An American Editor

August 31, 2018

The Value (or Not) of Beta Readers

Carolyn Haley

Many novelists enlist the aid of beta readers after completing the first draft of a book. A beta reader, according to Wikipedia, is:

  • a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software), giving feedback with the angle of an average reader to the author about remaining issues . . . . so that an uncolored opinion of an average reader can be obtained. Usually, a beta reader will be unpaid. The feedback is used by the writer to iron out remaining overall issues with plot, pacing and consistency. The beta read also serves as a target audience test to see whether the book has the intended emotional impact and feel.

Beta readers usually precede professional editors in a novel’s path to publication; sometimes they replace professional editors for self-publishing authors on low budgets. A few professional editors offer beta reading as one of their services. I don’t, preferring to offer manuscript evaluations or developmental edits for work in its early stages.

Beta reading, in my opinion, is more subjective and freestyle than professional editing should be. I engage in it only with my writers’ group, whose members return the favor. Through long-term, piecemeal, opinionated back-and-forthing, we help each other convert our messy first drafts into manuscripts coherent enough to be professionally edited.

While beta reading can be immensely helpful to authors, it can also throw them off course or even change their progress to regress. The old adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth” might come into play. The following two cases illustrate the possible effects of multiple contradictory responses to a person’s first novel.

Case #1: Counterproductive Overload

One of my clients, whom I’ll call Henry, has been working on his book for several years. It is the first volume of a science fiction adventure series aimed at young adults, set in an alternate world with lots of action wrapped around a social injustice theme.

Henry hired me for copyediting and paid his deposit. In the weeks between scheduling the job and its start date, however, he had an unknown number of adult friends beta-read the manuscript. Their feedback knocked him from self-assurance to quivering uncertainty. He decided to postpone sending the manuscript to me so he could recast sections in response to the beta reader commentary.

Good idea, in theory. Copyediting is supposed to come at the end of a book’s development, giving it the final polish needed before sending it out the door. Henry was discovering that his story needed more development than he’d thought. His initial two-month postponement stretched into two years.

Eventually Henry finished the book to his satisfaction and delivered the manuscript. Since he didn’t want to change our original scope of work, I copyedited the novel. I thought he was still a long way from his goal of being traditionally published, but you never know, so I gave him my best effort and wished him the best of luck.

Two years later, he came back for a second copyedit of the same novel. Not only had my editing inspired him to make significant revisions, but also, while I had been editing, he’d been having another crop of people beta read the book.

Because of that response overload, Henry spent months revising in different directions. The conflicting information caused him to lose sight of his original vision and eroded his confidence. He started to wonder why he had bothered trying to write the book in the first place, and despaired of ever succeeding.

Eventually he bounced back, reaching a point of satisfaction and deciding to self-publish. That’s when he hired me for the second copyedit. But history repeated itself: During the weeks of waiting between hiring me and the job start date, he took in yet more beta reader feedback, which thrust him back into indecision. This time, he postponed copyediting for six months. (And this time, I inserted a cutoff clause into his contract, so if he bailed out again, he would forfeit his deposit.)

Luckily, I was able to fill the holes in my calendar caused by both of his postponements. It distresses me, though, to see an author get undermined and derailed by an invisible crowd of others whose opinions outweigh my professional observations, explanations, and encouragement.

This author is willing to pay twice for a service he doesn’t seem to believe has greater value than unqualified people’s feelings. He’s also willing to possibly lose a substantial amount of money if he can’t set priorities and boundaries, and hold tight to his own vision, before the time limit on his deposit runs out.

I question whether he will ever be able to own his work and find the courage to expose it to the world through publication, never mind acquire the storycraft skills to convey it. As well, the money he has already laid out would have covered a professional developmental edit. Had we done that in the first place, perhaps by now his book would be several levels farther along and he’d still be excited by its prospects. Even if I’m not the ideal editor for him, he would be making progress rather than riding a merry-go-round, trying to satisfy all readers in all things.

Maybe his time on the merry-go-round will ultimately result in a finished novel. Sometimes that happens, as it did with a member of my writers’ group.

Case #2: Productive Overload

This author, whom I’ll call Henrietta, has also spent many years on crafting her first novel. Unlike Henry, her book is a stand-alone story, set on contemporary Earth. Instead of action and adventure, it presents a deep character study written in a literary style.

Henrietta is trained in the commercial graphic arts, which gives her a seemingly infinite capacity to reformulate a concept. Like Henry, she’s new to creating personal art through words and is insecure about its validity. Also like Henry, she can’t resist the temptation to gather opinions. Thus, she’s had beta reader after beta reader, and goes through much psychological hand-wringing in trying to decide whose opinion matters, seeking to accommodate all of them in her work.

My opinion holds extra weight for her because I’m a professional editor. I provide my services gratis in this case, because in this writers’ group, we all volunteer skills in mutual support. Our personal creative works exist on spec — no guarantee any of us will publish, or earn a dime if we do — versus professional services provided under contract, where performance and delivery are part of an economic exchange. In the writers’ group, we are friends exchanging favors.

Regardless of my professional status, Henrietta routinely ignores my opinion because it disagrees with her vision. In this regard, she differs from Henry, who struggles to hold his vision at all. Her professional training enables her to weigh and measure and ultimately assimilate diverse opinions, while my professional training lets me leave her free to do it (copyeditor’s mantra: “It’s not my book, not my book . . .”). I serve instead as sounding board and devil’s advocate, with my real contribution being copyediting and proofreading.

Henrietta’s willingness to consider options kept making her book stronger — until the day came when she had incorporated too many opinions, and both the story and her writing voice began to unravel. That not only added months to her writing time, but also burned her out on the project. I invested a lot of time in pushing her to embrace her work and believe in herself.

After many more revisions, some of which brought sections of the book back to where they’d started, her manuscript was ready for submission to agents and, in my opinion, worthy of being published by a Big Five house. (I also believe that if she wants to skip the agent and submit directly to smaller publishers, she could sell the book in five minutes. If she chooses to self-publish [an option she is rejecting because she understands the huge and long-term marketing work involved], she could probably make some serious money.) But she knows what she wants and is staying her course.

Problem is, she can’t stop collecting beta reader opinions. Even as I was mechanically editing the “final” version, she continued to run every little late idea past multiple people. It took coercion to get her to send out her first query letter, after which she immediately started second-guessing how an agent would react to dialogue and scene details, and sneaking her fingers back to the keyboard. I’m hoping her future agent and house editor can manage this tendency, so the book can make it to publication.

Positive Outcomes

Most of my clients claim to use beta readers, without providing details. Occasionally they also refer to a writing class or a previous editor. A recent author mentioned using all three resources. He, like Henry, had signed up with me and paid his deposit, then suddenly postponed for two years. But when he came back, both his book and his confidence were strong. Like Henry, he’s launching a science fiction adventure series. Unlike Henry, I expect him to be a self-publishing success.

Another self-publishing client revealed that his novel, volume two of a historical fantasy, had been through developmental editing with a high-end professional I recognized. The investment showed, in that the manuscript I received for copyediting needed nothing more than token spit-and-polish.

I do not know if this client ever used beta readers. Possibly not, because unlike many authors, he has the wherewithal to spring for pros at each stage. He went through the same developmental-editor-to-copyeditor sequence when self-publishing his first volume, which came out beautifully and has been well received. I expect volume two will build his audience.

Yet another client seems to have the complete writing skill set hardwired into him. He cranks out one or two novels a year without help, and all of them are exciting, well-crafted stories ready for copyediting. He’s another self-publisher, and his sales are growing.

In general, whichever publishing path my clients choose, the newer they are to writing and publishing, the more beta readers they’re inclined to use. I believe there has to be a limit, though. As Henry and Henrietta show (and I can confirm from my own creative-writing experience), beta readers can be helpful or harmful. It’s important to restrict their numbers, and select readers who can couch their personal opinions in writerly terms. Otherwise, the author is just getting consumer reviews too soon.

Reviewing only should occur after publication, just as copyediting should only be done on a manuscript ready for submission or production. It’s tough enough for an author to weather a storm of diverse opinions once the book is finished; being hammered by that storm while still writing can impair an author’s creativity and zeal — right when those attributes are most needed to give a book its voice and vision.

Voice and vision are what make a novel unique, and, ultimately, draw the audience that defines an author’s career. Beta readers, like editors, may not be the book’s target audience no matter what their relationship to the author. They can inhibit or confuse authors by pushing them to satisfy the readers’/editors’ personal tastes. Beta readers and editors alike need to remember whose book it is, and work within the author’s frame of reference. Their collective goal should be helping authors achieve their individual goals.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

April 21, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: A Call to Action — Nudging the Customer to Work Out Whether the Fit is Right

The Proofreader’s Corner: A Call to Action — Nudging the Customer to Work Out Whether the Fit is Right

by Louise Harnby

Unless we’re a member of that small cohort of editorial freelancers who do it all, we’ll have good-fit customers and bad-fit customers. Take me, for example — I’m a proofreader who specializes in working for social science and trade publishers. I also proofread for independent authors whose manuscripts have been professionally edited.

Experienced writers (e.g., academics) and mainstream publishers know what a proofreader does, so they don’t ask me to index, copyedit, structurally edit, or write. They know the differences between these levels of editorial service. We all know we’re a good fit for each other.

Often, this isn’t the case with the customer who is unfamiliar with the publishing process. I’m regularly contacted by self-publishing authors whose first manuscript has been beta read by their mother and their best mate. The likelihood of this file being ready for proofreading is miniscule. Give me a badly written and poorly organized manuscript and I’ll do my best to eradicate spelling mistakes, ensure there’s subject–verb agreement, tackle any misplaced apostrophes and wonky homophones, and attend to overall consistency of the client’s preferred style. But the manuscript will still be badly written and poorly organized when I’m done with it. I won’t apologize for this any more than my dentist will apologize for not being a good plumber.

Then there are the infrequent (one or two a year) requests from students who want me to write sections of their doctoral theses. The likelihood of this being possible (I only have a Bachelor’s degree) and acceptable (surely that would make it our doctorate) is zero on both counts.

In the above two examples, there’s a knowledge gap — I know we’re not a good fit for each other but these customers don’t. Why would they? For them, proofreading is a catchall term that means “help me sort out the mess.” Alas, that’s not my job. So what to do?

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that every minute I spend responding either to a student asking me to collude in her cheating, or to an honest independent author who needs a deeper level of editorial support, is a minute spent communicating with a bad-fit customer, and that’s a waste of my time and a waste of theirs. I’d rather spend my nonbillable hours engaging with good-fit customers than explaining why I won’t, or can’t, take on a particular project.

Furthermore, like many of my colleagues, I’m keen to educate the customer so that they understand more about the different levels of editorial intervention, and what’s appropriate and when. Take self-publishing as an example: The massive growth of this market has meant a substantial increase in the number of independent authors facing a steep learning curve as they move from being writers to publishers. And while there’s a ton of advice for them out there, we are still a long way from a world in which we can be sure the indie author understands exactly what service is needed and who can provide it.

As I said, the solutions are out there. I’ve produced a free ebooklet, Guidelines for New Authors, and created an FAQs page at my website that summarizes key issues aimed at helping customers identify whether we’re a good fit. I’m not unique by any means. Many of my colleagues, too many to list here, offer excellent examples of this best practice that aim to guide their customers in the search for appropriate editorial services — in the form of blogs, terms and conditions, FAQs, guidance sheets, ebooklets, and other knowledge bases and resource centers.

