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Editing

by Joe Coccaro, Executive Editor

When you submit a manuscript for publication, we will be evaluate which level of editing we think it requires.

Line-Editing

The most involved and time-consuming is what we call a structural edit. Some publishers call it a substantive edit; others call it a line edit or developmental editing. Make sure you’re clear on what your editor or publisher is providing.

A structural edit for fiction typically involves the big stuff. That’s primarily what I call taking a 5,000-foot view of the work. I focus on things like:

  • Plot
  • Pacing
  • Narration and voice
  • Character development
  • Sequencing
  • Transition
  • Verb tense
  • Dialogue development and structure
  • Redundancy

Nonfiction is much the same as the imagined world. Above all, the writing must be clear and the organization cohesive. The biggest difference is standards of accuracy. Fiction is invented and often has disclaimers that indicate it doesn’t concern real persons or events. Nonfiction work is, ostensibly fact-based, therefore implying truth. Most often inaccuracies result from laziness—not intent.

The best way to avoid mistakes is to double-check—make that triple-check—the spellings of names and places. You may also want to consider reading the manuscript out loud to help catch errors. Misspelled names erode author credibility. That goes for dates as well. If you make a historical reference and the date is wrong, someone will notice. And if that someone is antagonistic, he could spread the word about your gaffe. The Internet is unforgiving.

Here’s how to help bulletproof your work:

  • Double-check spellings of all proper names.
  • Double-check accuracy of dates and places.
  • Don’t sacrifice clarity for style.
  • Learn the basics of libel law.
  • Work with an editor familiar with libel law.

Entire books have been written on the topics of plot development, storytelling, and libel laws. In fact, some writers spend two years in college creative writing and journalism programs studying these subjects. I mention them here to simply alert you to what to expect during a structural edit and what to ask yourself before that process begins.

Copy-Editing

The in-the-weeds version of editing is what I call a copy edit. Some call it a line-by-line edit; others say word edit. This second-level of editing typically comes after the structural edit. A line edit is what I describe as a “scrub.” The copy editor goes word by word line by line to vacuum the manuscript clean of typos, misspellings, extra spaces, incomplete sentences, and grammatical inconsistencies. But the biggest job of all is making sure the manuscript complies with one of the major style guides. There are a few, but the best-known are The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Style-book. Both set forth a litany of rules for things like use of italics, capitalization, numerals and titles, etc. The Chicago Manual of Style is cumbersome—no, make that a pain. The 16th Edition is 1,026 pages. This is why copy editors are paid.

When discussing copy editing with a publisher, here is what you should expect:

  • Grammar, spelling, punctuation check
  • Style guide compliance
  • Scrubbing out typos
  • Fixing any lingering issues of clarity

A few words of advice for working with a copy editor: Love them, appreciate them. They are nitpickers by trade and, as such, can be annoying at times. But they can save you from much embarrassment. They’re your safety net. They catch the lingering issues you and your structural editor have missed. And, believe me, there are always lingering issues. It’s not at all unusual for a copy editor to vacuum up 200 to 400 “typos” and mistakes in a 75,000-word document. So, just as with a structural editor, it’s imperative that you work with an experienced, diligent copy editor.

Quick story: John Köehler and I have fixed many books for authors who have self-published. One spent more than $10,000 on editing, cover design, and layout with a big self-publishing firm. The book was a flaming mess; the cover was awful and nearly every chapter was rife with mistakes. And the editing? All I will say is that this writer was done a grave injustice. This instance, and many like it that I have witnessed, are what gives book publishing a taint. I was disgusted.

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