An American Editor

September 11, 2017

Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap III

by Carolyn Haley

In Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap I and Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap II, I introduced the four stages of my editing process — preflight, formatting, editing, and cleanup — then discussed the first stage: preflight. Preflight involves document setup for the job, then mechanical tidying-up of errors and inconsistencies using editing software tools, so I can focus on content while reading the manuscript. The next stage in my process, formatting, serves the same purpose but focuses on different aspects.

Stage 2: Formatting

Aside from story content, formatting is the biggest variable among the manuscripts I edit. Whereas publisher manuscripts usually come groomed and styled so I don’t have to do anything except copyedit, indie-author manuscripts can arrive in any condition, and I usually have to clean them up in some way beyond editing the words.

Some authors have studied submission requirements to agents or publishers, and send their manuscripts to me in “industry standard” format of one-inch margins all around, double spacing, and conventional font such as Times New Roman 12 (with a few still using the now old-fashioned monospace font, Courier). Other authors present their work with a gaudy cover page, autogenerated table of contents, headers and footers, and fancy typefaces, with the text in single space or something — anything! — else. Many older authors know how to type and spell but have no word processing skills, so they use manual tabs or spaces for paragraph indents and insert extra returns for chapter breaks; other authors, lacking knowledge of conventional publishing practices, use all caps and/or bolding and/or underlining for chapter titles and emphasis.

These flourishes must be removed from the manuscript before it’s published or, in many cases, before it’s submitted to an agent or acquiring editor. Consequently, I offer preproduction formatting as one of my editorial services. I spent years as a typesetter and enjoy that kind of work. As well, it’s more efficient for me to format a manuscript than to teach someone to do it or wait while my client has someone else do it, as would be the case if I insisted on specific formatting before accepting the job. I am frequently the last (or only) person to handle a file before my client submits it anywhere, so I like to deliver it ready for its fate. In situations where the author plans to pay someone for formatting, the author gets a better deal having it done as part of editing — and I get a better paycheck for the extra work.

Where I remain inflexible is with file format, meaning, which software created the document. A few maddening, time-wasting, unprofitable experiences with Pages and OpenOffice files moved me to only accept files created in Microsoft Word. PC or Mac doesn’t matter, release version doesn’t matter, but the file must be native to Word — this is nonnegotiable! This policy is not only to avoid problems for myself, but also for the production people after me, whose layout programs are designed to play nicely with Word. The day will come when I’ll have to change my policy, but until it becomes obvious that I must adapt to demand or lose work, I’m holding firm on this requirement.

Formatting as a supplement to preflight

Formatting the manuscript myself has an additional benefit. As mentioned in Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap I, I have a blind spot to work around. Because of the way my memory functions, I can’t preread a manuscript without dulling my eye to editing it. Formatting provides a passive preview that gives me a sense of the book and lets me spot oddball elements not picked up during preflight, while keeping the story fresh to discover during editing.

I don’t use any editing software tools for formatting beyond Word’s built-in Styles features and menu. They serve for my approach, so I don’t feel compelled to change. I like to crawl through the whole document with nonprinting characters and coding showing, with Word’s Styles pane open and set to show what styles are used in the document. I may do this in Print Format view or Draft view; which view alters with circumstance and mood.

During the crawl, I look for and fix anything that wasn’t caught during preflight. There’s almost always something aberrant, and I can’t predict what it might be. The most common irregularities pertain to numbers. Examples include time indicated in different ways (e.g., 2:00 PM, 4 p.m., seven o’clock), variations in measurement (e.g., five-foot six, 5’6”, five-feet-six; or 20 miles vs. twenty miles), different styling of years (e.g., the sixties, the 60s, the 1960’s, the Sixties) or firearm terms (.45, 45-caliber, a 45; or 9mm, 9-millimeter, nine millimeter). In each case I need to choose which style to use and apply it consistently through the manuscript. Sometimes it’s a matter of correctness (e.g., changing the 60s to the ʼ60s); most times it’s a matter of whose preference to follow (mine, Chicago Manual of Style’s, or the author’s). Whatever I decide goes onto my style sheet, which contains a section specifying which types of numbers are spelled out and which are expressed in numerals, including examples of each. Attending to these types of consistency elements during formatting reduces the number of details I must notice and address during editing.