Is the Information Discoverable?

I hit a problem early on. All the necessary information was available to help the customer determine whether we were a good or bad fit, but I was still receiving a huge number of inappropriate requests to quote, indicating the message wasn’t getting through. I stopped taking student proofreading work two years ago, but still the inquiries kept coming. My Guidelines for New Authors were popular, but not popular enough — I was still being asked to copy- and structurally edit, and receiving sample manuscripts that weren’t even close to being ready for proofreading. I concluded that I wasn’t enabling the customer to navigate their way to the information effectively, so they couldn’t ascertain whether we were a good match.

From a marketing perspective I’ve always been a keen believer in focusing my blurb on what I can do rather than on what I can’t. I still believe that this is an appropriate strategy for my website’s home page. However, there comes a point for many of us when too many bad-fit customers choose (understandably — they’re busy, too) to move straight from the home page to the contact form. No matter how many other pages there are on our websites detailing our areas of expertise, there’s still a good chance that our customers miss these (or don’t spend much time reading them). Jakob Nielsen sums it up nicely:

How long will users stay on a Web page before leaving? It’s a perennial question, yet the answer has always been the same: Not very long. The average page visit lasts a little less than a minute. As users rush through Web pages, they have time to read only a quarter of the text on the pages they actually visit (let alone all those they don’t).

(“How Long Do Users Stay on Web Pages?”, 2011)

This was my problem—the information was there but it wasn’t discoverable enough. I needed to nudge my customer with a stronger call to action.

Nudging the Customer With a Call to Action

Given that I was receiving inappropriate requests to quote via my Contact page, I decided to nudge my customer about the good-fit issue by placing a strong call to action right above my email address — a statement saying:

“Help me to help you…Whether you’re a colleague or a potential client, if you have a question for me, you may find that I’ve already provided the answer on the FAQs page. If you wish me to provide you with a quotation, please click on the button below. This will open a one-page PDF that summarizes what I need to know about your project. Then call or email me to discuss your proofreading requirements in more detail.”

Underneath, I placed a large gray button—”What I need to know when you contact me…” Clicking on this button links through to the guidance sheet.

It’s early days so I don’t have anything statistically significant to report at this point. But already I’m receiving much more detailed information from potential clients that proves they’ve read the guidance sheet and have considered the different levels of editorial intervention. This means I’m able to assess whether we are potentially a good fit much earlier in the process. The results? Fewer email exchanges, much less time wasted quoting for projects that ultimately I’d have had to turn away, and happy customers who’ve learned a little at no cost to them.

What I’ve Learned

The primary lesson for me throughout this process is this: What I place on my website and what my customer chooses to read might well be two entirely different things. If I really want them to read something, I need to nudge them at the point where I have their attention. And that nudge — the call to action — needs to be obvious. Says Ginny Soskey, “In the land of calls-to-action, the motto is go big or go home. You can’t make a tiny little button that appears at the bottom of the page and hope that people will click on it — chances are, people are going to miss it.…” (“The Complete Checklist for Creating Compelling Calls-to-Action”, 2013).

If you feel you’re spending too much time fielding inappropriate enquires, or it’s taking too long to establish whether you’re a good match for your potential client, consider introducing specific guidelines to help your customers do their own assessment first. If you already have these guidelines, but you feel they’re not being read, then consider how best to nudge your customer in the right direction. Perhaps it’s your Contact page, or perhaps it’s somewhere else. That’s for you to test. There are no wrong or right answers when it comes to testing — just a gradual, practice-based understanding of what works best for you.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and the forthcoming Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

December 11, 2021

Creating truly effective outlines

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:47 pm

By Geoff Hart, Contributing Author

Previously published at NAIWE website ( as Hart, G. 2021. Creating truly effective outlines.

Editor’s note: This is a revised and expanded version of an April 2008 presentation that the author presented for STC Milwaukee. Although intended for editors who do substantive editing, it offers useful guidance for writers who need to outline before they begin writing.

One thing I discovered early in my editing career was that few writers learned how to create truly effective outlines. Sure, everyone learned to list the section titles in a plausible order or adopt a pre-existing order, such as starting with the executive summary and ending with the appendices. But the problem with this approach is that it does little or nothing to make the writing process efficient and often ends up wasting the writer’s time when it turns out that a lot of revision is required.

Helping writers stay on course is where we editors enter the picture: Through developmental editing, we help writers focus their efforts right from the start so they can write faster and more effectively. If we do our job well, we won’t have to shuffle chunks of the document around late in the revision process because most of the text will already be in the correct place. We won’t have to point out major omissions because there should be none.

We’ll be able to focus on the clarity of the language.

A good outline is like an architectural blueprint: It tells you where every part fits and its relationships with the other parts. It goes far beyond merely saying “a room goes here”; it provides specific details of what kind of room and how that room relates to all the other rooms. Writing without a strong outline is like trying to build a house, but without knowing how many rooms, their functions, their spatial relationships, or their sizes. You’ll end up with a building at the end of the process, but it might be an office building. Even if you end up with a house, it’s not going to be a very comfortable or livable home.

When I first gave the presentation on which this article is based, I designed it for technical writers, most of whom were documenting computer software and hardware, or working for technology companies. Hereafter, I’ll refer to that type of manuscript as documentation. But the approach I’ll describe can be used for many other types of writing, including education (e.g., teaching a subject such as chemistry), creative nonfiction, and fiction. I’ve retained the documentation content because the examples will be familiar to most readers, who grapple daily with their computers and related software. But I’ll expand the method to include fiction so if you don’t edit manuscripts from a technology-related field, you’ll see how the same basic approach works in a very different genre and, mutatis mutandis, across a range of genres.

Note: If you hang out with fiction authors, you’ll eventually be asked whether you’re an outliner or a pantser. In this context, pantser comes from “by the seat of your pants” and refers to authors who prefer to let their stories evolve organically rather than strapping them to the rack while they torture them into shape. Pantsing works very well for some writers, but tends to work best for someone who has a clear idea of what they hope to achieve with their story. The best pantsers seem to have some kind of subconscious overall outline that guides their work.

Although I’ll focus on the role of editing in this article, the advice also works very well for writers. The main difference is that instead of working with an editor, you may be self-editing long before someone else has a chance to edit your manuscript.

Why outline?

an The whole point of an outline is to help you define all the components that a manuscript requires and the most effective way to assemble them. The ideal process is for author to sit down (in person or otherwise) with their editor to discuss the outline and ensure that it’s effective before beginning to write. While authors are learning to outline, it may be more productive creating their outlines interactively with their editors. At my previous employer, this collaborative outlining was a key component of our report-production process (Hart 2006a, 2011a). This approach proved to be far more efficient then letting authors submit a finished manuscript and leaving me to infer the manuscript’s outline.

There are several criteria for a great outline:

  • It provides a precise blueprint for the writing.
  • It focuses work during the writing and revision stages.
  • It reduces rework. As the carpenters say, “plan and measure twice, cut once!”
  • It permits flexibility when the inevitable revisions arise.

For documentation, effective outlines:

  • Organize the content around user goals and the tasks they must perform to reach those goals. These tasks form task clusters. For example, creating a page layout in desktop publishing software requires an understanding of the task cluster that includes defining the page size, margins, gutters, and paragraph characteristics (spacing before and after, margins, line spacing, widows, and orphans).
  • Comprehensively list all product features that support these goals, grouped logically by task cluster. This is often called an inventory.
  • Rely on architectures that make the form and content of each topic consistent with all other topics of the same type (e.g., multi-step procedures).
  • Concisely summarize what you’ll write. That is, each part of an outline is specific, not general; it describes what you’re going to write in enough detail that it is distinct from all other topics of that type.

Fiction is more diverse and thus, more difficult to standardize. Nonetheless, the equivalents to a documentation outline might be:

  • For each section or chapter, define the character’s goals, your goals for the character, and how to reconcile the two.
  • List all the constraints and opportunities created by previous decisions (whether by the character or by yourself). List the actions or happenings required to lead into future chapters.
  • Define any recurring patterns you’ll use for a given type of chapter. For example, one type of chapter may begin with a challenge created by the cliffhanger in the previous chapter, continue with the rising action until the character or characters are forced to act, then conclude with a denouement that gives the characters time to catch their breath before you create yet another cliffhanger. Harrison Demchick (2021) provides some good insights into this process.

Before you can start creating an outline that achieves these goals, it helps to understand the differences among inventories, architectures, and outlines.

Inventories, architectures, and outlines

Let’s start by defining some key terms. An outline is not an inventory. An inventory only defines what topics you’ll include, although it should be comprehensive. An outline is not an architecture. An architecture summarizes the categories of information you’ll include in each topic (for documentation) or each chapter (for fiction) and the relationships among them. An outline uses an inventory to list all the topics you’ll include in the manuscript, and an architecture to summarize the relationships among the topics and their components. For documentation, the outline defines what must appear in each topic (inventory) in what order (architecture).

It’s also helpful to specify what should not appear. For fiction, an outline defines all the key events that will occur between the start and end of the story, the decisions characters make that are caused by or lead to these events, the consequences of those decisions for subsequent chapters, and how the characters change in response to those consequences. However, the outline must also state what you’ll write about each topic or in each chapter. (The details will come later, once you begin writing.)

Note for technical writers: An architecture functions much like a document type definition (DTD) or schema in XML or SGML authoring.

Sound simple? Sort of. Most writers and many editors forget two key things when they plan an outline. First and foremost, we must remember the audience’s needs. Understanding those needs will help us develop a user-centered document structure that focuses on the reader. Second, for writing that occurs in an institutional context, we need to obtain approval from all stakeholders — anyone who will have a chance to reject a manuscript or send us back to the drawing board for revision. Gaining approval for the overall plan of attack before you begin writing greatly reduces the frequency of unpleasant surprises late in the review and revision cycle. In fiction, the equivalent to the management and expert review of a document is the review of a pitch (story proposal) by your agent or by a publisher’s acquisition editor. This is rarely required for short fiction, but is often essential for long-form fiction such as novels.

Understand audience needs and gain stakeholder approval

The role of your audience is easiest to understand for documentation: The users of a product read documentation to find solutions to a problem. Thus, outlines must support finding solutions and solving problems. Product-centered documentation, which is organized around the product’s features, only describes the product features and forces users to sort through a potentially long list to find the features that might conceivably solve their problem; that is, it forces them to infer how to combine those features to achieve their goal. The more complex the product being documented, the larger and less fair the burden this places on the product’s user. Sure, it’s easier for the writer. But as Richard Brinsley Sheridan noted in 1772, “you write with ease, to shew your breeding; but easy writing’s vile hard reading.”

In contrast, user-centered documentation focuses on the user’s goals, and groups descriptions of the product’s features to help the user attain those goals. The difference is night and day. In product-centered documentation, you might as well just list the product’s features in alphabetical order, since you’re not attempting to present them in an order that supports the user’s goals. But in user-centered documentation, it’s necessary to carefully consider how your audience plans to use the product. That use will define the sequence of tasks as well as the sequence within each task. For example, a plausible sequence for desktop publishing software would be to define the characteristics of the pages that will hold the paragraphs, define the characteristics of the paragraph types that will hold the words (e.g., headings vs. body text), and then define the typographic characteristics that will shape the sentences and words in each paragraph.

