If you’re a writer, you might want to know what I actually do when I’m editing your work.
Basically, I read your manuscript three times.
THE FIRST READ
The first read-through is all about my visceral responses to your story. On this reading, I take very few notes, but I do record the places when I laugh or cry or get bored. And, if I’m really into the story and I get that little knot at the base of my skull that tells me I’m excited, I’ll make a note of that.
By the end of the first reading, I’ve got an overview of what’s working and what’s not, so I record my impressions. What images do I remember? What characters do I like? Do I care about what’s going on?
THE SECOND READ
On the second read-through, I do the bulk of the grunt work. I break every chapter down into units of action. It’s a time-consuming thing to do but, in paying such close attention, I get to know the mechanics of the book intimately. It’s amazing how fruitful this process is. And, as a bonus, I get a step-by-step reference guide to your plot.
As I’m breaking your chapters down into units of action, I pay close attention to the narrative structure. What’s the hero’s goal? What steps does she take to try to reach her goal? How does her understanding of her goal change and deepen? This is where the three-act template, which I’ve also written about on this blog comes into play. What steps of that template are in place? What steps are missing? Are there steps that could be strengthened?
As I’m considering these questions, I’m also formulating strategies that I might offer to you, the author, approaches to the story that might help you improve your next draft. I might come up with suggestions for missing steps, for instance. Or, if I think a plot progression isn’t working, I’ll try to think of an alternative order that might help to clarify the story or increase its tension.
Most substantive editors don’t offer as many suggestions as I do—many offer none at all—but I find that offering plot points makes the discussion more concrete. It helps me to think things through. And you’re still the author; you can do whatever you want with my suggestions. You can use them as-is. You might find that they spark new ideas in you. Or they might simply illustrate a principle that I’m trying to get at.
When I’ve finished reading your manuscript for the second time, I begin to compose my notes for you. In my author’s notes, I always start off by praising what’s working. Then I identify the areas in which I think that there are opportunities for improvement. And, as I do so, I offer strategies for improvement. After I’ve addressed the big, conceptual issues, I sometimes do a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of more detailed issues.
These notes are hefty; I go into much more detail than most substantive editors do. It’s not unusual for me to write an author letter that’s more than 20 to 50 pages long on a full-length manuscript. But authors tell me that the notes are helpful and they appreciate the thoroughness and attention to detail.
Before I send my notes to the publisher, if there is one, and to you, I read the manuscript for a third time.
This read-through is to make sure that everything I’m saying actually makes sense and that I haven’t gone off on some theoretical tangent or missed something that’s really obvious.
Virtually every time, I refine my notes as a result of this reading.
I always ask authors to get back to me with questions or concerns, which we can usually handle by email or over the phone.
When authors send me ensuing drafts—often, it’s a good idea to do two or more rounds of substantive editing—I am always gratified and sometimes amazed by the improvements. In my experience, authors are a responsive and creative bunch.
If you have questions about the editorial process, don’t hesitate to drop me a line.