My dual aims in formatting are to make the manuscript easy for me to read and navigate, and to make it clean and consistent for future production. If the document arrives neatly put together, all I do is style the chapter heads with Heading 1, one of Word’s default styles. The Heading 1, 2, 3 (etc.) styles appear in Word’s navigation pane, enabling me to jump back and forth between chapters with a click instead of scrolling or searching.

I also make sure that chapter breaks are formed by a “hard” page break (either manually by CTRL+Enter or with “Page break before” selected when establishing the Heading 1 style), rather than any kind of section break or insertion of returns. This is to help whoever follows me in the chain. The production person, for instance, may need to do a global find/replace for some styling or layout purpose I’m not privy to. Consistency makes that task much easier, so I ensure that there’s only one return between the last paragraph of every chapter and the page break for the next, and no returns preceding the next chapter number/title.

For messier manuscripts, I’ll get in deeper, if scope of work allows. Many times I style the body text and chapter heads using Word’s defaults: Normal for text, and Heading 1 (2, 3, etc.) for chapter number/title/subtitle. This combination is a reasonably safe, generic setup for when I don’t know the book’s ultimate configuration. I modify the fonts, line spacing, and indents of these styles to suit the job, but might change them during editing for easier viewing onscreen. For example, the job may need to be delivered in Times New Roman, but I find that font hard to read, especially punctuation. My eye is more comfortable with a sans serif font, such as Calibri. By using Word’s Styles for text and headings, I can change fonts simply and swiftly, then enlarge them onscreen as needed.

With the basics done, I focus on italics, which are heavily used in fiction for emphasis and many forms of silent communication, as well as for media titles and ship names, noises, and foreign or alien words. To ensure that italics survive any font changes or cross-platform file moves during the manuscript’s progress from creation to publishing, they need to be set in a character style rather than a paragraph style. Although italics set with Word’s default tools (taskbar icon, menu commands, or keyboard combo [CTRL+i]) hold up well during most manuscript manipulations, they sometimes come undone for no apparent reason, and it’s a miserable waste of time to restore them.

I avoid this random possibility by one of two means. If the manuscript comes in clean, then I just create a character style for italics and globally find Word’s default italics and replace them with the character-style italics. Using a character style makes the italics always identifiable because even if the text doesn’t appear italic, the text that is supposed to be italic can be located by finding the text to which the character style is applied. If the manuscript is really messy and I must change something in Normal or any different style(s) the author used, I first globally find/replace the default italics to put them into color and then do whatever else I have to do (sometimes clearing all styles and restoring just the ones needed). Finally, I replace the colored italics with the character-style ones. For technical reasons I don’t understand, font color survives heavy text manipulation, whereas the default italics setting sometimes does not. By using one of these methods, I don’t lose the italicization even if I have a corrupted file to salvage or foul things up with my own mistakes.

Upon completion of formatting, I create a new copy of the manuscript and plunge in to discover its story.

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.

May 15, 2017

Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap I

by Carolyn Haley

I was thunderstruck when I read An American Editor’s The Business of Editing: The AAE Copyediting Roadmap I and saw the project scale he works on: 1,500 to 20,000 manuscript pages in a single project. Yikes! Translating that into word count comes to 375,000 to 5 million words. Per book.

In contrast, the novels I work on run 50,000 to 200,000 words. Only once has a manuscript come close to the low end of AAE’s projects; the common range is 70,000 to 120,000 words.

Yet for projects great or small, we different types of editors use the same skills and tools to edit our clients’ manuscripts. I need only a fraction of the electronic tools available, not having to deal with references and figures and tables and all, but as time goes by I increasingly use electronic tools. Learning from other editors’ tips, tricks, and processes helps me become more efficient and meet my business goal of doing the best-quality job in the least amount of time with the least expenditure of labor.

Tools also help compensate for a flaw in my reading skills. I’ve learned that once I’ve read something, I stop seeing individual words and punctuation if I read the material again soon after the first time. This means that reading a manuscript completely through before editing it can be counterproductive, so it’s better for me to skip that step and use tools to prevent and later catch errors and omissions. Although I find and address most everything needed during the editing pass, that single read-through isn’t good enough for a professional edit.