Note: Reference manuals can be product-centered because their purpose is to define how each feature works — for an audience that already knows what features they need to use. For some types of documentation, such as dictionaries (or glossaries) and encyclopedias, this structure may be a good choice.

Fiction readers have more abstract needs. They are reading to be entertained, so their needs don’t relate to tasks. The editor’s challenge then becomes how to understand the literary tools the author will use to present a character’s progress through the story. For example, the plot might lead a character to a crisis point where the character’s choices are constrained by some past event. They might confront a large and hideous spider in the bedroom and be forced to kill it, defenestrate it, or deport it, but to do so, they must overcome their arachnophobia. One approach would be to describe the event that triggered that fear, then move forward through many chapters to the present spider-induced crisis. This spider is the horror equivalent of Chekhov’s gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”

Alternatively, you could end a section or chapter with the character’s gasp of horror, use a flashback to reveal why the spider represents a problem, and then return to the present to see how our heroic character overcomes this past trauma — or fails to do so. In this case, the outline would clarify that the new words actually appeared in the past. To use the term I defined previously, the architecture for flashback chapters states that chapters must begin with a few words to clarify that the timing of events changed: “Nearly half a century ago, when Geoff was a child, a spider bit him. He did not acquire superpowers, but he did learn to fear spiders.”

In terms of the audience’s prior knowledge, writing fiction in different genres allows writers to make certain assumptions about what their readers understand. In science fiction, we can discuss starships without defining what one is, whereas in fantasy, we can discuss dragons without a definition. Neither term would be appropriate in detective fiction without adding a few words to explain the meaning. When, as editor, we feel those audience assumptions won’t be met, it’s our job to point out the problem and suggest ways the author can provide the missing knowledge and where those ways fit within the outline.

How to identify user needs

There are many ways to identify user needs. First, and most common, if we lack access to or familiarity with the readers of our manuscripts, we can work by inference — that is, we must imagine ourselves in the reader’s role and pay attention to our thoughts when we/they confront a task. This way of stepping into the reader’s shoes is often described using the term persona, which means a description of the person that’s so vivid we can easily answer the question “What is Geoff thinking and what would he do in this situation?” Making our audience real deepens our understanding of who they are and what their needs are. It also builds empathy and motivates us to care enough about their needs that we try to meet them. For any given product, there may be multiple personas, and each one’s needs must be accounted for. (To learn more about personas, see Hart (2006b, 2011b,c).)

The “five W’s” approach used by journalists is another way to learn about our audience. It, too, relies on inference. In this approach, we ask who will use the product, why they are using it (goals), when and where the use occurs (context), and what they must do to accomplish those goals within that context and under the constraints it imposes. Each of these affects the contents and sequence of an outline. (To learn more about this approach, see Hart (1996, 2002, 2011b,c).)

In addition, we can consult existing references such as computer magazines, “for dummies” books, and the like. The types of help resources that readers buy and read reveal the problems they face, and the range of solutions chosen by other writers. Better publishers have the resources to understand their audiences and design books that sell many copies because of how well they meet their audience’s needs. Such books, therefore, represent a good resource for learning about the needs of those groups of readers.

A third approach, and possibly the optimal one, is to actually talk to the audience and learn how they use the product being documented. Rather than inferring their needs, we can come right out and ask them. The most sophisticated form of this approach, which requires some training, is called contextual inquiry, which is the fancy way of saying direct observation of workers in the context in which they work. In essence, it means that you watch real users using your product in a real workplace to learn what they must accomplish and how they think about that task. This approach lets you build a sophisticated persona for each type of user and design a documentation structure (an outline!) that meets their distinct needs. Contextual inquiry isn’t always possible, since it can require visits to the audience’s workplace or bringing them to you so you can study their behavior in your own test facilities. Fortunately, there are less expensive and more accessible options. Most products now have online discussion forums where you can see the kinds of questions people ask, learn how they think about problems, and learn which solutions are most effective. (If no such forum exists, create one!)

A fourth approach involves reports from other people who work directly with the audience, such as technicians who fix malfunctioning products, corporate trainers, and a company’s technical support staff. All of these people can tell you about the problems that users face and solutions that have been proven effective in the real world.

Once we know these needs, we can revise our outline to account for them. For example, if we know that all users of our desktop publishing software are graphic artists, we don’t need to explain page layout and typography, though we may need to clarify where these tasks are addressed by the software (e.g., menu, toolbar, and palette locations). In contrast, if the users are office workers who have no formal design training, we’ll need to explain more about why certain features should be used (e.g., typography) and how.

In fiction, we can learn most of what we need to know about user needs from reading extensively in the author’s chosen genre. This provides basic familiarity with the terminology used by most authors , the most common plot structures, and the types of expectations that must be met. You can find out how fiction readers read easily enough, but rather than contextual inquiry, attend writers’ workshops where writers learn the tools of their trade or conventions where fans of a particular literary genre gather to discuss their favorite and least-favorite stories. Online reviews, such as those at Amazon or Goodreads, also provide insights. For work where others have done the research for you, consult respected writers’ guides and read reviews by skilled and insightful reviewers to learn what they look for. However, be aware that reviewers take a very different approach to reading than people who read solely for pleasure.

Gain approval from all stakeholders

For documentation, peer review is essential because there’s no other easy way to ensure that you’ve gotten the details right, but many companies rely on peer review because they aren’t willing to hire an editor. Unfortunately, this kind of review is generally insufficient because more people than the product’s designers and the writer’s manager must approve the final documentation. Discovering that you’ve failed to produce a product that satisfies the stakeholders only when you reach the end of a long writing, review, and revision process can be disastrous.

The solution is surprisingly simple: Identify all stakeholders who can approve or reject your work before you begin to produce the outline that will guide your writing. These people include the technical experts, who will review your manuscripts for correctness and completeness; the product’s manager; the writers’ manager, who will review the manuscripts to ensure that they meet corporate standards; training and technical support staff, who will confirm that the manuscript supports their needs; marketing, who will ensure that their needs to evangelize a product are met; lawyers, who ensure that the manuscripts meet legal standards and requirements; and, potentially, managers who run all the way up the corporate hierarchy to a director or vice president. If you’re lucky, the approval chain has far fewer links and ends with a middle manager, but in small companies, the approval chain may run right to the top of the organization chart.

Each of these stakeholders should critique and approve your outline before you invest considerable time doing the actual writing. Problems such as omission of details you think are unnecessary but that they consider important must be identified so the outline can be revised to meet their criteria. Where needs are contradictory, negotiation will be required to solve the contradiction. I’ve used this approach to drastically reduce the time required for approval of documentation (Hart 2006a, 2011a). Surprises are still possible, but there will be far fewer of them if everyone strongly supports your blueprint right from the start. And the surprises will usually be far less serious and easier to fix.

In fiction, there are fewer stakeholders. There’s generally no complex corporate hierarchy, except when you’re writing for a big publisher. Then, you’ll need to pitch your outline to an acquisitions editor and they’ll deal with the publisher on your behalf. However, for both novels and shorter work, many authors enlist a group of beta readers to review the writing before it goes to an acquisitions editor. Note that although the list of stakeholders is shorter, that doesn’t mean the approval process will be simpler. Creative people tend to have strong opinions about how fiction should be written, and it can be tricky finding compromises between an author’s vision and what the publisher will accept. As in most other forms of editing, one of your roles as editor will be to act as the author’s advocate and defend their approach.

Comprehensively list what you’ll need

For product documentation, create an inventory of all the information you’ll need to include.

  • For software, list all menu names and all items provided under each menu; all toolbars or palettes and the associated tool icons; and all items in the dialog boxes accessed via these menus, toolbars, and icons.
  • For hardware, list all control panels, all physical switches, all buttons, all slots and tabs, and anything else the user may need to manipulate to operate the device. For the hardware’s software components, list the same things described in the previous bullet point.
  • For both software and hardware, list all physical things (tools) and metaphysical things (software, knowledge of concepts) required to support a reader’s use of the product.

You can now group the items in your inventory by allocating them among the tasks they support. If something is essential to the completion of more than one task, repeat that information for each task instead of asking readers to hunt through the documentation to find that information. This is easiest if you use a writing tool that supports single-sourcing (i.e., creating a chunk of information once, then reusing that chunk wherever it’s needed). For each task within a task cluster, refer to the architecture I described earlier in this article to figure out how to assemble everything.

If you’re assisting a fiction writer, this part of the editing process resembles the task of creating a story bible. Story bibles contain all the facts that mustn’t change over the course of the story, such as a character’s eye color and handedness, and things that should change, such as their knowledge and thought patterns. For example, a story bible might contain the following.

  • Characters: their physical and emotional characteristics.
  • Psychology: how the characters think and how that changes in response to the story’s events.
  • Physical locations: characteristics such as geography, climate, and the relationships they imply (e.g., distances between places). This will shape things like travel between cities and movement within cities.
  • Possessions: the things the characters carry and things they need to acquire (e.g., appropriate clothing, food if they will make a long journey). These must be obtained at some point before the possessions are used, which can define the order of events. That spider on the wall in Act One can’t simply materialize out of thin air in Act Two.
  • Histories: both the surrounding societal context (how the story’s society has gotten to where it currently is) and each character’s own history, particularly with respect to defining moments in both society and the character.
  • Chronology: when things happen.

Among the items in this list, outlining relates most strongly to the chronology, since you must define sequences of events based both on the needs of the plot and on dependencies. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo can’t throw the One Ring into the cracks of doom before he has the ring, and even once he has the ring, he can’t do his job before he arrives in Mordor. The sequence must therefore be “get the ring, travel to Mordor, throw the ring into the fire.” Note how this is more specific than “get possession, go somewhere to use it, use it.”

How your word processor can help you reorganize the outline

Now that you know what has to be included in the outline, you can start shuffling it into a logical and effective order. Your word processor can help, since it’s easy to cut and paste sections to move them into new positions. Some software offers additional useful tricks for rearranging an outline quickly and easily. For example, in Microsoft Word:

  • View —> Outline: Word’s Outline view mode lets you see the whole structure at a glance and easily move topics (and their associated subtopics) around. Better still, it lets you expand and collapse the whole outline and subsets of the outline, such as a specific section or chapter, and move small chunks or entire sections to new locations.
  • View —> Document Map: Word’s Document Map view opens a panel to the left of the document window that displays the manuscript’s headings as clickable hyperlinks. The main document window on the right can then be set to the Outline view mode. This way, you can move quickly between parts of the manuscript by clicking the hyperlinks. 

Provide architectures that help ensure consistency

Documentation should be centered on the goals of a product’s users. Those goals often fall into categories that define a consistent, effective architecture. For example:

  • Conceptual topics should define the problem, describe the context in which it arises, provide any necessary context (e.g., the basic principles of page layout for an audience of amateurs), and propose solutions and alternatives.
  • Reference topics should name the tool, explain where to find it (in menus, toolbars, palettes, or dialog boxes), define all options for that tool, and provide examples of correct and incorrect uses of the tool and its options.
  • Definition topics should define a word or phrase, explain incorrect uses, and provide examples of (in)correct uses; the topic should also provide cross-references to synonyms and antonyms to help readers learn to use the terminology correctly.

