Editing secrets for publishing – the necessary skills for proof-editing

When a publisher receives an author’s manuscript, several things happen. If it’s unsolicited (which happens where the agency system doesn‘t apply), it’s sent to the ‘slush pile’ – the term for the heap of unsolicited manuscripts that might, maybe, contain a gem.

Typically the most junior editor gets the task of reading them, then packing 99.99999 percent of them up and sending them back with a polite ‘thank you, but no thanks’.

Essential writing fuel!
Essential editing fuel!

Reasons for rejection can be as simple as the book not meeting the publisher’s brand. Or it might be that a suitable market isn’t thought to exist. And sometimes it’s rejected because, well, it’s a bit rubbish.

Manuscripts chosen for publishing – which the publisher, as often as not, seeks out rather than waits for – go through a different process.

First off, the manuscript is given a brief overview read for quality. Publishing contracts, even those where the publisher has solicited the work, contain a quality clause. If it’s not good enough, it’s sent back for re-work. It’s never happened to me, as author; but I have heard of it happening – specifically, to someone who’d been employed to write at taxpayer expense but, it seems, hadn’t quite mastered the art of it.

If the re-work isn’t good enough, or the author refuses, the manuscript can be rejected – or re-written, at author expense, by somebody else.

Once over that hurdle (which usually ends with paying the delivery advance) the manuscript moves on to the next process step: proof-editing.

Proof-editing is  the large-scale side of the quality assurance process and is a skill of itself. A proof-editor takes the manuscript and edits it for consistency – both within itself and to meet ‘house style’ – the list of consistent spellings and punctuation used by the publisher. Content queries, including ambiguities, are noted for referral back to the author.

The secret in this is to have a lightness of touch – a willingness to allow the author’s own style to flow. That may not be the one the proof-editor would use themselves, but this doesn’t mean it’s ‘wrong’, and a skilled proof-editor does not interfere with the author’s voice by trying to re-style it. The key is abstraction – accepting that properly skilled authors, too, have valid reasons for writing as they do.

Then the manuscript goes back to the author for reply to the queries raised, and to address any other issues. Unless the author is a complete novice, the publisher usually relies on the skill of the author to make that happen.

Sometimes the author needs to make significant changes to answer all the queries. A lot of this is done, these days, via ‘track changes’, but I’ve never found this a useful way of doing things because the file formats involved are proprietary and the whole process can be derailed by using a different version of the software. This actually happened to me with a book I was writing in 2014, which caused a lot of grief.

Once the author’s input has been completed, the manuscript goes back to the publisher for the next steps. This is the point where the writing/content process is held to have effectively finished. Most publisher contracts contain a clause stating that changes after this point, typically to more than 10 percent of the manuscript, are always possible – but will be done at author expense. It’s purely a business/cost calculation, because once the typesetting begins, costs rise.

More next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


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