An American Editor

November 10, 2014

Thinking Fiction: The First Pass — Just Read It!

The First Pass — Just Read It!

by Amy J. Schneider

After I write this blog post, the next item on my agenda is (surprise!) copyediting a novel (a cozy mystery, if you’re curious). And the first step is one of my favorite parts of fiction editing: simply reading the manuscript. And why wouldn’t it be my favorite? It’s the pleasure reader’s dream: getting paid to read a novel. You might envision being snuggled up on the couch with your laptop and a pillow and blankie, a snoozy dog (or cat, if you swing that way) at your feet, a bowl of bonbons at hand. But the truth is…well, actually that is pretty much how I do the first read. But, as always, other tasks are involved. Let’s take a look.

Receiving the Manuscript

I edit fiction for major New York publishing houses, so of course they have the process well in hand. When a manuscript comes to me, it has already been accepted for publication and undergone substantive and/or line editing, and the publisher has applied its template and the associated styles for front and back matter, chapter openers, space breaks, letters, place and date markers, and so on. So even the unedited manuscript is pretty clean (with some variation, of course). One client helpfully includes a form with information and instructions for the copyeditor, listing items such as genre, setting, audience, and publication date; the level of editing the project editor believes it needs and what levels of changes require a query (generally, lighter edits such as transposing words can be made without a query, whereas queries are requested for heavier edits such as minor rewriting); specific instructions about how to handle things such as punctuation, spelling, grammar, capitalization, and any unusual choices the author has deliberately made; how receptive the author is to queries (this is helpful for knowing when to put on an extra pair of kid gloves); and any other notes. If a previous style sheet for the same author or the preceding book in the series is available, I receive that as well. (Quite often it is a PDF of my own style sheet with handwritten annotations that the publisher added after the previous edit: additional words, corrections/changes, and so on. Fortunately I always save my style sheets from previous projects, which is especially handy for maintaining consistency across a series or preserving an author’s preferences across unrelated novels. I just pick up the old Word files and use them as a starting point for the new book.)

But at this point, these associated documents are for review only. I look over the copyeditor instructions and mentally note anything that stands out, as well as anything that’s business as usual. (If you are editing for an individual author, you will want to discuss these points with the author ahead of time and agree on the details.) I review the previous style sheet, if one is supplied, and note anything that I may want to begin addressing during the first pass. For example, does the style of the book call for the serial comma? Most do, but some authors prefer to omit it. I’m a fan of the serial comma myself, and it’s very nearly a knee-jerk action for me to apply it. So for books that do not use the serial comma, I run a quick search and replace to flag all occurrences of “, and” and “, or” so I don’t accidentally leave in a serial comma or neglect to take an errant one out. The previous style sheet will also alert me to any other deliberate or unusual style choices as I do the first pass.

Finally, I apply my version of the publisher’s template, which changes the text to a font that is comfortable for screen reading (my preference is 14-pt. Verdana) and gives me access to my other working macros, and we’re off!

Time to Read!

Blankie, check. Doggie (or kitty), check. Bonbons, check. It’s time to get started.

As I mentioned earlier, this is when you simply read the story to familiarize yourself with the author’s style, the characters, the setting, the plot, and so on. No style sheets are required at this point, except perhaps for quick reference. Don’t get bogged down in making and noting style decisions while you are acquainting yourself with the story. In fact, this pass is the only time (except when I’m traveling) that I use my laptop for paid work, because I can do it on one screen, whereas I do the rest of my work on my mighty desktop, HARV (named for the Harvard Mark I; see “IBM’s ASCC Introduction (a.k.a. the Harvard Mark I)”), and its four screens. (I’d like to point out that this is one more monitor than Rich Adin has, heh heh.) I find the multiple monitors especially useful for fiction, because I keep five documents (plus browser and e-mail) open as I edit: the manuscript plus my four style sheets for characters, places, timeline, and general style. (See Rich’s discussion of the increased efficiency of multiple monitors at “The Commandments: Thou Shall Be Efficient”.)