Fiction is less likely to benefit from or require a formal architecture. However, there are cases where having an architecture is very helpful while writing (Demchick 2021). Consider, for example, a novel in which the narrator begins in media res (i.e., right in the middle of the plot). In each chapter, the novel moves forward from that initial point, but each chapter could begin with a concise scene that digs back into the past to provide an explanation or deeper context for what’s about to happen in the current chapter. Part of the outline will then be based on an architecture in which the outline for each chapter states that there will be a context-establishing flashback, then explicitly states what the key point in that flashback is and how it provides context for the rest of the chapter. (For an example of how this works, see my novel Jester.)

Consider another example, with a different order. If you’re writing something that will be serialized, such as episodes in a TV series or a monthly graphic novel about a group of characters, you need to know where each installment ends and the implications for the next installment. This may be a classical structure such as having each installment end with a cliffhanger and (except for the first installment) begin with a solution to the previous chapter’s cliffhanger. This is particularly useful if you’re working as part of a group of writers, with all of the installments for a season being written in parallel. Each author needs to know, in some detail, where they’re coming from and where they’re going.

Dependencies and consequences of revision

It’s rare to create a successful outline for anything complex in a single step. Most outlines require at least one revision (for manuscripts with a simple and familiar structure), and many require repeated revision as you get iteratively closer to something that works. That’s just part of the game, and I like to describe outlining as being equivalent to carpentry: Good carpenters measure twice (at least)before they cut a piece of wood because once the cut has been made, you can’t undo it. Writing seems easier, because there’s no physical piece of wood that can be destroyed by an injudicious cut. But just as carpenters sometimes have to make an unplanned excursion to the lumber depot to replace a key piece of wood they damaged, writers can waste considerable time on undoing a poorly chosen structure for their manuscript.

The easiest way to check an outline is to walk through it one step at a time and pay attention to where you stumble. Wherever you stumble, revise that step to clarify how to correctly take that step. This is why cooking recipes list the ingredients before the steps of the recipe: If you don’t have all the ingredients you need, it’s better to discover this before you’ve mixed all the other ingredients. Similarly, pay attention to where you get stranded. If you find yourself in a dead end, you need to retrace your steps to the turning point that led you there and more clearly indicate that you should have taken a different turn.

These specific examples reveal the broader topic of dependencies: A dependency exists whenever you need some information or some thing before you can perform a step in a procedure, learn a new concept, or (in fiction) move to the next phase of the plot. For a software procedure, you need to know where the relevant tools are hidden before you can perform any steps using those tools. Thus, rather than assuming that everyone knows the tool location, tell them; even if that information exists elsewhere in the documentation; why make them go looking for it? For learning a concept, ensure that you clearly communicate the basics first; it’s hard to teach the concept of logarithms to a student who doesn’t already understand the concept of exponents. For fiction, your protagonist must meet their allies and gain their trust before they can work with those allies to defeat their antagonist. Frodo can’t throw the One Ring into the cracks of doom before he has the ring or before he travels to Mordor.

To identify dependencies, ask a simple question: what must I know before I can understand the current chunk of information? Then add that required information to the outline before the action that requires that information. To support such efforts, you could create a table with the steps in a procedure in the first column and the dependencies in the second column. Then add information or reorganize the table’s order until all the dependencies are resolved.

This becomes complex for fiction, particularly when there are many characters. For example, if you’re outlining a novel, it’s important to know when a character first appears in the story, when they meet other key characters, when they gain a required possession, and when they use that possession. Creating a timeline helps make that sequence more concrete. If you find you work well with visual aids, find graphics that can stand in for each character and their equipment. Print out the graphics, then cut them out from their background. Move the characters down the timeline, then drag the items on or off the line as you move. When you reach for something the character must use and it’s not already present, go back a few steps until you find a way to add it.

Your outline must also account for consequences. After each step in a procedure is complete or some key action in a plot has occurred, something changes and you must describe that change, describe the situation that results from that change, and understand the constraints that situation imposes on subsequent actions and where the change leads. In documentation, the consequences of copying a chunk of text means that the clipboard is now loaded with the text, the text is now available for pasting, and you can paste the text as often as you like until you replace it with new copied text. In fiction, the antagonist’s master plan may have begun, and the protagonist must deal with the resulting cascade of events, one at a time, until they’re resolved. There may be points where the character can intervene to divert or stop that cascade — or there may not be. Both alternatives need to be spelled out in the outline.

What the outline actually looks like

Okay, so that’s the theory. What does this look like in practice? Let’s start by considering the outline for the topics in a programmer’s guide, stripped down to focus on a few key points. Consider an excerpt from our first example of a bad outline.


Programming guide topics:

  • FUBAR function
  • LAWSUIT function
  • CURSE DEVELOPER function


The problem here is obvious: This only lists the content, without defining the relationships between commands (their temporal or other sequence), the structure of the explanation of each command (the architecture), or how the commands relate to user goals. Thus, it’s an inventory, not an outline. Let’s consider a more highly developed but still bad example for the same programmer’s guide.


Programming guide topic template:

  • command name
  • summary of its purpose
  • syntax, including all options and switches
  • several examples (both good and bad)
  • cross-references to other relevant commands


Here, the problem is more subtle: The “template” is identical for all commands and fails to distinguish between any two commands. Thus, it’s an architecture, not an outline. It’s still useful, but needs to be made specific before it is successful. Now let’s consider a good example of how this would be accomplished for one command from the inventory.


FUBAR function:

  • FUBAR lets programmers define how and how often the program will foul up a user’s data.
  • Syntax: FUBAR [% of data] [frequency]
    Switch 1 defines the amount of corrupted data; switch 2 defines the interval between corruptions.
  • FUBAR must occur before CURSE DEVELOPER, which is optionally followed by LAWSUIT.
  • [Detailed examples to follow once parameters for the two switches are finalized]
  • See also: debugging, recovering lost data [anything else to add?]


This example illustrates both the architecture for all subsequent commands in the guide, and how the architecture is implemented for one function, in a way that distinguishes this function from all other functions. An additional bonus is that this topic is almost completely documented at this point. Details must be added, particularly with respect to the reminder in square brackets, and the inventory and architecture must still be approved, but if this is all you could give to the users of the product, they probably wouldn’t complain too loudly. If nothing else, they’d probably stop at the CURSE DEVELOPER function and not proceed to LAWSUIT.

Now let’s consider fiction, using an example most readers will be familiar with: the various films in the Avengers movie franchise. Let’s start with a bad example.


  • Scene: Tony Stark bantering with Steve Rogers
  • Exchange of banter (one or two verbal attacks)
  • Discussion of a serious matter
  • Parting banter before scene ends


Again, the problem is that this probably isn’t much different from all the other scenes, and it provides no details that distinguish it from those other scenes. It’s all inventory and is therefore only a rudimentary outline. Now let’s consider a slightly more advanced but still unacceptable outline.


  • Scene: Tony and Steve meet for the first time.
  • Tony attacks Steve; Steve replies with his own attack.
  • Nick Fury brings the talk back to the serious matter at hand.
  • Tony attacks Steve about the serious matter; Steve counterattacks about the serious matter.
  • Scene ends.


Better, but the same description could still be applied to pretty much any scene, not just the first meeting of these characters. Moreover, we have no idea what the serious issue is or why our two heroes are sparring verbally over it. Now let’s look at a better version of this outline.


  • Scene: Tony and Steve meet for the first time.
  • Tony, jealous of Steve’s bulging muscles, suggests that Steve is all muscle, no brains.
  • Steve points out that he doesn’t need a billion-dollar mechanical suit to be a hero.
  • Nick Fury interrupts, pointing out that both muscles and brains will be required to defeat Loki.
  • Steve points out that it’s a good thing he’s got a brain. Tony responds that his suit’s muscles kind of make Steve redundant, but that Steve wouldn’t be a captain if he didn’t have at least a rudimentary brain, and that it’s good to have backup.
  • Scene ends.


Still fairly primitive, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to move some of the details from implicit to explicit and actually write the dialog. But we at least see a sketch of the problem (they will need to learn to respect each other), the context (Loki is a threat to everyone), the challenge (they’ll need to learn how to work together), and the solution (they recognize, even if somewhat reluctantly, that each has a strength that will come in useful).

Then, theory meets reality …

Of course, reality sometimes disrupts our best-laid plans. For our poor documentation writer, the problem lies in the chaotic nature of product development, which is never as predictable and smooth as anyone would like. For our poor fiction writer, the muse doesn’t always come when called, and sometimes the muse points out that we’ve actually been writing the wrong story and need to take a big step back and reconsider the real story. (This happened to me in my novel Chords, in which I realized that I’d omitted one crucial character from the alternation of chapters and that without her perspective, the story was very ordinary.)

This kind of problem means both writers and their editors have to be flexible and willing to start over when necessary. Documentation outlines often have to change as the product being documented changes, and stories often change as you gain insights into the characters and realize that they don’t necessarily want to follow your plans; the best characters have desires of their own that conflict with your plans. This is part of the nature of writing, and you have to learn to accept it and find ways to cope. For documentation, maintaining close ties with the development team alerts you to product changes that will have consequences for your outline. For fiction, a strong outline that groups and sequences the key events in the story ensures that you haven’t missed any points and understand the dependencies well enough that you won’t forget them when you revise the outline.

What about hypertexts?

Most of the manuscripts we write or deal with as editors are linear, which is to say that the reader begins in a clear starting location and proceeds to a clear destination. The scale of that linearity may apply to the manuscript as a whole, as in the case of Ikea assembly instructions or a novel, or to individual chapters, as in the case of an encyclopedia article or software manual. (Un)fortunately, modern writers have a broader set of options, including nonlinear hypertexts.

Hypertext is the technical term for documents that don’t necessarily follow a linear course. For example, with Web sites and online help, readers may dip into the body of information for very different purposes, ranging from obtaining an overview of what information is available (i.e., orientation) to finding a specific topic (i.e., problem-solving). Outlining becomes much more difficult, since the order of the information and how it is accessed is no longer linear. In such cases, it may not be possible to outline the overall text as if it were a single manuscript. Instead, it becomes necessary to develop two or more outlines, such as one for orientation and another for solving problems (i.e., task clusters).

For a product’s user manual, the first outline might present the complete list of topics (an inventory), grouped into logical categories such as “page layout,” “print publishing,” and “EPUB creation.” A second level of an outline might be created for each of these categories, with the architecture for each category showing how individual product features function, how they can be combined to design a page, how to produce a PDF file you can send to a printer, or how to produce an accessible and properly formatted e-book.

Fiction is less likely to follow a hypertext structure, since stories tend to follow a linear pattern, apart from occasional diversions such as flashbacks. Thus, the first outline might be based on dependencies; that is, the outline would list what events must happen before it is possible for other events to happen. A second level of an outline might then be the chapters and plot points for each chapter, which would generally take the form of conventional linear indexes within each chapter. Those chapters can then be shuffled for dramatic effect, as long as the dependencies are identified and accounted for.

