You’ve polished your manuscript. Encouraged by friends and family who read earlier versions, you incorporated their feedback and suggestions into your final draft. Following a style guide, you also checked spelling and grammar. You’ve taken your work to the best of your abilities and are proud of your efforts.
Then, you deliver the document to an editor for professional review. And that’s when self-doubt kicks in.
What if the editor doesn’t like it? Does the organization of the chapters really work? Have I made some embarrassing mistake inadvertently? Is there a strong narrative arc? Will I have to rewrite it again?
A writer takes an enormous personal risk when they give their work to a professional editor. For many, the personal experience of writing is therapeutic. Sharing with others what they have written is simply too risky. And that is okay. Not everything one writes needs to be read by others. But if your intention is to be read, then take the risk.
The accomplishment of completing a book length manuscript is significant and worthy of celebration. For every 100 people I meet who tell me they have been thinking about writing a book, only one actually does it. So you’re already ahead of the pack with your sheer persistence.
Learning how to seek and receive editorial assistance is the next step toward publication of the manuscript. Writing is largely a solitary task, yet publishing is a social practice involving editors, authors, and readers. An editor’s objective is to make your writing its best for your book buying audience.
Working as a professional writer for three decades, I still seek editorial assistance at every opportunity. With rare exception, editors improved what I had written. I’ve had editors who taught me how to improve my writing and self-edit more effectively. And others who caught embarrassing mistakes – from typos to improper attribution of sources. Nonetheless, it is only natural to respond to an editor’s notes, comments, and red pen marks as though it were a personal assault. The manuscript is you. This is a good thing insofar as an author takes ownership of the writing. Most editors don’t fix your writing. They identify where improvement is needed to allow you to rewrite.
As a writer, my initial response to editorial marks is visceral, emotional. Yes, sometimes it hurts; though this is never an editor’s intention. I read through for copyedits and comments, step back, and then walk away. The next day I come back and read again. When I’m ready to revise for publication, I focus on the work instead of my ego. Editors’ marks and comments help me take my writing to the next level of excellence. If the editor didn’t understand something, then I didn’t succeed in communicating it effectively. I’m open to making my work better. When I ask someone to give me critical feedback, I generally identify what I think the weaknesses might be and whether they might have some suggestions to address my concerns. “Here’s where I think I may need help….” provides an editor with direction on how best to assist.
As an editor, I approach the editorial content of a manuscript with four questions in my mind that, when answered, offer constructive criticism an author can use to improve the book further. What works? What needs work? What might work? What questions are raised?
1. What works? It is important to identify what the author has achieved effectively. Identifying these strengths can help the writer address the weaknesses. It is just as important to know what to keep in as it is to know what should be cut or revised.
2. What needs work? Reading a book length manuscript gives an editor a chance to identify common errors or problems. Passive voice, verb tenses, internal coherence of an argument, or plot holes. Editors look for the answers to the “So What?” (significance) and “Who Cares? (importance) questions about the manuscript in its entirety.
3. What might work? Instead of “fixing” or changing the text for an author, a professional editor will offer suggestions on how to recognize and remedy common problems. An editor may also have additional ideas, resources, references, and suggestions for improving the work.
4. What questions are raised? Things the editor wanted to know more about; questions the manuscript raised, but didn’t answer. Points of clarification, or documentation. The implications and ramifications of the book’s content are identified to assist the author in publishing a book that makes a difference.
This kind of critical feedback is far more useful to the craft of writing than a thumbs up or thumbs down book report. Once you hand off the manuscript to the editor and wait with self-doubts on your shoulder, it is easy to face uncertainty in an all-or-nothing frame of mind. Affirmation or rejection. Loves it or hates it. By the time you get some feedback, you’re emotionally vulnerable.
An editor is not your adversary, but an advocate for your best writing. Good writing is re-writing.
Six or seven years ago my advice to aspiring authors of nonfiction books was to build an audience platform by blogging. An example of how critical blogging could be to securing a publishing contract can be found in the case of Ann Marie Ackermann, author of Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee. After an initial assessment of her manuscript, I had recommended she start a historical true-crime blog, and she did. In fact, the editor of the ideal book series at Kent State University Press became a fan ofRead more…