Caroline Hogg has worked in publishing for almost ten years. She is Senior Commissioning Editor for Commercial Women's Fiction at Pan Macmillan.
This week a Novelicious reader asks:
How many changes does a manuscript go through once it hits your desk?
Caroline says: Like the classic question, ‘How long is a piece of string?’ or a more relevant equivalent, ‘How many Friends repeats will I watch in my life?’ there is no way to predict definitively how many stages of editing a book will need. Each book is different – even when comparing books written by the same author – and needs its own approach; there’s no cookie cutter method to editing and polishing up a book. My basic rule is: you keep going until everyone feels it’s right – author, editor and agent. And it’s not necessarily a scary or unpleasant process for the author. I’ve actually worked with a few authors who really look forward to being edited… I don’t think they’re masochists but rather they love the challenge of fixing any plot problems, discovering there’s a character they could do without or a new one they absolutely need and making the book that bit better than it was in its first draft.
The main stages of editing (which I think is a more accurate term than ‘changing’, because you’re trying not to change it from the author’s original intention but actually help make clearer what they want to get across) are:
• structural. This is when you are looking – funnily enough – at the structure of the book. Does the plot have the right pace, is there enough plot there, does it feel real? Do the characters feel genuine, do they go through enough of an arc, are they likeable? Also, does the tone of the writing generate the right feeling in the reader? Do they laugh/cry/shiver/gasp or fall off their seats at the right moments? I will read through an author’s first draft with all this in mind, making notes as I go. I pull these notes together with any suggestions I have for how to put some of the edits into practise, send them over to the author and then we talk them through. Editing is very subjective and it certainly isn’t black and white: what I think isn’t necessarily the right thing* and I’m always happy to thrash out a third way with my author over a cup of tea. In fact, I think some of the best solutions to tricky plot problems come this way. The author then goes away to work on the next draft…
• line edit. When the author and I are both happy all the bigger, structural points have been resolved (note – this is not necessarily at the second draft, it could well be the third, maybe even the fourth) I’ll the read the book again, this time looking out for smaller things at the ‘line’ stage. These can be anything from smoothing out bits of dialogue, watching out for continuity errors like place names changing and whether timings work, and making sure all the little details are taken care of (what a character looks like, do we know enough about their backstory, do they use the same phrases or words too often?). As we’ve been working back and forth on the structural side, editing things as we go, it’s common that there’s only a light edit to do at this stage.
• copy edit. By this part of the process, you really need a fresh (and hawk-like) pair of eyes to do the next edit. A copyeditor will come on-board to read the book looking out for any spelling, grammar or punctuation errors and again any continuity problems. Is someone pregnant for ten months? Does John with brown eyes become Jack with blue eyes in one instance? The author and I may have been scrutinising their manuscript for weeks but it’s often the people closest to a book that can’t notice a misspelling on the first page! So a copyeditor who is, frankly, a real pedant is essential to polish up all those last details. They may raise some queries which I’ll relay back to the author, and then the manuscript is prepared for typesetting.
• proofread. Once the copyedited manuscript has been set as proof pages (and it starts to look like a real, live book for the first time) we have one last detailed read done by yet another fresh pair of eyes as our final chance to spot any typos or slip ups. This is also the last time the author can double check everything is as it should be before it hits printing presses, then shelves and ereaders! So it’s very important to everyone involved.
A book will go through a multitude of edits in its lifetime, but each stage is essential in making it the best read it can be. And opening the box on those first advance copies is always a real thrill, each and every time, because you know how hard the author has worked on, and cared about, making that book absolutely brilliant.
*except when it is