Advantages of my approach

The approach I’ve described has several advantages:

  • Careful planning greatly reduces last-minute changes demanded by stakeholders. In some cases, the approval of some stakeholders may no longer be required because they’ve already given it right from the start and trust the other stakeholders to do the remaining work well.
  • The outline provides a decent minimalist user manual if you can’t complete every topic. For fiction, it makes for a nice elevator speech if you’re trying to pitch your story to an editor.
  • The approach is modular: You can add to the outline, delete sections, or move sections around as the product changes or the plot and characters evolve.
  • The outline will be complete if you inventoried everything you need to write about.
  • The outline will be consistent: Architectures ensure that all required information is present for every topic.
  • It’s user- or reader-centered.

A second meaning of “outline” is a line that surrounds the outer edges of some object, eliminating all the details so only a vague shape is visible. That’s not the kind of outline that helps authors write, nor is it the kind of outline we as editors want to help them create. An effective outline does most of the hard work of developing a manuscript’s skeleton and muscles before refining the details.


Demchik, H. 2021. How to improve story structure for a better novel.

Hart, G.J. 1996. The five W’s: an old tool for the new task of audience analysis. Technical Communication 43(2):139–145.

Hart, G. 2002. The five W’s of online help for tech writers.

Hart, G. 2006a. Designing an effective review process. Intercom July/August 2006:18–21.

Hart, G. 2006b. Personas and the technical communicator. Usability Interface 12(2), October 2006.>

Hart, G. 2011a. Uprooting entrenched technical communication processes: process improvement using the kaizen method.

Hart, G. 2011b. Personas and the five W’s: developing content that meets reader needs, pt. 1. What’s a persona?

Hart, G. 2011c. Personas and the five W’s: developing content that meets reader needs, pt. 2. Applying the five W’s.

May 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Three Types of Indie Editing Clients

Carolyn Haley

If you edit enough novels by independent authors, you’ll notice patterns in author types and ambitions. By this I mean broad patterns — which always contain exceptions — that can help guide editors in determining how to guide individual authors on their publishing journeys.

The three broad types of indie authors are those who (1) write to market (in my shorthand, the pragmatists); (2) write to express themselves then figure out how to find their audience (the dreamers); and (3) write for either/both reasons and believe that everyone is their audience (the in-betweeners).

In this context, writing styles and genres are irrelevant. It’s all about expectations and approach. Every indie editing job has its unique parameters and focal points, driven by author desire, budget, and publishing goal. How these weave together is where the distinctions come into play.

(1) The pragmatists

Authors who write to market tend to do their homework before presenting their books for editing. They have clear story ideas (usually lots of), intend to make money, and have invested time in researching the rules of the game. The economically efficient ones go for cheaper services than I can offer, unless they have well-lined pockets, although it happens occasionally that they regret their first choice(s) of editor and come to me for re-editing, either before publication or in reaction to embarrassing feedback from readers after they’ve released their books independently.

In the main, this group wants copyediting or proofreading. They are confident about their writing technique and storytelling, and often have worked with beta readers to iron out the wrinkles in their content. Then they just want somebody editorially competent to do the nitpicky housekeeping.

Almost always, these authors self-publish. Many of them are DIYers who have already formatted and illustrated their manuscripts when they submit them for editing. They know exactly which publishing service they will use to release the book, and how to promote their work.

Rarely do these authors care about the minutiae of punctuation and style. That’s the editor’s job, in their minds, and all they want is to have their text made clean and consistent. From the editor’s viewpoint, these are easy jobs, and what matters is to have straightforward conversations with the author to understand their particulars, then gallop on through the project.

(2) The dreamers

This group of authors is inclined in the opposite direction. They’ve had a story burbling inside them for years, and finally their life situation has given them a chance to pour it out. Many have retired from an unrelated career and are indulging at last in their dreams.

Unlike the pragmatists who write to market, the dreamers are usually under-informed about the realities of publishing, either traditional or independent. And they’ve done little or no study about composition, grammar, narrative structure, etc., since their school days.

They seek an editor who will be their partner and guide them through the wilderness. They lean hard on the editor’s knowledge and expertise. Viewed cynically, they can be considered artistes or hobbyists, and it’s sometimes painful to work with them, knowing their passionate effort has little chance of acceptance or sales in the real world. At the same time, they can be the most satisfying to work with, because of their enthusiasm, openness, unfettered creativity, and sometimes astonishing growth.

For these authors, editors need to provide a lot of information, starting with careful definition of services and costs for each level of service. Scope of work may include education in storycraft and the publishing process, including advice about composing query letters, synopses, and jacket blurbs and taglines. Often, these authors’ dream is for traditional publishing success, which may or may not be appropriate for their work. It helps a lot if the editor has publishing experience in addition to language and writing skills.

Emotionally, this group of authors is “needy” in comparison to the pragmatists, so editors should be conscious of their own willingness to be drawn into ego support and where to draw the line. In contrast to the pragmatists “driving the bus,” the dreamers need to be chauffeured, or at least given an explicit road map.

(3) The in-betweeners

The third group, not surprisingly, is an assortment falling between the two extremes. They throw in the most variables for the editor to manage. The main challenge with such authors is defining what they’ve written and toward whom to target it, because they frequently believe that publishing is a single-step process that leads to anyone and everyone having access to their novel and wanting to read it.

For these folks, editors need to take extra time up front to figure out what the author specifically wants and/or needs. Pitching services to them might run the gamut from manuscript evaluation to a deep developmental edit, with copyediting or line editing as options. Like the dreamers, the in-betweeners usually require dialogue and sample edits to pave the way for a successful arrangement. They understand some of the logistics and value-added aspects of editing, but might have to be educated or convinced.

(4) Others

There’s a fourth group of authors that indie editors are wise to steer clear of, although editors don’t have to work hard to avoid this group because its members don’t really want to be edited — although they often have strong opinions about it.

Such authors fall into two camps. One disdains editors completely, while the other thinks editors overcharge. It’s rare to receive inquiries from either faction, but occasionally an author who recognizes that editing helps goes searching for someone to provide that help — at the cheapest possible price. An editor’s best practice when that happens is to steer them to one of the low-dollar bidding sites and wish them well.

Patterns and particulars

In simplistic terms, indie authors cluster into black, white, and gray areas, each seeking different levels of editorial involvement. Understanding these clusters helps editors form a strategy for approaching and accommodating their differences.

In all cases, frank and polite communication before committing to the job is imperative. So is a contract that spells out scope of work, and payment and delivery terms. The goal — always — is to avoid either or both parties receiving something different from what they expect and desire. Considering authors in broad types can also help editors evaluate their personal limits and design their service offerings for maximum mutual benefit.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences

March 17, 2021

Thinking Fiction: The Book as an Object

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:40 pm

Carolyn Haley

Writing a novel has often been likened to having a baby. The analogy is apt, in terms of gestation, obsession, pain, thrill, frustration, and all that goes with the long-term development of a new life.

Less often discussed is what happens later in the process, when it’s time to push the fledgling out of the nest.

In literary terms, this translates to finishing a book and letting it go to flop or fly. Some writers can’t do that, for any of three reasons:

1) Insecurity. They fear they will fail, or be laughed at, or put down.

2) Perfectionism. They can’t stop fine-tuning, because they believe a state of perfection can be achieved.

3) Brainwashing. They’ve been drilled by gurus to make their work “the best it can be” and believe that anything less is undeserving to be published, so their book is never ready.

The reverse also happens — some writers rush their books out the door in eagerness for publication, and don’t give their work the time and attention it deserves (including not budgeting money or time for editing and proofreading).

Either way, there’s a mental transition that has to occur between writing and publishing. A novel’s natural lifecycle is to transform from a private idea to a publicly exposed product. Along the way, it takes on a life of its own and the author is progressively edged aside.

Transformation phase 1

During draft composition, a story belongs exclusively to its author. Once the manuscript is completed and somebody else reads it, however, the transformation from idea to object begins.

Many authors test their ideas through beta readers to get their first sense of how their material can be perceived outside their own head. The more beta readers, the more different ideas and opinions push against the author’s sensibilities and imagination. What the author initially conceived starts to change in their own minds as well as on the page.

When the book reaches an editor, the real transition begins. Professional editors have no personal connection to the author. Their relationship is a business one, and their concern is only the material the author has created. This is not to suggest that the author-editor relationship is or should ever be indifferent or adversarial; rather, most editors get fully engaged in the material and devote themselves to helping the author cultivate it into a product that will draw readers.

But to the editor, the book is a “thing” — a narrative to be analyzed and polished and, if necessary, reformulated, until it is solid enough to go out the door and connect with its readers. For editors, working on a manuscript is a job as well as a calling, and the manuscript is weighed and measured against standards including, but also extending beyond, the author’s own criteria.

Transformation phase 2

Once a manuscript has been polished, it’s presented to one of three types of people: agents and acquiring editors (traditional publishing), or directly to readers (self-publishing). For the first two, the agent/editor evaluates the book as something they love and can commit to, or don’t love and reject for taste, or love but reject because it can’t be sold in enough quantities to justify the cost of producing it. In other words, the book has become a commodity and is subject to an accounting sheet. The author may still be in the equation, because with agents and publishers, contracts are involved, but at that point, author control and preference start sliding to the back seat, and what has been lovingly carried by their own hands is transferred to someone else’s.

When an author self-publishes their book and promotes it directly to readers, the disassociation happens more slowly but still becomes real. To self-publish, an author must turn a manuscript into a product people can buy. That process involves making all kinds of decisions about style, format, category, distribution, cover design, tagline, blurb, and so forth. These decisions force authors to look at their work as a thing that has to appeal to readers outside their own sphere.

Often, especially with first-time authors, submitting a book to the wider world is fraught with angst, discouragement, and confusion. It’s particularly galling for those who go the traditional-publishing route and submit, get rejected, submit, get rejected, for what could be dozens of times over many years. It’s hard for authors to realize that it’s not themselves being rejected, when what they conceived in passion, and invested a big chunk of their lives into expressing and molding, brings no positive result.

Even when the big day comes and the book is finally accepted, the process becomes more depersonalizing when contracts come into play. Suddenly the “baby” morphs into intellectual property involving rights and licensing, then gets kicked around like a soccer ball during further stages of editing and all the choices and compromises involved in turning it into a purchasable product.

Sooner or later, authors have to detach emotionally from their work and share the publisher’s perspective, whether they are working with a traditional house or producing the book themselves. The book must become an object to get into readers’ hands, by whatever tools and techniques work.

Transformation phase 3

After all the transitional tasks are accomplished, and the book is published, then come sales and reviews — and a new wave of learning just how many different ways the product can be perceived. By then, it’s difficult for an author to remember the once-upon-a-time when the challenge of the day was wringing words out of the soul and getting them into the right order to capture the author’s vision and feelings. The book has flown from the nest, destined for a fate that depends on myriad factors mainly beyond the author’s control.

The weirdest experience some authors have is meeting their readers, through signings or conferences or interviews (online or in person), when their personal self who created the book faces the results of what the book turned into. Depending on their personality type, this can be the most fulfilling part of the process, or the most alienating.

Regardless, the path to publication involves transformation inside the author as well as within the work itself. That’s why it’s important for authors to decide early what they want from publishing.

The best practice is to ignore the question during drafting the book, so the intense, private creation experience can proceed uninhibited. Then, when revising, but before showing the work to any beta readers or editors, authors can dream about what they want for success, and consider what they’re willing to settle for and what they don’t want at all. Understanding their goals and boundaries helps them direct their feedback readers on the best way to revise the book without wasting time, energy, and emotion on dead ends and sidetracks.

