (well, none of the ones I’ve dealt with so far are. There could be some…) If there’s something you don’t understand, be a grown up about it and ask! If it’s your first published book the editor knows you’re in unfamiliar territory.
Most importantly – don’t think of the editor as your enemy. You may disagree on some things, but you both have the same goal, to make the book as good as possible. You’re a team.