An American Editor

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 dcma@vermontel.com 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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