It comes down to authors owning their work. Ownership becomes literal once the book has turned into a thing, but while getting there, it’s a psychological state that reduces emotional distress and eases the transition between art and object.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

January 15, 2021

On the Basics: Who’s the bravest of the brave in publishing?


Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

We don’t usually think of writers as brave (unless they’re investigative reporters or pioneering authors whose work puts them at risk of reprisal from dangerous people), but I was reminded of the Wicked Witch in “Snow White” asking the mirror, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” when a social media post made me realize that independent authors are among “the bravest of them all” in the publishing world.

What makes indie authors brave? Just the fact of trying to get published.

Indie authors often have solid experience in an area of business or a profession that is worth sharing. Some have gone through challenges in life that taught them lessons that are also worth sharing — memoir is a popular genre these days. Many have fascinating ideas — they can create entire worlds! — or skill in translating real life into fictional versions of what they’ve experienced or seen happen to people around them.

But indie authors are frequently, maybe even usually, not trained in writing. They haven’t worked in publishing, or in a job in some other field that included the kind of writing they aim to publish. They haven’t taken classes in writing. They don’t have mentors. They might have written blogs, but those are often disorganized and only semi-coherent. (Not all, mind you; there are aspiring authors whose blogs are well-written, readable and interesting.)

Many indie authors are operating without a net. They’re trying to get published without solid skills or professional help in the basics of spelling, punctuation, grammar or usage, much less plot and character development, consistent style, structure or organization, coherent voice, and more. They don’t belong to writers’ or critique groups. They don’t have beta readers (many don’t know what those are). They have something to say — and it’s often something worth reading — but no experience to guide them in how to get it said and, once said, into the hands or before the eyes of readers.

Please be aware that these authors are not stupid, although some might be less than skilled as writers. They’re simply new to the process.

From what I see in various internet groups of writers and editors, some indie authors don’t seem to read enough of other people’s work to have a good sense of what makes a “good” book in a given genre. They ask for help with one aspect of a sentence or paragraph, but it’s the aspect of that sentence or paragraph that is the least important or least problematic; they don’t see the actual problem.

I have a lot of respect for anyone with the discipline and focus to do long-form writing, whether a book, essay, journalistic investigation, blog post; fiction or nonfiction; fact or opinion — whatever the work might be. I’ve done plenty of long-form writing, although not quite at book length, so I know what it takes, even though most of my training is in journalism, where shorter is often better. Long-form writing is involving, fulfilling, and enthralling, even when it doesn’t go smoothly.

Next steps toward publication

Once the writing is — or the author thinks it is — done, the idea of taking the next steps into publishing can be daunting, and requires another kind of courage. I admire the bravery of any not-yet-published author who asks for advice from colleagues (both writers and editors). Admitting ignorance of the process and opening themselves up to possible rejection or criticism of the work is scary. It takes courage to put time and effort into creating a book, especially one that reveals difficult or painful events in the author’s life, and try to navigate the world of publishing with no experience, contacts or knowledge of what to do.

An unpublished writer might think it’s easier to seek traditional publishing than to self-publish, because the traditional path means having an agent who does the work of finding the ideal publisher for a book, and someone at the publishing house who shepherds the book through revision (agents sometimes help with that process before trying to find a publisher), editing, design, production and distribution. Essentially, all the writer has to do is … write.

However, entering the world of traditional publishing means learning how the business works, starting with the value of having an agent. Then there’s finding an agent, and developing the patience of waiting for the book to be accepted by a publisher and make its way through the next steps before publication. That can take a year or longer, and by then, some books are no longer timely or get bumped by a new star in the author’s genre.

In today’s world, even traditional publishing also means that an author has to take an active part in promoting a book. Speaking of bravery, that’s a new role, and one that not only takes an author away from writing their next book, but also makes some authors quite uncomfortable.

The bravery factor is more noticeable for indie authors — those who opt for self-publishing — than for those who opt for traditional publishing. Beyond the challenge of writing with little or no experience and training, an indie author often finds out that they need more money than they realized might be involved in bringing their baby — book — to life. As an independent, the author is responsible for costs such as editing, proofreading, cover and interior design, printing (if they want “hard copies” on hand), and marketing or promotions. They have to learn — sometimes by bitter experience — to distinguish between the skilled professionals and the hacks in editing or proofreading, and in design. They also have to learn, again sometimes from experience, the difference between legitimate publishing services and vanity presses. Just finding ways to learn about these aspects of the process can be challenging as well.

Some indie authors just blast through writing their books and do their best to self-publish without professional editing, proofreading or other assistance. Those are usually the books that get called out in social media and reviews for errors in everything from the basics of grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage to consistency and accuracy in character names or event places, as well as sloppy writing in general. The author has demonstrated bravery in getting that book out there, but bravery doesn’t always guarantee success.

The editing aspect

Submitting work to be edited takes another type of courage, especially for a first-time author. It can be scary to ask for editing help. The average indie author has never worked with an editor who helped them organize ideas and fine-tune drafts, so they often don’t understand the editing process. They also are — understandably  — protective of their work. They might worry that an editor will be critical and tell them to make changes that they will not want to make. They might have worked on their books for years and be deeply reluctant to change a single word. They might even be afraid that an editor will steal their work.

A colleague who is both a novelist and an editor of fiction tells me that she frequently sees evidence of indie author courage: She works on “books [by] first novelists with terrific story ideas that were badly executed.” She finds that “[t]heir courage to put these out to somebody’s critique is significant, and the challenge to me to do them justice — encouraging them emotionally while advising them of what they need to deal with — has been high level and difficult at the same time.”

Editors who work with indie authors must be prepared to use more tact than they might need when serving professional writers. An indie author who has not been trained in writing and never tried to be published before might not understand the reasons for some of an editor’s changes. A good editor will be sensitive to the author’s feelings and handle the editing process with respect.

It should be noted that even experienced, well-published writers can be nervous about being edited. I’m always a little worried about what will happen to my words once I’ve submitted them to an editor or client, because I’ve seen my work changed in ways I dislike. Some of those changes have been outright wrong — a misspelled word, a grammar error introduced by the client — and some have been different perspectives or minor annoyances. Just this past month, a publisher changed my headline to use the wife’s nickname in it for a profile I had written of a couple whom I’ve known all my life — I only included the nickname because the husband used it in several of his comments; none of their friends would be likely to use it. As authors/writers, we can sometimes ask to see what will be published under our names, but not always.

Once in publication

When an indie author’s book is done and published, more bravery is called for. For many indie authors, this is the hardest part of the process, because indie publishing means the author has to handle promotions, marketing, fulfillment and related tasks. If their book is available through Amazon or other major online sources, they don’t have to do all of the fulfillment, but they still are responsible for letting the world know about their book.

That might mean creating a website, which would be another challenge. It could mean trying to arrange for book signings and tours — also a demanding process, and that doesn’t even include actually showing up for those events. It probably means blogging on their own, and getting guest posts on other people’s blogs. Oh, and trying to find reviewers who will say good things about their book.

All of these tasks require interacting with people — mostly strangers — and that is scary for the classic introvert writer. Facing up to handling those tasks takes courage. It goes against that ingrained personality and requires braving not only a demanding environment of communicating and interacting with other people, but the possibility of criticism and rejection.

Guts, glory and publishing success

Any way you look at any part of the process, writing and publishing take courage, and the indie author needs extra buckets of bravery. Consider this a tribute to their guts and a helping hand to their glory.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( is an award-winning provider of editorial (writing, editing, proofreading, etc.) and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors ( and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at or

January 11, 2021

Thinking Fiction: What’s Next for Novelists?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:58 pm

Carolyn Haley

Thanks to our collective and often-divisive experiences over the past year, I’ll wager we all agree that 2020 was one heckuva rough ride with long-term consequences yet to be known.

The events have introduced new concerns specific to fiction writers, editors, agents, and publishers. For instance, should authors of contemporary fiction include the current pandemic in their stories? The question arises from the shock that what was contemporary and normal a year ago has changed dramatically. Nobody wants to be seen as trivializing or attempting to profit from the pandemic, but it happened, and it has affected the world in many ways, some of which are likely to last. How to factor this into modern novels?

With the exception of extremely prolific writers, most authors take at least a year to compose and polish a novel. Many take several years. Now, stories they recently conceived have had their foundations upheaved and are no longer valid if set in reality. Simple example: an office romance. Doesn’t work when people can’t go to their jobs in offices anymore, or have to wear masks and comply with social distancing requirements that can’t be fulfilled until their office space has been reconfigured. A stolen kiss in the supply room might kill one or more people instead of being an intriguing plot point.

Many contemporary-fiction authors are wondering whether they should finish their works in process (WIPs) and pretend nothing happened, trusting readers to understand and accept; revamp their works to accommodate the “new normal,” which nobody can foresee and is likely to be shifting rapidly for months or years; stop writing their book(s) altogether and wait to see what’s real when the dust settles; or put their WIPs on hold and start new stories set either solidly in pre-coronavirus times or far in the future, when it might be remembered history, like the flu pandemic of 1919.

Some commenters in publishing-related forums, along with people in private conversations, have declared that the last thing they want to read in the present or near future are stories about the 2020 nightmare. They want escape. Others are already diving into published fiction written by prescient — whether by accident or design — authors who take characters through a comparable scenario.

Category changes

These opposite tastes have long driven genre marketplace distinctions. What has abruptly changed is the timeline separating the genres.

Conventionally, a “contemporary” novel can be set anytime from, say, World War II to the present. This line of demarcation was already in flux in the publishing community, in that stories set in the 1950s through 1990s have such different mores and technology from either end — the 1930–’40s and the 2000s — that they already feel historical, especially to younger readers.

Marketing departments in publishing houses and book retailers have been rethinking where to draw the line between historical and contemporary eras. Some publishers are testing a “vintage” category to split the difference until somebody decides where to draw a new line and the majority of participants buy in.

I’ve seen suggestions that the Kennedy assassination in the United States was a turning point between As Things Were and When Things Changed. Other folks mark the moon landing as that turning point. Both occurred in the 1960s. Other folks think the attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001 were a defining moment between the old and new eras.

Personally, I think the biggest change in common culture occurred in the late 1970s/early ’80s, when the desktop computer and internet entered millions of people’s lives. The next big shift came with the advent of widely available and affordable cellphones and GPS in the early 2000s. I focus on these as a copyeditor because they are recurrent trouble points in client manuscripts: Younger authors often take for granted that smartphones and texting have always existed, while older authors sometimes forget that modern people use them as a normal part of their lives.

Now we have a new distinction: pre-corona and post-corona, in the space of 12 months. Material that was speculative fiction or science fiction for many authors in 2019 became contemporary or dystopian fiction in 2020–’21.

Two examples

One of my clients got caught squarely in this dilemma. Only 25 years old, she conceived her story nine years ago in high school, worked on it intermittently through formative years of college and career — and suddenly found she’d created a situation so close to what’s happening today that her story took on a whole new twist and readers would interpret its title and situation differently than they would have a year ago. I got this manuscript for evaluation and was stumped for weeks about how to respond to it. She desires to publish traditionally rather than self-publish, and neither of us at this point knows how to present her work to the industry via an agent or to readers.

