An American Editor

May 4, 2020

Navigating that Request for Proofreading When the Work Really Needs Editing

By Richard Bradburn, Guest Writer

As professional editors, we’ve all had them — the inquiry that arrives in your inbox: “I’ve written my first novel and my wife/partner/best friend/dog told me it’s really good. I can’t wait to publish it but I read somewhere that you should always get books proofread first. Can you give me a quote?”

I’ll assume that we agree you need to see the manuscript to give a definitive quote. You let the prospective client know and receive it by return e-mail. You open the manuscript. It begins with a prologue — a 20-page dream sequence set in cursive. Skipping most of that, you start the book proper. There are five chapters of exposition and world-building before the main character is introduced. Skim-reading further, you see evidence of point-of-view fails, pacing issues, generally poor sentence structure and grammar, and atrocious punctuation.

What to do?

The potential client has asked for a proofread, but in your professional opinion, the book is nowhere near ready for proofreading. It needs some serious copyediting and, your editorial hunch is telling you, probably some major structural surgery.

It may be that if you primarily work, even freelance, for publishing companies, you haven’t faced this dilemma. I’d imagine that someone further up the production chain has assessed what help the author needs and sent the book to you for the appropriate editing. However, it’s a common situation for those of us at the sharp end of the fiction universe who are dealing largely with authors who have no prior experience of the publishing industry or the editing process, and little or no realistic concept of how high the bar should be set if you are producing work for sale.

What follows with the client is a rather delicate dance of managing expectation and massaging ego for the author, and securing the right commission for yourself. I’ve developed a … I hesitate to say method, because that smacks of science … a strategy, if you like, for dealing with the issue.

You could just go ahead and proofread the manuscript (for a monstrous fee). It’s what the client has asked for. There are two issues with this.

One is reputational. If you proofread a shockingly poorly written book, there’s always the chance that it will come back to bite you. Asking the author to kindly not mention that you had anything to do with their masterpiece is all very well, and they may not put you in the front matter, but you have no control over what they say about you in the wider world. The book is going to do very badly, the author isn’t going to understand why (“I spent a lot of money on editing!”) and is probably, given their unenlightened attitude to publishing generally, going to look for someone else to blame. That could well be you. The author might have no great expectations, is happy with a few sales, and brags on social media about what a super editor they had. Other potential clients, perhaps with more idea about what a good book should look like, will look it up and … that’s the end of that potential client relationship.

The second problem is that it’s darned hard to proofread a terribly written book. Ask me how I know. It’s extremely slow, very frustrating and, at the end of it, demoralizing because you know that the end product is still going to be awful, no matter how diligently you work away. It’s also very hard to prevent mission creep from turning the proofread into a copyedit, for which you’re not being paid.

What are your options? You can come straight out with it: “This book isn’t ready for proofreading, because of x, y, and z issues. I suggest developmental (“structural”/“line” — whatever your terminology) editing to start, followed by copyediting …” It’s a tough call, but I’d suggest this is a poor way to start this delicate conversation. You’re giving the author lots of negatives. You’re telling them you’re not going to do what they ask. You’re telling them that their book needs substantial revision/rewriting when they thought they were a few weeks away from publishing. You’re telling them that fixing their book is going to be a lot more expensive than they thought, and require much more work on their part. You’re telling them, fundamentally, that they can’t write for <insert suitable expletive>, and that their relationship with you is going to be an intense and ongoing and expensive one, which they may not have been expecting.

You could just say, in as kindly a way as possible, that the book isn’t ready for editing, and the author should attend some writing classes, or join a local (or virtual) critique group and come back when they’ve gotten better at their craft. There are ways to phrase this so the author isn’t too crushed, but how helpful is that advice, really? Unless the author is local to you, you have no way of knowing what local classes the author has access to, whether the author can afford them, and whether those resources are any good.

As a freelancer, another issue is that you’re essentially rejecting this client. The manuscript might be such a horror show turning it down is an agreeable outcome for you, but let’s say that times are tight and you don’t want to flatly turn away any lead. How do you keep them engaged in your process, but start to realign their expectations?

