This isn’t, of course, a question I can answer. I’m not an editor. But I can tell you something about what it is like to be edited. And the short answer is: it’s wonderful.
For my next book, So Far So Good, I’ve been working closely with Pantera Publishing’s Senior Editor Anne Reilly and she has been an absolute delight. Her editorial (and, later, her author emotional support) comments were invariably insightful, always practical and often hilarious.
The draft manuscript was submitted just before Christmas. At about 80,000 words it was complete, but I knew it wasn’t quite finished. I was still waiting on some further inputs but – more importantly to me – I was aware that the whole thing simply needed more polishing.
By early March, Anne came back to me with some useful comments and a closely annotated manuscript. Here’s the covering note she sent with it.
Every single thing is only to be considered: you can accept or reject as you please. As discussed, this is your baby but I am delivering a meticulous set of comments and some close-to-the-bone feedback.
Structure – virtually no changes. A couple of lines here and there I have suggested moving them. You have an absolute genius for structure. It flows; the vibe is great.
I’ve introduced a lot of text breaks. These are jolly handy. They make the page look less intimidating to the reader. They lend themselves to philosophical round-ups (as we come to a break). They allow a change of pace and topic without much ado. You can add more, chuck them all out, whatevs.
Tone – I think you’ve nailed it cos it has a very intimate feel. That’s what we want: to build a relationship between the reader and Aaron. The readers who stick with it will feel like they know him well, they’ll be cheering him on, maybe admonishing him here and there … In a few comments, I talk about how certain types of repetition can disturb that relationship. Only to be considered.
Telling – in quite a few places, I’ve asked for a little bit of visceral detail, setting detail, scene description, action, dialogue. Plonk in a bit more story here and there.
Language/basic copyedit stuff – green highlighting is where I suggest alternative expressions or suggest how to join the dots to draw out points. These are all massively cheeky on my part. I don’t give a hoot if you rip them all straight out.
A lot of what you’ll find is me trying to cut down on the number of sentences beginning with I …, So … or We … That accounts for about 30% of the red text.
Lexical choices – plain English words need to be repeated; anything outside what you’d consider to be plain English, in my book, should be used judiciously.
Precision of meaning – this is what we’re gunning for. Assume the reader is ripping through fast. We want to minimise how often they have to stop and figure out stuff. Having said that, patois, Creole, cultural concepts … the middle class white reader (in particular) will have to slow down and read with care. As they should.
(Some of) Aaron’s quirks – saying the same thing in several ways in a big run, banging in a metaphor to re-explain, adding a string of dialogue, taking a verb phrase and interrupting in the middle eg The police sergeant, he was, in actual fact, doing us a favour … This is all charming but over time, I think it needs to be reined in. I think there is scope for reining it in more. I have taken the scalpel to some runs, to make them shorter.
Favourite words – huge, it’s clear, great, a bit, pretty (as in fairly), really, fuck (and its derivatives), so, such … There are more. They are mostly very conversational and help achieve that intimate, natural vibe: the reader can hear Aaron speaking directly to them. BUT over a long book, I’m a fan of keeping the language fresh, so the ideas don’t sound half-hearted. Being able to pick a pattern of speech can kill that electricity. Hence my obsession with varying the language.
That’s all I can think of for now. Michelle, I am in awe of how much rawness and honesty is in this manuscript. It speaks to me of the trust between you and your skill at picking through the chat to find the bits that matter. What I kept thinking about was that saying: Fall over seven times, stand up eight. This is a very brave man, baring his soul. I have learnt a lot poring over this work. I thank you for your extraordinary work and your patience.
The comments on the manuscript were equally illuminating and helpful. Anne never just said: fix this. She always suggested how it might be fixed.
I spent the next six weeks or so working through Anne’s annotations and suggestions.
It was intense, but also a period of great joy – addressing each annotation was like having an intelligent, ongoing conversation with someone who cared as much about the craft of writing as I did.
It’s hard to judge how many of her suggestions I accepted – maybe about 80% of them? – but the result was at least a 180% improvement on the original manuscript. Plus I added in the extra material I’d been waiting on, deleted some other things and generally employed as much additional elbow grease as I could. I think, in the end, it came in at about 85,000 words.
Of course, Anne’s role didn’t finish there – lol, see how I inserted some narrative tension there?
I’ll write about the process of finalising the manuscript in future posts. It’s a story involving lawyers, irate mothers, a proof reader and, of course, the excellent Anne Reilly. Stay tuned!
You’ve gotta be happy receiving a letter with lines like “You have an absolute genius for structure. It flows; the vibe is great.”
Over all these past seven years it has been an absolute treat the way you open up the process to us, and let us see all the steps and no doubt missteps in authoring a book.
I am looking forward to reading SFSG very soon.
Thank you! What a nice thing to say – I do sometimes worry about whether the ‘insider’ info I provide is useful, or even interesting so I’m glad you enjoy it. I had no certainly had no clue about how books were finalised, until I was immersed in the process myself and I look back and think a heads-up might have been helpful.
Fascinating stuff! TBH — if I ever thought about it at all — I used to take the work of editors for granted. The advent of self-publishing has changed all that, and now I refuse to read books that haven’t been professionally edited. It makes all the difference in the world to the reading experience.
Yes! The difference between my unedited “final” manuscript and the edited (then proof read) version is huge. Not in terms of content (although there were some small changes along the way) but absolutely in terms of quality. Editors do a fantastic job.