Something similar happened to me, too, as an author instead of an editor. I am a slow-motion novelist, taking years to work an idea into a coherent manuscript. I tend to cross genres, making my books even harder to structure and sell. Back in 2015, I came up with a new idea, and took three years to complete a working draft. I set the book in the spring of 2015, with no worries that the world might change enough to compromise the date.

In 2018, I finished it; another year passed as I circulated it through my beta readers and incorporated their suggestions; then I put it aside to marinate, finally taking it out a few months ago for a proofread, intending to self-publish this past summer. However, reading it with cold eyes revealed a huge technical honker I’d missed and had to deal with, so it’s back in revision until I can figure out a solution. My current publishing target is March 2021 — the five-year anniversary of typing the first words.

That’s fine except for one thing: It’s the first volume of a planned series. In 2016, the United States began an enormous cultural and political change with the shift of government leadership. Aspects of this would directly influence my character if she were living in that time. I do not want to go there. That means I must compress my series into eight months instead of the vague several years I had imagined.

Fortunately, I’ve only written one of the novels in the planned series, and it’s OK as-is in its time. But I have to totally rethink the rest. This problem has surprised many a novelist with more change-sensitive timelines.

The social factor

Cultural changes have introduced their own complexities. Several of my indie-author clients have asked:

•         Should they hire a sensitivity reader?

•         Is it “safe” to include mentions of certain subjects in their story, or write about a person of a gender, race, or religion that is different from the author?

•         Are they now required to include “trigger warnings” in their front matter, subtitle, or cover?

•         Should they write under a pseudonym?

•         Should they promote their books through social media or stay away because of vulnerability to “trolls” and harassment?

•         Will certain words in their title or elements of a cover image be rejected by Amazon?

Similar questions are a normal part of writing and publishing decisions. The past year’s dramas, however, have pushed some of these questions into high relief. Many more minds are pondering them, in a broader social and financial network.

It grieves me to have no answers. The best that I and my clients can do is continue evaluating and discussing each book on its own merits with the author’s individual goals in mind.

In 2021, we are living in a state of flux with questions and challenges greater than most of us have encountered in our lifetimes, all swirling together. But one thing hasn’t changed: the creativity — flexibility — subjectivity of literature. Authors always have to think about the times they write in. It happens that today, they must contemplate a new set of issues as they both compose their stories and present them to readership. It will be mighty interesting to see what future novels come out of this era!

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

April 20, 2020

Thinking Fiction: The Three Bottom-line Facts of Writing and Publishing Novels

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:44 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

By Carolyn Haley

Over the years, my editing enterprise has evolved so that most of my clients are now indie authors. A high percentage of them are first-time novelists. Some have done their homework and understand what to expect from editing and publishing; for others, it falls on me to help them align their expectations with reality as part of the job.

To date, I haven’t worked with an author who doesn’t desire to publish. The biggest idea that most new authors aren’t prepared for is the psychological transition from the personal art experience of writing to the impersonal business of publishing.

In other words, once their book is out of their hands, it becomes an object.

This is why I routinely convey these three facts that novelists must understand and accept if they want to publish:

  1. It’s your story, your voice, your work.
  2. Writing is a craft as well as an art.
  3. Once your book leaves your hands, it becomes a consumer product.

Owning one’s work

If I had a dime for every time I’ve tried to convince a new author that their voice and efforts are legitimate, I’d be a wealthy woman!

So many new authors apologize for themselves, comparing their stories, their years (or not) of writing, their personalities, to people who are prominently successful. They do not believe their voices or ideas can compete on that level, or even have merit. They put too much importance on what other people — including me as an editor — think of their efforts, considering each step of the writing process to be an exercise of judgment, usually against them.

Some do go the other way and think that every syllable that comes out of their pen or keyboard is a priceless pearl, but I rarely get those folks as clients. Usually they fall into the insecure camp.

That’s when I emphasize that the story is their own: their idea, their voice, their art/craft work. Not mine. My job is to help them tell the story so it’s coherent and accessible to the largest number of readers, particularly the desired audience.

The author’s job is to believe in their story, and believe that somebody out there wants to read it and will understand it. Whether that’s a single person or a million people depends on what the book is and through what channel it is made public. The bottom line never changes: You must get the right book into the right person’s hands on the right day. I, the editor, might not be that right person, but I believe every client’s book is the right book for someone.

The book has to be as smooth and tight as it can be before it’s passed around — and therein lies part of the problem. It’s hard for new authors to grasp that every story can be written dozens, sometimes hundreds, of different ways. Just ask anyone who has recast their novel over and over again in response to personal drive, beta reader feedback, or editorial direction. Sometimes the biggest problem is knowing when to stop!

Ultimately, what makes a story uniquely the author’s is how it’s expressed. Just like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two authors’ voices are the same. Even if someone is retelling a classic fairy tale and the story itself is unoriginal, the way an author writes it is what counts. (This is the basis of copyright protection.)

Aside from that legal aspect (a work is protected by copyright from the moment it comes into existence), it’s the author’s responsibility to establish and hold boundaries for their work. Some boundaries are intangible, like accepting or rejecting influence, while others are concrete, like contract terms. Authors need to know themselves well, believe in their work, and be clear about their goals if they want to survive the transition between writing a novel and publishing it.

Writing is a craft as well as an art

The first thing most new authors need to understand is that only the tiniest percentage of writers get their novels shipshape in one draft; in fact, I would be surprised if anyone publishes a first version unless, perhaps, they’re self-publishing and think their work doesn’t need at least a critique if not editing (and proofreading). The rest of us need help somewhere along the line. The old saying “can’t see the forest for the trees” applies here, in that it’s nigh impossible to perceive both overview and detail at the same time: A writer is usually so intimately involved in creating their story world that they can’t detach enough to perceive the package in the same way as an outsider would. That’s why writers need beta readers and editors. Those other eyes see what the author can’t. Ideally, the multiple perspectives of beta readers, an editor, and a proofreader (again, at the least) combine to make a novel the best it can be.

Having the flaws in one’s work pointed out is a hurtful experience. Some writers can’t take this and either skip the help phase or get so defensive about it that they draw their boundaries too tightly and reject every suggestion. Others writers swing the opposite way and revise to accommodate every person’s preferences. That rapidly becomes a merry-go-round they can’t get off, and might result in the book getting worse instead of better. Savvy writers manage their emotional reactions and take what they need from the feedback, reject the rest, and move on toward their writing and publishing goals.

Savvy writers also recognize that every reader will have a different reaction to every story, whether it’s their mother, an agent, an editor, a paying customer, or a reviewer. Pleasing all of them can’t be done, so it’s not worth trying.

Authors must bother, instead, to get their vision translated into clean, coherent prose and structure so the most readers possible will be able to understand and embrace it. Authors must figure out who they want to connect with and aim their fine-tuning efforts at that audience.

Books are consumer products

Authors who seek traditional publishing will likely have to compromise somewhere, and face the prospect that they could lose control over their work if they don’t read the fine print in a contract. Once they’ve signed with an agent or publishing house, they can’t change their mind without consequences.

Their personal boundaries, then, must be solidly understood internally before they reach out to others. I advise authors to look at their boundaries in light of their goals, and be prepared to think hard about what they want so they can respond appropriately when faced with hard choices. They have to be prepared to accept the consequences any time they stick to their guns, and not play the blame game. It’s their book, and they are ultimately responsible for its fate through saying yes or no at decision points.

The upside of hard choices is the gain that can come from pain. Commonly, the character, plot, or plausibility point causing the strongest reader or editor objection (and the most distress in the author at the thought of changing or cutting it) came from the author’s heart and feels vital to the story. They need to own this problem and solve it by one of two means: (1) Dig deep into their creativity and figure out how to make the problem point work to mutual satisfaction, or (2) just delete the problem (an action known as “killing your darlings”) and then use it in another work. Sometimes problem parts truly are extraneous — something the author loves that just doesn’t serve the story. It also might be that they only need to solve a craft issue, and doing so will set the art free.


Just because a person writes something with all their heart and soul doesn’t mean it’s any good. “Good” is a subjective judgment, of course, based on other people’s tastes, but it’s also a technical judgment, based on coherence and convention. A small percentage of the reading public is open to experimental material or has a high tolerance for sloppy presentation if something else grips their attention — characters, story line, relevance. The rest expect novels to follow certain standards of story structure, language use, and genre tropes, and they don’t want to see typos or poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling, or boring info dumps, or unbelievable characters and situations. It’s an insult to readers to foist immature work upon them. They want the best a writer can do.

Therefore, authors who desire good sales and reviews must study writing and story craft as well as find someone who knows what they’re doing to review the manuscript and help polish it. Rare is the writer who has all the skills needed to conceive and execute a story for hundreds of pages so other people can get lost in reading it. The greater a writer’s experience, the less they have to learn and compromise; but until that experience has been attained, the writer must expect to work long and hard, and receive some negative results along the way to success.


In all the arts (writing, painting, dance, music, sculpture, drama), a common wisdom is, “You have to know the rules to break them.” Knowing the rules is craft. Knowing when to break them is art. Writers who don’t know the rules — who think art alone will carry their work to acclaim — generally don’t succeed to their satisfaction. To avoid that, they must do their homework, and allow people who are farther along the path to help. That’s how the successful folks become successful. Learning to write is a continuum, and a given author is at their own point along it, always seeking to advance along the line. There is no ultimate point of achievement, only process and evolution.

The impersonality of being an object

Many people liken writing a book to having a baby, and revising it to raising a child. Publishing a book is like pushing a fledgling out of the nest to fly or fall. The author might retain a connection to the creature they’ve created, but at some point, it becomes an independent entity that will leave them behind.

That phase begins the moment they let another person read the manuscript. What lived privately in their head becomes an object vulnerable to other people’s perceptions. The only way to prevent this is to keep the manuscript in a drawer. It’s shocking to learn how differently other people will interpret what seems to clear to the writer, or that they will react opposite to what the author intended. Depending on what they wrote, how they wrote it, who reads it, the author’s relationship to them, and how adept the responder is at couching critique in technical rather than personal terms will determine how well the book (and author) weathers exposure.

Editors, unlike most beta readers, are trained to view a book in craft and marketplace terms, and their job is to analyze the forest while an author is focused on the trees (and vice versa). For self-publishing authors, editors are the test readers before a novel hits the public. They help finesse an author’s work and advance it toward the publishing goals. The keyword here is help. Editorial feedback helps authors make the technical and psychic transitions to understanding their book as a product — the result of art and craft honed for reception in the wider world. Once money enters the equation, either going out or coming in, an author’s art becomes a consumer product.

When consumers read an author’s acknowledgments in a published book, they usually see a list of folks who contributed to the project. “It takes a village” is a common theme. Authors who seek help, love help, accept help, reach their goals. Authors who spurn it usually don’t. That’s why it’s important to understand the reality rules of writing and publishing. Authors who own their work, ask for and accept help with it, and recognize that it will become something beyond them, for better or worse, usually get where they want to go.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

April 8, 2020

Questions to ask when refreshing your editor website

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 10:26 am

By Nate Hoffelder, The Digital Reader

Contributing Columnist

A few weeks back, An American Editor owner Ruth Thaler-Carter published a post that discussed what editors and authors should have on their websites. It was a great post, but it got me thinking about how we could help those of you who already have websites. If you already have a site, you don’t have to know what to add to it; you want to know how to identify the parts that have to be fixed. I can help you with that.