My mental blind spot goes away if I wait a few weeks or months between readings. However, my clientele aren’t willing to wait that long. Therefore, I concentrate my attention on where it’s needed most — editing — and use different software tools before and after editing to catch mechanical details my eyes might miss. I’ve settled on a four-stage work routine comprising preflight, formatting, editing, and cleanup. I adjust the routine according to each job’s parameters, using the full process for indie-author clients and reducing or adapting it for publisher clients, who usually provide specific instructions for a job and do some of the steps before submitting the manuscript.

The Four Stages

I work primarily with indie novelists, most of whom are first-time authors still finding their way. For these authors I offer substantive editing, often called line editing or developmental editing by other editors. Sometimes I offer a variant I call a teaching or mentoring edit. Such jobs require the detail precision of copyediting as well as heavy commentary and queries pertaining to content. To handle the dual role effectively, I need to encounter the story as a reader would, not knowing who’s who and what happens next. So I first use tools to make the manuscript clean and consistent, then I read until I stumble, edit accordingly, and continue, using tools to sweep up behind me when done.

This process serves for copyediting finished manuscripts, too. When I copyedit for publishers, there’s usually one or more people in line after me to review the book. For indie authors, however, I’m often the last eyes on novel before it goes out into the world. I counsel all clients to hire a proofreader before they release their work, but in many cases they choose not to, whether it’s because they’ve exhausted their budget on editing or just believe that editing plus their own tinkering and reviewing are adequate. I can’t control what they do after I’ve delivered the manuscript, so during the edit I cover as much ground as possible within the parameters of the job, relying on software tools to cover my back.

Stage 1: Preflight

“Preflight” is a term I picked up during my catalogue production days. Coworkers in my department and personnel at the print house used “preflight” to cover tasks specific to the phase between finishing a layout in InDesign and preparing the file for the printer. There’s also a Preflight function on a pulldown menu in InDesign. The combination embedded the term in my mind.

Now as an editor I use “preflight” for the work I perform on a Microsoft Word manuscript. Preflight in this context means preparing the file for the author’s production, which might be submission to an editor, an agent, or a contest, or releasing it through self-publishing.

My preflight involves two substages: document setup for the job, such as creating folders, working files, style sheets, and notes to myself to guide the edit; then mechanical tidying up of errors and inconsistencies. For the mechanical tasks I use a combination of editing software tools to tackle the nitpickery that would otherwise slow down the edit and distract me from the content elements no computer can address.

When a manuscript arrives, the first thing I do is make a new copy of the file and rename it to indicate it’s an edited version. The author’s original is never touched again, and always available in the event of a document or computer crash. Because Word is unpredictably quirky, and heavy use of track changes sometimes provokes problems, I keep making new, numbered copies of the file over the course of the job.

In case there’s a problem with a file I have open during a work session, I also allow Word’s automatic backup feature to run. The autobackup file is instantly available and contains the most recent edits, should I need to recover anything. At the end of the day’s work session, I copy all files used that day to a secure site provided by my ISP. That way, if my computer dies or house burns down, I can access a current version of the job from any computer anywhere with Internet access. At intervals I back up my whole system onto a removable hard drive that is stored a fire safe. I live in a rural area and have no secure or convenient location outside the house to keep spare copies.

Next I set up the style sheet for the job. If the author has provided a list of character and place names, and/or special vocabulary, I plug those in under the relevant headings. If not, then I fill the style sheet during the edit.

With my work setup in place, I move on to electronic grooming of the file. Before I learned about software editing tools, I compiled a list of things to search for and fix one at a time. As I found ways to automate some of these tasks, I began consolidating them into batches, and experimenting with alternative approaches. Some tools I find easier to learn and apply than others, which influences my choices. Once I find a tool that solves a particular problem, I add it to my kit and use it until a better way presents itself.

The smart plan would be to allot time for a compare-and-contrast of all features of all the editing tool packages available, but I have not yet invested that time. (If anyone does, I’ll eagerly buy your book!) For now I adopt tools according to need and opportunity. Electronic editing tools are similar to Word in a general sense, in that you’re given multiple ways to perform certain functions: You can use a pulldown menu, a keyboard command, assign hotkeys, or run built-in or customized macros. There is no right way; rather, there are alternative ways to accomplish the same task, to be used according to personal preference and appropriateness to the project.

Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap II will elaborate on the individual tools used in my preflight process.

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.

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