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Editing Essentials

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PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2009

by Natalie Schwartz —


When I walk into my den, I immediately notice the sweatshirt slung over the chair, the magazines sprawled on the coffee table, the errant socks on the floor. My beloved husband and children, who created the disorder, fail to notice it. But I feel compelled to eliminate the clutter and clean the room so it’s comfortable and inviting, especially if we’re expecting guests.

The delivered draft of a manuscript is usually like my untidy den, marred by confusing passages, convoluted sentences, and grammatical errors. Even the most talented writers are likely to overlook these offenses because they’re too close to their work, much as my lovable family is incapable of noticing the chaos directly in front of them. But I’m not writing this article to vent about my family’s proclivity for making messes or their contention that I’m obsessively neat. I’m writing because immaculate copy in your books is essential. To garner respect and attention from distributors, retailers, and readers, it’s imperative that you produce high-quality copy that’s engaging, coherent, dynamic, tight, and grammatically correct.

Readers are a publisher’s guests. When they open a book of yours, they enter your world. Errors are distracting and off-putting; a book laden with mistakes can damage your reputation. You want your readers to feel comfortable in your book so they enjoy their visit and rave about it to others.


The Efficient Editorial Process

To produce a high-quality product within a deadline, you need to assemble a team and implement an efficient editorial process. The conventional process, and the one that I find works best, is a three-step approach: editor to copyeditor to proofreader. Ideally, three different people will handle these tasks. A fresh pair of eyes on each draft is most capable of noticing errors.

When I began to research and write my book, The Teacher Chronicles: Confronting the Demands of Students, Parents, Administrators and Society, I decided to publish it myself because I was passionate about the topic, and I wanted to execute my own vision. Although I work as a freelance editor, copyeditor, and proofreader, I still recruited colleagues to handle these tasks. I enlisted an insightful editor to help me develop the book; a reliable copyeditor to ensure it was well organized, articulate, and grammatically correct; and a detail-oriented proofreader to eliminate the minutest errors.


The Editor as Interior Designer

To continue the home analogy, the editor is like an interior designer (but not to be confused, of course, with the book designer). An interior designer surveys a living space and introduces or eliminates various elements, such as furniture, lighting, and decorative pieces, to ensure the space is functional and aesthetically pleasing. The editor’s role is to enhance copy by removing elements that don’t work, suggesting ideas for improvement, and pointing out questions and holes.

The editor essentially supports the author by helping develop the direction, content, and key components of the book. The manuscript may go back and forth between the author and the editor several times before both are satisfied.

My editor made significant contributions to my book. I originally envisioned The Teacher Chronicles as a series of anecdotes from teachers reflecting the challenges they face. The editor suggested I get inside the teachers’ heads, ask them how they felt about the experiences they described, and find out what motivated them to keep going despite the pressure and stress they faced. In this way, he played a key role in shaping the book’s content to help me foster a deeper understanding of the pressures and demands on teachers.

The editor also helps the author communicate more effectively. For instance, some writers pack their sentences with as many words as possible, creating convoluted and confusing passages that are difficult for readers to follow. The editor deletes unnecessary words and tightens and clarifies verbose sentences.


The Copyeditor as Domestic Engineer

When the author and editor are satisfied with the book’s content, the manuscript moves on to the copyeditor. Like a domestic engineer, the copyeditor cleans and organizes. The copyeditor carefully reads each line in search of such offenses as:

  • run-on sentences
  • awkward sentence structure
  • superfluous words
  • style inconsistencies
  • content inconsistencies
  • poor diction (word choice)
  • grammatical errors
  • punctuation errors
  • repetition
  • spelling errors
  • typos

The Track Changes function in Microsoft Word eliminates the need for copyeditors to mark up hard copies manually. After a client introduced me to Track Changes about 10 years ago, I dramatically increased my productivity. I was freed from the arduous task of squeezing my edits and comments into confined spaces on printed pages. I could eliminate my daily trips to FedEx, where I had shipped marked-up copy to clients. I could instantly email computer files with my edits and comments—clearly marked in a different color—to my clients anytime, day or night. If you’re sticking with the traditional pen-on-paper method, both you and your copyeditor should be fluent in copyediting symbols.

The most important qualification of a dependable copyeditor is an impeccable command of grammar and style rules. While the book’s author may be a gifted storyteller or a subject-matter expert, he or she may not recognize a dangling modifier or comma splice.

Skilled copyeditors exercise self-restraint and good judgment, and they refrain from injecting their own voice or style into the manuscript. If a sentence is clear and grammatically correct, the copyeditor should leave it alone. Sometimes the author’s narrative style violates convention. A good copyeditor can distinguish between originality and a mistake. While the editor may have caught most wordy and confusing sentences, the copyeditor may still need to delete superfluous words and tighten verbose sentences without affecting the author’s style or meaning. Or the copyeditor can flag these passages and ask the author to revise or clarify them.

Obedience to all grammar and style rules is not mandatory; in some cases, you have choices. For instance, you can decide whether your books will use a serial comma (before “and” in a series) or not. When options are available, you and/or your copyeditor should pick a style and stick to it throughout the manuscript. The copyeditor should have a style sheet to ensure consistency. If you don’t have a style sheet, the copyeditor can help you develop one.

Among the most common errors I find while copyediting are the following:

  • the run-on sentence or comma splice (two complete sentences separated
  • by a comma)

  • trouble with homophones (for example, using affect instead of effect)
  • clauses and phrases that are not parallel
  • subject/verb agreement errors
  • vague rather than concrete language
  • wordy sentences

After the writer reviews and revises the copyedited manuscript, it is a good idea to check to make sure all edits have been addressed. (It’s easy for a writer to inadvertently overlook minor edits, such as a deleted comma.)

After that, the manuscript is ready for layout.


The Proofreader as Housekeeper

Even the best domestic engineer may miss a spot. So you bring in a meticulous housekeeper to remove every last speck of dust and dirt. The proofreader gives galleys a final, close read to make sure they are free of style, grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors before they go to the printer.

A dependable proofreader has a keen eye for detail and can catch the most subtle mistakes and typos. For instance, the proofreader will notice the word from was used instead of form. The proofreader will also identify formatting anomalies, such as a missing indentation at the beginning of a paragraph.


The Final Product

After my editor improved the text of The Teacher Chronicles, my copyeditor rectified the grammatical errors, and my proofreader corrected any remaining mistakes, I felt confident that I was releasing a quality product into the marketplace. I submitted the book to Baker & Taylor and Barnes & Noble, and both agreed to carry it. The book has been well received by readers, many of whom are educators.

Vibrant, accurate copy—like an attractive, clean home—makes a good impression. After a stellar editorial team has enhanced, scrubbed, and polished your book, you will feel more comfortable welcoming readers in to savor the ambiance.


Natalie Schwartz is a freelance writer, editor, copyeditor, and proofreader. She and her husband, a director of photography for film and video, own Laurelton Media, which published her first book for the consumer market, The Teacher Chronicles: Confronting the Demands of Students, Parents, Administrators and Society, in September 2008. To learn more, visit laureltonmedia.com or email natalie@laureltonmedia.com.

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