With all public events canceled for the duration, your website is a dozen times more important as a marketing tool now than it was last month. You can no longer count on meeting new clients at local mixers and at writing conferences; now you have to recruit them online — and that includes on your website.

If you haven’t touched your site in a while, now would be a good time to fix any errors, update the content and refresh the design so it looks inviting.

I spend a fair amount of time on helping clients fix up their sites, and I’d like to share a few of the things that I look for when updating a site, then explain how you might go about the process of refreshing yours.

It starts with knowing what you should look for.


  1. Do you list all of your services on your site? Are the prices or rates correct? Have you removed any services you no longer want to offer?
  2. Does your bio mention your most-recent high-profile project or client? Does the photo make you look good?
  3. Is your event calendar current? Have you removed the canceled in-person events, and added your livestream events? (Now might be a good time to add a calendar if you don’t have one.)
  4. When was the last time you added a testimonial from a satisfied client?
  5. Are there any typos in your blog posts? (When was the last time you published one?)
  6. Do you have a subscribe box in the sidebar so visitors can follow your blog?


  1. Are there any broken links in the menu? Does the menu include all of your important pages?
  2. How fast do the pages load?
  3. Do all the links work on your home page? What about your other pages?
  4. If a prospective client fills out your contact form, will the message be sent or will the site eat it?
  5. Do you have share buttons on all blog posts?
  6. Does your mailing list form work? If you put in a name and email address, will the subscriber info be added to your subscriber list? (Do you have a mailing list?)


  1. Can someone look at your site and tell what editorial services you offer?
  2. Does your home page have a clear message for visitors?
  3. Do you encourage visitors to engage in some way? (This could include sending you a message, signing up for your mailing list, etc.)
  4. Are your background images so busy that they distract from your site’s content, or do they stay in the background where they belong?
  5. Does your site look cluttered, or does it have lots of blank space?
  6. Is the text legible, or does it tend to blend into the background? Is it too small to read easily?

These are tough questions, I know. The average person has trouble spotting errors in their own work, and that can make it difficult to check the content of your own site. Furthermore, few have both the experience to answer the design questions and the skills to answer the tech questions.. And frankly, this is quite the long list of questions (even for me).

This is why I think you should assemble a team to help you evaluate your site. You can think of this team like an author’s beta readers, and if you know any beta readers, that would be a good place to start. I would then ask your author friends to join your team (they bring a client’s eye to the project), and if you are good friends with a graphic designer, you might ask them for their opinion. (Obviously you shouldn’t ask them to work for free, but perhaps you could find a way to trade favors.) You might also ask a techie friend to help by answering the tech questions.

Once you have assembled a roster of 12 to 20 volunteers, break them up into smaller teams and assign each team specific questions to answer. Ask each team to look at specific pages on your site, and report back. You want to be thorough, so if possible, have at least three people answer each question and check each page.

The reason you want to assign tasks to each team is so all pages get checked, and all questions will be answered. If you just let your helpers look at whatever they want, you will find that some pages will be checked by everyone while other pages won’t be checked at all. The only way to make sure that all of any issues on your entire site have been found is to give specific assignments.

When the answers start coming in, compile them into a list. Triage the list to identify which issues are important and which ones aren’t actually problems. Then sort the list into two parts: one for things you can fix yourself and another for things that you need someone else to fix for you.

Will your budget stretch to hiring an expert? If not, could you work out a trade or maybe learn how to do the work yourself?

A lack of money and time has killed more projects than I would like to admit, so don’t beat yourself up too badly if you have to leave some problems unresolved. Instead, add this project to your to-do list so you can remember to get back to it one day.

Are there any other aspects of your website that could use work?

Nate Hoffelder has been building and running WordPress websites since 2010. He blogs about indie publishing and helps authors connect with readers by customizing websites to suit each author’s voice. You may have heard his site, the Digital Reader (, mentioned on news sites such as the NYTimes, Forbes, BoingBoing, Techcrunch, Engadget, Gizmodo or Ars Technica. He is scheduled to speak about websites at the 2020 Communication Central/NAIWE/An American Editor “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference. The Digital Reader was a sponsor of the 2019 conference.

May 24, 2019

Thinking Fiction: Protecting an Editor’s Rights — If Any

By Carolyn Haley

A subject that comes up from time to time in publishing circles is whether an editor has any copyright interest in an author’s manuscript — that is, the edited version of the manuscript. Some editors believe the edited version is unique to them and forms a new and different work, which can give them leverage in demanding payment from a recalcitrant party.

I first saw this tactic suggested as a last-ditch measure against publishers that don’t play fair — those that pay late or try not to pay at all. I’ve since seen editors adding language to the same effect in their contracts with independent authors, to protect themselves from clients who change their tune after the job is done and refuse to pay, or take way longer to pay than was agreed. As part of the language, the editor’s claim to having a copyright in the edited version becomes null and void upon receipt of full payment.

In my opinion, attempting to conflate copyright with payment is irrational and unprofessional, regardless of whether a given case is winnable in a court of law. My opinion comes from my combined position as an author, an editor, and a self-employed business entity.

How Copyright Works

Consider first that copyright applies to intellectual property. Per the U.S. Copyright Office, it pertains to “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

“Original” and “tangible” are the key terms, because ideas themselves are common and fluid, and expressed in myriad ways by myriad people, and have been so over centuries, if not millennia. Copyright law only protects an individual’s unique presentation of an idea, not an idea itself. (Nor are titles protected by copyright.) In addition (italics mine), “copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.”

A work qualifies as derivative “if the changes are substantial and creative, something more than just editorial changes or minor changes. . . . For instance, simply making spelling corrections throughout a work does not warrant a new registration, but adding an additional chapter would.”

With those criteria in mind, how much does an editor have to change in a manuscript before it becomes a different enough “tangible medium of expression” to acquire uniqueness, and thus give the editor a copyright?

How Editing Works

Adjustments in punctuation, spelling, subtleties of phrasing, consistency — the tools of line editing and copy editing — all serve to clarify an author’s unique expression of their ideas, not change them. Perhaps developmental editing can get deep and gnarly enough to significantly change an author’s presentation, but does it change the book’s concept, audience, characters, or plot, or the author’s essential language and style?

If so, then the contract between author and editor should be about co-authorship, not editing.

The main thing to understand is that in an editing job, the author has the right to accept or reject the editor’s changes and suggestions. That gives the author ownership of the content by default. In some draconian contracts out there, an author may have signed away that right and must accept whatever a publisher’s editor or an independent editor does to the work — but in that situation, the author has made a regrettable mistake. In the absence of such contract terms, the agreement between author and editor generally is based on the editor helping improve the author’s work, not alter it.

Understanding Editing vs. Revising

Another argument against claiming copyright of the edited version of a work is the nebulous relationship between editing and revising. A manuscript is a work in progress until it’s locked into its published form and released. Until that point, starting with the first draft, most authors revise their work numerous times, and may have other parties, such as friends, family, colleagues, beta readers, editors, proofreaders, agents, and pre-publication reviewers — paid or unpaid — participate in the process. These helpers, individually and collectively, contribute to a version of the manuscript different from the one before, which is different from the one before, as often as needed to complete and polish the work.

Should each party in that revision cycle get a copyright interest in the work? Should the parties involved in the next cycle supersede them because a new, copyrightable version has been created?

What if the author desires to register their copyright after the first draft? Registration is not required for an author’s copyright to be valid, because copyright is automatically granted the moment a work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Registration is recommended to protect the author’s interests in the event of a legal challenge, but is not conditional for protection. Nonetheless, many authors register their copyrights because doing so makes them feel more secure. Imagine, then, what the paperwork and costs would be if they had to register every updated version of a work in progress, each one involving different people!

The whole idea is silly, because all editing occurs before a work is deemed complete. As such, it is subsumed into the overall development and revision process. Without a legal structure to define and support the many layers of building a publishable work, and the many people who might be involved, there is no basis for giving anyone but the author a copyright in the work.

The Alternative to Claiming Copyright

Having copyright-related language in editing contracts might be effective with publishing companies that employ accounting departments and lawyers, who fear legal action and can’t or won’t take the time to research the efficacy of defending copyright claims. Such language also might discourage individual authors from playing head games with independent editors.

More likely, the language would chase away independent authors of good will who are paying out of their own pockets for professional editing services, and who desire a personal, supportive, and honest relationship with their editors. Many writers have been coached by other writers or online gurus to fear that editors will steal, or drastically change, their work. Adding the threat of somebody claiming a copyright on their work will just reinforce their anxiety and give them a reason to look elsewhere — or go without editing at all.

In which case, an editor won’t have to worry about getting paid.

Getting paid does remain the bottom line. It can best be assured through transparency and a straightforward contract. My contract states: “Unless a co-authorship arrangement is made in writing, all royalties and monies gained from the sale of the book will be the sole property of the book’s copyright owner. Editor acknowledges no rights to the manuscript beyond the right to withhold delivery of the edited manuscript until final payment for work is received.”

In other words, the politically incorrect expression “no tickee, no shirtee” applies. I consider this a reasonable business position (i.e., I do the work, you pay me for it), and that claiming a copyright for something that isn’t mine is needlessly aggressive. It is also not trustworthy, owing to the copyright claim’s dubious enforceability and the specious element of “oh, that claim disappears as soon as you pay me.”

From an author’s standpoint, I wouldn’t hire an editor who would hang that kind of threat over me. My book is my book, and somebody who thinks they have the right to hijack it is somebody I wouldn’t deal with.

A Balanced Approach

Editing is — or should be — a cooperative profession, not an adversarial one. Editors stating plainly that they expect to be paid are declaring themselves professional businesspeople. Editors stating plainly that they are prepared to co-opt an author’s copyright are inviting trouble. Most publishers and indie authors will pay for services rendered. The minority who won’t pay are the reason that editors consider using the copyright-claiming ploy.

One way to avoid needing such a ploy is to require a deposit before commencing work. This usually isn’t an option for independent editors dealing with publishing companies, which state the terms that editors must take or leave. In such cases, editors need to weigh the pluses and minuses, negotiate the best they can, and be prepared to accommodate a loss should the project go awry.

When making deals with indie authors or amenable companies, however, editors should state their terms and stick to them. I have found that a signed agreement delivered with a 50 percent deposit demonstrates a client’s intention to pay. They go into the deal knowing that I will sit on the finished edit until they pay the balance, and if they don’t pay, they lose the work and have to start all over again.

In the event they don’t pay, I may have wasted time but not suffered a total loss. The less-than-expected final compensation might end up being a painful learning experience, but still, learning can’t be discounted. Meanwhile, I still have something in my pocket to show for the effort.

Nine times out of 10 (more accurately, 9.999 times out of 10), I end up with full payment on time, a happy client, an open relationship, and future work from the client or someone they refer. These benefits come from respecting authors’ work and position, and not messing with their heads. Better yet, their work goes to publication; and with luck and a good story, cleanly edited, they enjoy publishing success. I doubt I would have this track record if I made it a policy to step on their writerly toes.

How many of our readers have invoked copyright claims on edited work with authors who have not paid as promised and planned? Has it worked for you? What other techniques have you used to ensure being paid?

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

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