How to edit a manuscript

So the manuscript is returning to me gradually, a few chapters at a time.

My editor at Text, Jane Pearson, met with me before sending any of it back. For over an hour she walked me through the first few chapters, explaining what she’d done and why. It looks pretty confronting on the page but really, that’s because she’s thorough. If two sentences need to be joined into one, she marks up all the relevant punctuation – delete that capital letter, delete that full stop, add a comma. Nothing is assumed, which in fact makes it easier to work through.

There are no vague statements like ‘add more depth’, or ‘this chapter needs to be shorter’.  If I say something in one chapter, then repeat myself a few chapters later, she lets me know exactly where and on which page the repetitions are, and which I should delete, and how.

The first page, pictured on the right, has more comments on it than most others but it gives you a sense of how it looks. Jane kindly drew up a glossary for me, pictured below, so that I could learn and refer back to the editorial symbols she has used. Again, they definitely help me to accurately understand what she is suggesting. With luck I’ll become fluent enough in their use to be able to apply them to my day job.

Jane has suggested no real structural changes – her efforts are more about weaving the narrative more tightly and 99 per cent of the time I think her suggestions are spot on. Then I think very hard about the remaining 1 per cent. At no point has Jane ever suggested I should accept all her changes without consideration. That’s why she edits in pencil, otherwise she could just use Track Changes, I could press ‘Accept All Revisions’, and we’d be done. Instead I have to work through each of her suggestions manually, one at a time. I’m finding it a useful discipline.

Occasionally I pick up an error Jane has missed, which enables me to feel smug for a moment or two (although obviously it was me who made the error in the first place!) And at least once so far I’ve picked up an error Jane couldn’t have known about, where I used the wrong name for someone – referring to Elizabeth Macarthur’s mother as Grace Hathaway instead of Grace Hatherly.

I’ve no idea how that happened. I know perfectly well her name was Hatherly.  I’ve looked up Grace’s father; also, obviously, called Hatherly. I’ve spent time wondering if the family was originally from the nearby village of Hatherleigh. No smugness for me then, just an appalled horror about how easily other errors may have crept in…

Jane also provided a few pages explaining her overall thoughts about the manuscript.

It’s wonderfully researched, rich and fascinating and Elizabeth is an enigmatic and intriguing subject. But there is a problem I feel with the balance between the main narrative and the accompanying background and peripheral detail. Getting that balance right is important so that Elizabeth’s story doesn’t get swamped. There’s a need to be selective, to give details which enhance the flavour of the story and of course give necessary scene setting and context, but not to take the narrative too far into these areas.

These comments came as no surprise and I’ve heard plenty of similar comments along the way. You should have seen how much I cut before submitting the manuscript! But Jane is quite right, there is still more cutting to do and it’s very cathartic to simply discard whole paragraphs at a time. And in my view it is much easier to cut than it is to add, so I’m finding it quite pleasant to trim here, and rearrange there. It’s a great deal like gardening, now I think of it, with all the hard work of landscaping, soil preparation and planting already done.

Next steps? Jane has crafted a back-of-the-book blurb for me, which I’ll share with you in a future post. She also mentioned a launch date in April next year, so that’s exciting. I’m meeting with my Text publicist in the next week or two because I want to pick her brains about what happens – and what is expected of me – once my book is out in the world. The publicist (her name is Alice) has sent me long list of questions, about me and about the biography, the answers to which I presume she’ll use to tout the book.

It really does feel like we’re getting to the fun part… stay tuned!

2018-03-25T00:52:17+00:00 September 15th, 2017|Writing|12 Comments


  1. wadholloway September 15, 2017 at 6:35 pm - Reply

    Loving the insights into process. All very exciting as well as informative.

  2. Lisa Hill September 16, 2017 at 8:03 am - Reply

    I love the analogy with gardening:)
    Re what to expect: have you read the Jane Rawson’s series What to expect when you’re expecting a book? Start here:

    • Michelle Scott Tucker September 16, 2017 at 8:59 am - Reply

      Thanks! And yes, I loved the Jane Rawson series and recommended it widely. So useful and interesting.

  3. Sarah Vee September 16, 2017 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Great post Michelle. You are so lucky to have your editor in the same city as you. Mine was in Sydney so everything was done via email. Face-to-face meetings must be so helpful. Can’t wait to get this book in my hands!

    • Michelle Scott Tucker September 16, 2017 at 6:20 pm - Reply

      It’s fun having the editor in the same city – and I definitely enjoy Jane’s company – but I’m sure it doesn’t change the end result in any meaningful way. Your fabulous memoir is a case in point! Actually, the best part about being in the same city as my publisher is that I get invited to their annual party, held during the Melbourne Writers Festival. For an hour or three I get to mix it with the beautiful people…

  4. whisperinggums September 16, 2017 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    Enjoyed this post as I’m fascinated by the process. (We all do it in a tiny way on our blogs – but a book is a whole different ballgame. What’s embarrassing is that on my blog I still miss stuff that I correct after it’s published! That’s the lovely thing about blogs. I know some people will see the errors but I feel better!)

    Have you read Irma Gold’s recent post about editing on the Capital Letters Blog? You probably have, but just in case.

    Anyhow, thanks so much for sharing the process so honestly.

    BTW DO you think Hathaway might have been an auto-correct? It’s a much more common name? The other thing I find is that sometimes if I’m not attending, I can write a homophone – or close to one – for the word I mean. You might have been thinking I know this name and been focusing on the next idea and bang, in went a more common word!!

    • Michelle Scott Tucker September 16, 2017 at 6:26 pm - Reply

      I correct my posts after publication too! Either no one notices or those who do are too polite to say so. Will click over to Capital Letters right now to see that post, thanks for the heads up. The Hathaway thing still has me spooked – not auto correct, I think, just authorial stupidity. I’m sure it was right in earlier versions – if it bugs me too much I might go back through the versions and see.

      • whisperinggums September 16, 2017 at 7:45 pm - Reply

        I don’t think you should let it bug you too much! Unless you find a lot of this sort of “error” and you need to make sure you don’t do it again! You have too much else that’s more important to do with your time!

  5. Tathra Street September 17, 2017 at 3:14 pm - Reply

    I love this Michelle! It’s great to hear about your experience of editing. Though I’ve been taught about the process and types of editing etc I haven’t yet experienced it myself. Your willingness to share yours is so incredibly valuable for me! My book sat dormant for quite some time, but now I’m finally getting back into it and keen to get it out into the world. Thanks again for these insights. SO much gratitude!

    • Michelle Scott Tucker September 17, 2017 at 4:12 pm - Reply

      Much harder to edit your own work, I think, even when you are knowledgeable about how it all should work. Great to hear that you’ve gone back to your book – I’m very keen to read it!

Leave a comment, I'd love to hear from you...

%d bloggers like this: