The Importance of Professional Editing, Part 1

Professional Book Editing

Editing can be a confusing and even intimidating process. For the unfamiliar, it might be hard to see the many benefits a good editor can offer a manuscript. Seasoned authors, however, understand how valuable the editing process can be. Thanks to an editor's objective eye and constructive feedback, the final book is clearer, more thoughtful, more complete, and often more compelling.

Editing is a journey, and one you dare not take alone. In this two-part piece, we map out three different stages of editing, plotting a route that will guide you safely to your dream destination: a published author whose book is ready to take on the literary marketplace!

Making Your Way through the Trees: Content Editing

Substantive editing is the first step in the editing or revising process, and there is no point in copy editing a text that needs substantive work.
— The Editors’ Association of Canada

Writing the first drafts of your manuscript can be a bewildering experience. You’ve written, rewritten, replaced and revised so many times that, as the saying goes, “it’s hard to see the forest for the trees”. Perhaps you’re part of a writing group; perhaps you have a friend, colleague or partner to bounce ideas off; whatever your process, eventually you will reach a point when the time is right to put down the pen (or laptop) and call it ‘done’.

Well, it’s sort of done… Done, but not finished. Now it's time to bring in a professional editor.

Hollywood: A Detour

The book editing process is akin to the process of editing a film. Once a movie’s footage has been filmed, it’s heftily edited (and goodness, what a painful experience it would be if it weren’t!!). But that’s just the beginning. Once a movie has made it past that cutting room floor, it’s time for the studio to arrange a showing of this first cut to a “test audience”.

This is a crucial step. Having put millions of dollars and years of time and effort into the creation of their movie, its makers must now ensure their film will satisfy audiences and have a reasonable expectation of earning a return on their grand investment.

A test audience offers filmmakers unbiased feedback about the quality of their work. The value of such feedback is hard to overstate. Suppose they discover that the film, as made, is too difficult to follow. Or too boring. Or even offensive. Suppose the film causes 80% of its audience to leave the cinema? Negative reviews will flood into the media, audiences will stay away and, ultimately, the film will fail. In extreme cases, it might even cost the filmmakers their career.

Enter Test Audience: a cross-section of moviegoers invited to watch and assess the movie before it enters the public domain.

A test audience evaluates the film according to several criteria, including length, clarity, subject matter, and their emotional response to elements such as violence and satisfactoriness of the film’s ending.

This “test drive” allows the film’s creators to get a sense of how well the film is likely to do, and to address problems before the film bombs at the box office.

So, in terms of writing a book, you are the producer, director, and cast of your "movie". You’ve written the story, brought the characters to life, divided it nicely into chapters, and spellchecked the heck out of it. You’ve created the first draft. Now it's time to bring in the test audience.

Enter Content Editor: a professional reader and bona fide Book Doctor, your content editor (or, to use the industry term, substantive editor) will provide an honest and in-depth assessment of your book's strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. Unlike Hollywood test audiences, however, a professional editor will also help you resolve the issues raised.

Highway #1

In the words of the Canadian Editors’ Association,

“Substantive editors help writers define their goals, identify their readers, and shape the manuscript in the best possible way. They clarify the argument, fix the pacing, suggest improvements, and draw missing pieces from the author. These essential skills apply to fiction and non-fiction alike, including books, magazines, reports, legal decisions, and corporate and government writing of all kinds. They are equally useful for writers, too, as they revise their final drafts to submit to literary agents or publishers or to self-publish through Amazon, Google, or other platforms on the web.”

Still, some writers wonder why every manuscript requires this type of input from an outsider. Why can't a writer just do this him- or herself?

Because they’re too close to the project. They can’t see the forest for the trees.

This is true of all writers, because we're all human. How often do we assume a person understands a subject just because we do? Even the most grammatically adept writer, having written and rewritten an 80,000-word manuscript, will have lost a plot thread or two; even the most attentive and precise among us will sometimes overlook a detail integral to their argument.

Human error is the rule, perfection the exception. For this reason, there’s not a writer in the world who shouldn’t call on a second set of eyes to look at their manuscript. And the best and most qualified person to do this is a professional editor.

What, in concrete terms, can a professional editor do for you?

Stay tuned for Part 2 of The Importance of Professional Editing to find out!

Written by Kate Juniper, FriesenPress Editing and Illustration Coordinator