My first step is always the same: Whenever you ask for the manuscript, always ask for a synopsis as well. A synopsis will tell you far more about the client and the book than actually reading their manuscript (that’s why agents and publishers insist on them in submission packages). With very little investment of your time, you can establish whether the client knows anything about novel structure, whether the characters have any discernible arc, and how distinct and cohesive the plot is. Even the very existence of a well-written synopsis tells you a lot about the client and their ambition, because synopses are hard to write. An author who has written one has read up about submission packages, has gone at least a little way down the path of analyzing their work as a reader would, and has put some thought into their character, plot lines, and overall structure.

This client is eminently worth pursuing, because an ambition to learn their craft is the one thing it’s particularly hard to instill remotely. If they have no synopsis and can’t be bothered to write one, my instinct would be to let that client go for the reputational and operational risks mentioned above. Money talks, but it would have to be shouting for me to take on that project. If they have no synopsis now but send one in later, and it’s a dreadful rambling mess, then at least you know where you stand: They are capable of taking instruction, they’re willing to learn, and they might prove to be a valued long-term client.

Armed with this information, you can begin the process of educating that author about how much work is going to be involved in molding their book into publishable material. If you have blog/website resources of your own, you can refer that author to articles you’ve written about plot structure or character arcs. If blogging isn’t your thing, there may be other resources written by editor peers that you can refer your client to (the “Talking Fiction” essays here at An American Editor, about editing fiction, would be a good starting point).

The big difference is that now this author is your client. You’ve established quietly and authoritatively your expert credentials, given them guidance, started them down a long road toward publication. You can send this client off anywhere on the web, but they will keep coming back to you because you are now, without really much effort on your part, their writing coach.

Why bother? Because ultimately you have no idea how far, under your tutelage and encouragement, this author might blossom into a productive, well-trained, and lucrative client.

I have one resource I’d like to offer: my book, Self-editing for Self-publishers. It’s a pretty comprehensive guide to all the major stumbling blocks that novice (and some even not so novice) authors have problems with: plot structure, character issues, point of view problems, etc. It also provides thorough explanations of common punctuation and grammar mistakes. I had never thought of marketing it to editor peers (I doubt there’s anything in it that a good fiction editor wouldn’t know already), but one of them who helped at the beta reading stage pointed out that it’s an ideal tool for exactly this situation. What if you really don’t want to engage in those long-winded e-mail coaching conversations that you may not have the appetite for and that have an uncertain financial payback? Tell your author, “Go buy this book. Work through it. When you’ve finished it, come back to me and we’ll have another look.” It’s the “silver bullet” that could save you an enormous amount of time and effort, and bring you a commission that you really want, rather than are struggling to avoid.

Richard Bradburn runs editorial.ie, a full-service literary consultancy. He’s a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders in the UK; member of the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders and Indexers in Ireland; partner member of ALLi; and approved supplier to Publaunch. He writes occasionally for the Irish Times and journals like The Arts and Letters Daily, and regularly talks about writing and editing at conferences in the UK and Europe.

2 Comments

  1. I just had this very conversation. It was uncomfortable, but I had to think it was best for the author, whose book – his first – came to me via the recommendation of a relative of his, my longtime client. I told him it needed structural work (and I gave him an example) before it could proceed to line and copy editing. Otherwise, it would disappoint him (he expected it back as quickly as I can turn around his relative’s work, not understanding that timing comes about because she’s written thirty books) and frustrate me, because I quote by the project.

    Like

    Comment by eilisflynn — May 4, 2020 @ 11:58 am

  2. Quite enjoyed this, Richard, even though I work almost exclusively in nonfiction. The author issues are similar, even if the specific shortcomings are not. I’ve faced this dilemma many times. The next time it presents itself, I may very well return to this post for a refresher.

    Like

    Comment by Adam Rosen — May 6, 2020 @ 9:59 am


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