So, no style sheets, just you and the manuscript. Ready, set, read! Enjoy the story. Make mental notes, but do not make style decisions or write queries at this point. You’ll probably notice things that you want to check in more depth later: wasn’t this character’s name different before? Note to self: pay attention to Melvin/Marvin on second pass. (Flag it with a note to yourself, if you like.) And you may also find that your questions are answered later as you read on. Get an idea of the level of detail, so you know how much to note on the style sheets. I’ve edited books where very little description of characters, objects, places, and time was given; it was all plot, and thus the style sheets were very simple. In other books, the level of character description is enough for a police sketch artist to do a pretty good job, and we learn addresses, brand names, car models, exact times of day, and myriad other details. For these books the style sheets will be more complicated to compile.

But you will also start cleaning things up so you can concentrate on the big stuff during the second pass. Go ahead and fix (using Track Changes) things that are outright errors: wrong word choice (e.g., hoard for horde), punctuation errors (e.g., deleting a hyphen after an adverb ending in -ly: newly returned king), and so on. At this point I don’t correct anything that might need a query, even an “AU: OK?” because I don’t want to derail myself. If anything, I flag it and move on. At this stage, I also correct silently (untracked) typographic glitches that the author does not need to approve, such as deleting extraneous spaces, moving commas and periods inside quotation marks (for American punctuation style) and converting multiple hyphens to en dashes.

You probably won’t catch all of the glitches on the first pass, and that’s OK. It’s not meant to be a heavy edit pass. This is one case where you’re actually doing what many laypeople think we editors do: reading the latest potboiler and fixing typos. You and I both know that the heavy lifting comes later. But that’s a topic for upcoming posts.

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

7 Comments »

  1. […] The First Pass — Just Read It! by Amy J. Schneider After I write this blog post, the next item on my agenda is (surprise!) copyediting a novel (a cozy mystery, if you’re curious). And the first ste…  […]

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    Pingback by Thinking Fiction: The First Pass — Just R... — November 10, 2014 @ 6:38 am | Reply

  2. Amy and I have talked about this before, and I offer my different viewpoint here not as challenge but just as an alternative way of achieving the same end. I approach a manuscript the other way around: *not* reading it through first, in order to meet the material as a reader, which in turn triggers my editing slant. There are pre-editing, mechanically focused passes I do that address certain elements, and in the process I pick up a lot about the story as well as later things to look for. Then I start at page one and read to the end, editing and building style sheets as I go. This helps me spot breaks in continuity or credibility. Then I do an assortment of post-editing tasks to tidy up details.

    When done, if time and/or contract allow, I’ll turn off all tracked changes and read through again to both proof my work and capture the flavor of the book as a whole. If I did this first, two things could happen. One, I would likely miss bloopers because my mind already knows what should be there owing to familiarity with the story. Two, I might encounter time crunches and get pressed on the actual editing in order to make deadline. Though I always try to get a longer turnaround window from the author or production editor than I think I’ll need, I don’t always get it. This way I’m certain to cover the meat of the job, and can prevent my own memory from messing me up.

    People with different brains and reading speed probably don’t need to work this way. All that matters is that we get the job done to the best of our ability, and satisfy our clients.

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    Comment by Carolyn — November 10, 2014 @ 7:34 am | Reply

    • It’s always good to hear how other people work. Thanks, Carolyn!

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      Comment by Amy Schneider — November 10, 2014 @ 12:06 pm | Reply

  3. Very helpful, Amy, thank you. And it was a pleasure to meet you at Communications Central.

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    Comment by Martha Stettinius — November 10, 2014 @ 12:03 pm | Reply

    • Thank you, Martha. You too!

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      Comment by Amy Schneider — November 10, 2014 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks for this Amy. As a copy editor that is quite new to the field I am always looking for hints and tips. Especially those that will ultimately help me make a break into editing fiction.

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    Comment by Jen Toyne — November 13, 2014 @ 5:08 am | Reply

  5. […] by that author or a previous book in the series, use that as your starting point. (See my essay, “The First Pass — Just Read It!,” for more on reviewing previous style sheets.) I actually maintain four style sheets (general […]

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    Pingback by Thinking Fiction: The Style Sheets — Part I: General Style | An American Editor — January 19, 2015 @ 4:01 am | Reply


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