In Blind Tribute, when Harry Wentworth says, “Everyone has an editor,” he is speaking both literally—every man in his newsroom was edited, including and especially the executive editor—and figuratively, in the sense that we all have outside forces that place constraints on what we say publicly. But this was serious business for Harry. He had, in fact, been known to dismiss men for forgoing an editor (and rightly so).
Something I hope is evident in the quality of my books is the fact that I am an editor (and technical writer) in my non-author life. So, what I thought I would talk about today, for authors and readers alike, is the editing process I go through with my own books before I publish. Which, to be clear, is also the process I recommend to clients, and anyone who would publish a book of any length.
To start, note that the book goes through (at least) three rounds of editorial feedback, preferably with two different editors and a handful of skilled readers. Because I don’t publish traditionally, my books haven’t gone through the gauntlet of agent, buyer, editor. Instead, they go through beta reading, developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading. (My next book is currently at beta reading stage.)
There may be overlap among these stages, and among the people who do the work at any given time, but there are some very clear distinctions and definitions that, once understood on all sides, make the work easier on everyone, including the author. To begin, the author is the final arbiter of changes in the book; it is the job of the author to stand up for their work. But the editor is engaged precisely to give difficult advice, and it is not smart to ignore people you pay for advice.
Editors deserve payment. (To understand how much, see the rates listed at the Editorial Freelancer’s Association website: https://www.the-efa.org/rates/) I can’t afford to pay what I charge, but I can afford to trade editing with other editors in the same boat—books to be edited, but no budget to do it. A word of caution: being a writer doesn’t necessarily equate to being an editor, and one shouldn’t be tempted to trade editing without verifying everyone has all the right skill sets.
Beta reading, for my books, is undertaken in several ways. First, I most often have some form of critique group that meets regularly and reads the book by sections as I write it. Sometime, those people become beta readers of the whole novel, once it is drafted. These are fellow writers, with some level of knowledge of writing craft, with whom I trade my comments on their work.
Second, however, are hand-picked beta readers, who are engaged after draft two (sometimes three), before editorial stages begin. I generally seek out people who read (preferably write) in my genre a lot, but I also look for specialists—in the time period or events or location, on cultural sensitivity issues, or in some aspect of the book that needs review by an outside observer.
Beta reading is a time for comments on the book overall, on aspects of the story or characters that aren’t working, plot holes and believability gaps and missed opportunities. It is not the time for correcting grammar/spelling/typos, because a LOT will change yet, but if the grammar has big problems, now is the first time to point that out. When I send out the book for beta reading, I leave the door open to any feedback, but also generally include a list of questions I still have lingering in my mind about the manuscript, like: is a romance between two characters working? Is it easy enough to be invested in a given storyline? Is particular symbolism apparent enough or too apparent?
The comments from beta readers are incorporated into a “final draft”—which can take a goodly amount of time, depending on how thorough the readers were. This is the draft that goes to the developmental editor.
The developmental editor gives me general feedback on things like plot, characterization, pacing, but also dives deeply into the content of the book to bring out, and feature, the most important/relevant elements. A developmental edit might recommend things like cutting storylines, conflating characters, changing the order of scenes or chapters, adding higher stakes, or expanding scenes to include more information. Everything is on the table in the developmental edit, and a good collaboration between editor and author at this stage can lead to a much stronger book.
After this feedback, I rewrite the “final draft” as the “final manuscript.” My rule of thumb is that if this stage of rewriting doesn’t hurt, the editor hasn’t gone deep enough.
From here, the manuscript moves to copy editing, where we look for grammar, spelling, and punctuation at sentence-level. I generally keep the same editor for developmental and copy editing, but the editor’s job here become less subjective and more objective. I am far less likely to push back against an editor at this stage, because now it is almost always a question of right or wrong, not good or bad. After this stage of editing, I would expect the manuscript to be 90% free of errors.
While I am reviewing and accepting/rejecting the changes made by the editor, I also have my last chance to review the whole book. Once I am finished with this review, I will send it for proofreading before formatting. (There is value in having the book proofread again once set in type for print, but there is better value in having the proofing done before flowing the text into the various programs needed to produce both print and ebooks.)
I engage a second editor as the proofreader, who hasn’t ever seen the manuscript before. This person’s job is almost entirely objective and word-, not sentence-level, rooting out any last typographical errors, missed misspellings or commas, or misplaced words. I expect a proofreader to bring the book to at least 98% accuracy—100% accuracy is unreasonable for a 100,000-word book, no matter how much one pays.
In all, I plan for a six-month process from “final draft” to publication, which encompasses everything discussed here, plus cover design, formatting, and marketing. This can all be done faster—there are authors who put out a book a month—but where my books are concerned, I’d rather privilege quality over quantity. Otherwise, why write them at all?
Mari Anne Christie is the author of Blind Tribute, a mainstream historical fiction novel set during the American Civil War, and historical romance novels written under the pen name Mariana Gabrielle. She holds a BA in Writing from the University of Colorado Denver, summa cum laude and With Distinction, and works as a technical writer and editor in Denver, Colorado. You can find out more about her books at her website.
Listen to Mari Anne Christie's podcast episode here.