In a conversation the other day with a friend who is a new writer, I bemoaned the fact that I am responsible for more work, editorially speaking, than I should be. Since I work with self-publishers and with clients who tend to self-publish, I am often the sole line editor, copy editor, and proofreader for a manuscript.
“That’s not how it’s normally done?” my friend asked.
“Oh, no,” I said, and explained to her the editorial process as practiced by publishers. This does go back to the 1980s and ‘90s, when I worked for a few different publishing houses in New York; and even then different houses sometimes operated a little differently, but the basic format is the same.
First, I would acquire a manuscript. This might be a complete manuscript by a new, unpublished author; it might be a partial manuscript from a published author who had an established track record; it might be a complete manuscript that had gone through one, even two, rounds of revisions. I would then line edit the manuscript, with my focus on the big picture—character development, believable conflicts, a plot that made sense—and the smaller picture of point of view, realistic-sounding dialogue, readability, word use, and the like. I would pay some attention to particular points of grammar, but that was not my main concern, because after I was done, the manuscript went to a copy editor. The copy editor’s task was fact-checking as well as making sure the grammar was correct, watching for typos and misspellings and—crucially—making sure I hadn’t introduced any new errors. (This was in precomputer days, so all of this work was done on paper—hard copy—in different shades of pencil.)
The copy-edited manuscript came back to me, and I would check over the copy editor’s work, generally accepting all of it (and learning from it). The manuscript then went to the author. She reviewed all of the corrections, and had the option of accepting or rejecting them. The manuscript came back to me, and I had to go over any changes the author had made. Sometimes, and especially with authors I had worked with before, the author accepted all of the editing, or perhaps only made small changes. Other times, the author insisted that her original words be reinstated. If it was a minor point and did not result in an error, I’d agree. If it was a mistake—such as the time I changed singular to single in the sentence, “A singular candle burned in the room,” and the author wanted to use singular again, an incorrect use of that word—I would not allow the change. For large issues, the author and I might have to talk and work our way to a compromise.
The manuscript then went to the typesetter. Galleys were printed and sent to the author as well as a proofreader. The proofreader read the galley with the original edited manuscript beside her to make sure the two texts matched. At this stage, the author could not make substantial changes—unless she wanted to pay for them. Only errors were corrected.
Compare that, I told my friend, with what I do today.
Sometimes I work with an author for a long time on his or her book, helping to shape it through revisions before handling both the line editing and copyediting. Just as frequently, though, I am editing a book I’ve never read before by an author I’ve never worked with. The author sometimes sends the book back to me, after he has accepted or rejected my editing and perhaps made additional changes. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes I’m asked to proofread the manuscript before it goes to the self-publisher; sometimes I’m asked to proofread it after it has been typeset.
This process does not have the regular steps that turning a manuscript into a book has with a publishing house. It also lacks the three different sets of eyes—line editor, copy editor, and proofreader—that a publishing house provides. If the final book is being read only by the author and me, we are bound to miss typos because we are too used to the text and are not seeing it clearly. However, it can get expensive for an author to have each of these steps done individually, and I can’t blame them for skipping, say, having me look over the edited manuscript after they have. Then again, I have proofread clients’ typeset books when they’ve skipped that step and found mistakes. Some are on the level of using singular instead of single; some are a bit worse, such as the time an author added about a page of new text to a scene and it had punctuation errors as well as an (unintentional) incomplete sentence.
Before I started writing this post, I thought I’d check Google to see what I could find about the editorial process. I came upon a book titled The Book Publishing Industry by Albert N. Greco, originally published in 1997 and reissued several times since. Mr. Greco writes:
The average editor learned his or her craft in a medieval apprenticeship system that lasts, on average, between 2 and 6 years. … All of this is done under the close, demanding (often authoritarian) tutelage of a seasoned editor. The [editorial assistant] slowly learns the dynamic art of editing, from mastering editorial marks to refashioning a faulty, unclear sentence, a weak paragraph, or a badly organized chapter.
Everyone in publishing agrees that editing is an art (not a science); that it takes years to become a proficient, successful editor; and that great editors are rare.
And that is the editorial process. It is not a simple, straightforward task to write a book, and the steps that are involved after the writer puts down her pen (so to speak) are not quick and easy. But ultimately, if author and editor—and all the other people involved in the process—do their work with care, diligence, and dedication, the result, whether it’s a self-published memoir you hand out to your family at Christmas or a hardcover that sits at the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list, will be worth all the effort.