I love editing. Working with an author, or on my own creations, to elevate a story from a first draft to a finished piece of literature brings me joy and satisfaction like nothing else does. I’m currently on a Publishing MSc after getting a first class BA in Creative Writing with the intent to make editing my career, either a freelancer or for a publishing house.
In my discussions and experience with authors, there is a common theme of feeling intimidated by editing or, more specifically, editing a manuscript for submission. For the latter, I cannot recommend enough making sure you know the guidelines and expectations of whatever publisher, big or small, you are submitting to. If they specify that submissions should be a Word 1.5 line-spaced document in Times New Roman 14pt, all words stressed in italics should be underlined for the submission, and references should be in MLA, then that’s what you send them. If you submit a PDF in Arial with italics all over the place referenced in Harvard-style, they’re not going to give you a second glance.
Most magazines, online publications, and publishers have submission guidelines; go and dig around their website or send a polite email enquiry for the specifications and the job is already half done. All that’s left to do is actually to edit.
From experience, I know how painful and drawn-out editing can be. However, I’m here to discuss a few tips and tools you can use to make it easier if this is your first rodeo.
Firstly, it’s important to recognise what stage your manuscript is at:
Is it the rawest first draft? You’ll need a substantive or developmental edit to focus on your story, character, narrative progression, and internal logic.
Have you already given a few rewrites to work out the big problems? Time for a second, lighter developmental edit to catch anything you missed last time
Are you happy with the big picture but the nitty-gritty needs some attention? This is the realm of proofreading and line edits for grammar, punctuation, syntax, spelling, and, if applicable, formatting for manuscript submission.
Once you’ve worked that out you, you have options, a ‘chose your own adventure’ story, if you will. You can:
Edit it yourself
Hire an editor
Stare at it from across the room for the next 12-18 months
Welcome brave soul.
Editing your own work is tough. It can be a struggle to get perspective of the problems when you’re so close to the story or essay or whatever it is you may be working on. I highly recommend joining a writers’ group, an online workshop, or any other way you can get some different eyes on your work.
Avoid asking friends and family unless you trust their judgement; you’re not looking for an echo chamber of flattery, but for someone to help you pick out the flaws. The delicate part of the balancing act is to not take on board every piece of feedback someone gives you. Remember: ultimately, you know your story best. There are times to stick to your guns.
There are also plenty of online resources for when you get into the technical aspects. I’ve used the premium version of Grammarly for the past several years, and it has most certainly been worth the investment (when I’ve been working on academic projects the plagiarism checker has been particularly useful) although the standard version works well too.
There are various online courses, from the fancy Masterclass (where your teachers are the likes of Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood) to courses run by universities or writers’ associations. Do your research and find the one that works for you.
Try to remember why you wanted to create this masterpiece in the making. Map out your story arc, find the plot points. Sites such as Literary Devices can help you map some of the more technical aspects. There are also plenty of books on editing for a variety of experience levels.
Even with help, editing will be a long process and occasionally soul-destroying. Step away for a break if you need to, be it ten minutes, ten days, whatever. It’s likely that this creation is a labour of love, so hold that to you when the going gets tough.
There are various routes available to you here.
While you will still be involved in the editing process, it can be helpful to have a more experienced editor assess your work. They can find the issues and suggest edits that you will then need to approve or veto, likely a less intense and time-consuming process than having to make all of those edits yourself. However, editors (especially good ones) cost money, so you need to decide early on if you are willing to invest in your work financially.
Literary consultancies, such as Cornerstones (whom I met at the London Book Fair a few weeks ago and who have a blog on editing), can provide professional advice and services. The bonus of using a professional service is industry recognition and experience, but as previously mentioned, it comes with a price tag.
Alternatively, you could hire a freelance editor. Sites such as UpWork, PeoplePerHour, or independent freelancers can provide substantive editing and proofreading services. Prices will vary and may be cheaper than a formal agency. However, experience and quality may also vary. Finding freelancers with a decent portfolio of work or who are verified by a professional body (for instance, I am part of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders) can help ensure you are working with someone knows what they’re doing. That’s not to say don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have these things; they may just be starting but are capable of excellent work. All that ultimately matters is if you work well together on the project. Do they understand what you’re trying to say and do in your piece? Do they raise valid points and help you identify your bad writing habits? Asking for a freelancer to do a test edit of an excerpt can help you figure some of this out (some freelancers will charge for this, others will not) and let you both get a feel of each other’s style.
Working with a freelancer can be exciting and inspiring, leading to your work being something of which you are both proud.
There are lots of resources out there about working with freelancers, some of which are included in this presentation given by the Society of Editors and Proofreaders at the 2019 London Book Fair .
Good luck with that.
I hope this little introduction can help some more nervous writers to begin the editing process, taking those magnificent stories, essays, and non-fiction works one step closer to being sent out into the world.