What editing does for your book (and what it doesn’t do)
Confession: I’m an editor who sometimes doesn’t want to own the term “editor.”
“Editor” doesn’t mean much out of context. It could refer to the editor of a magazine, a video editor, or a wordsmith like me.
The problem is, even when people understand what kind of editor I am, they don’t always know what I do or the transformation I provide for a manuscript.
Let me back up for a second.
Hi. I’m Jessica. I help high-impact leaders build the courage to write and publish a book for their brand or business, and I do it through book coaching and manuscript editing.
I’ve been in the business for 3 years now. I’ve worked with a variety of clients from all over the world. I’ve been asked ALL the questions. I know there is a lot of confusion and misconceptions out there when it comes to editing.
So if you are writing a book and wondering if you should hire an editor, read this post to understand what editing does (and what it doesn’t do).
Human Versus The Machine
With software tools like PerfectIt, ProWritingAid, Grammarly, and spellcheck, why do we even need human editors?
The answer to this riddle is an endless list, but here are 3 reasons:
1. First, I want to emphasize that languages are living—meaning, English usage is always evolving. Technology increases the speed of this constant evolution, but technology doesn’t keep up with changing terminology unless we tell it to.
A software tool doesn’t know whether “who” is now acceptable in place of “whom” or if “Native American” is still a term we embrace in the current standards of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Human editors keep up to date on usage trends while software lags behind until the humans update it.
2. Next, software cannot possibly check for all instances of correct meaning. Let me share with you an example of a client I had a couple of years ago. He asked me to edit the first edition of his bestselling book so he could release an updated second edition to boost his reach and get a new burst of sales.
When discussing stock market trends, his text read, “Follow the noise, not the signal.” I flagged it for him because this was an obvious mistake in the meaning of his argument: anyone who has investments in the stock market knows to follow the signal, not the noise. He was so appreciative that I had caught the mistake as it had probably caused readers some confusion in the first edition. Show me a software tool that would have caught that!
3. Last, you probably know that software works only most of the time. And you’d be right to say that even human editors are flawed. It’s a great idea to use both—in fact, most human editors use editing software as a final check. A better idea is to let go of your expectations of a “perfect” text.
Whether you use editing software or not, wouldn’t you rather also have a human on your book team?
Editing is about choices, not rules.
The biggest point I want to emphasize when we are talking about what editing does for your manuscript is that it helps you sound more like YOU on the page.
Folks, especially from outside my industry, think editing means getting rid of all grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors.
Well, yes, but actually, no.
Sure, there is an element—an important one—of ensuring there are as few such errors as possible (remember, perfection is a myth).
But guess what? The “rules” aren’t always clear-cut. In fact, different style guides and different editors disagree on the supposed rules. So what are we to do?
On a broader scale, editing helps you make choices about which “rules” to uphold for your writing. There are nitty-gritty rules like comma placement but also spelling and usage rules.
Again, let me be clear: you make these rules with your editor. As a team, you decide how your writing should sound, what tone to convey, and how best to harness clarity for the reader.
When your editor compiles all the rules specific to your writing, you gain consistency. And consistency is not only the mark of good style but also that of readability.
All my clients have fretted over the “rules” before working together. It’s normal. These are actual questions they asked me:
“What’s the rule for writing out numbers?”
“What’s the rule for starting a new paragraph?”
“What’s the rule for punctuation in poetry?”
“What’s the rule for including x word?”
I say, throw out the rules and make your own! Do you prefer using numerals instead of writing out the numbers? Then do it. Want to insert a hard return in the middle of that long paragraph? Then do it. Want to eschew punctuation in your poem? Then do it. Should you take that word out? DO IT!
You know your readers best. If you’re confused about how to make your own rules, ask yourself:
What will look and sound best to your readers?
What will make sense?
How will your message be perceived?
You hire an editor because you trust that person to help you make good choices, not because they throw the rulebook at you. The trick is to make those good choices consistently throughout your writing.
To help you, I always draw up a style guide personalized to your writing. It will serve as your unofficial rule book and will make future writing projects faster and easier!
Revising isn’t rewriting your entire book.
I’m going to let you off the hook here. The editing process shouldn’t be a daunting (or timely!) prospect. Revising isn’t rewriting!
Don’t make the mistake of thinking your editor is going to require massive rewrites. As long as you have written your book with a solid, structured plan, you don’t need to spend more time coming up with new material or large-scale rearranging of text. In the editing process, you’re not rewriting your entire book.
Again, let me share some real-life examples of client projects to illustrate the extent to which you might be revising your writing during the editing process.
Once I noticed a client of mine had written an introduction for a different book. In other words, her introduction didn’t match the body of her manuscript. I asked her to revise it with specific suggestions: areas to reword and ideas for content to add. I gave her a roadmap to follow, and she created an introduction even better than I had imagined.
On the other end of the spectrum, a lead wanted to know if I, as his editor, would agree to ghostwrite for him. He wanted to rerelease some of his books as second editions, and in order to justify the rerelease, he wanted me to pad the manuscripts with new material. I had to decline the offer because I wasn’t offering ghostwriting at the time. Your editor cannot rewrite or create entire sections of text for you.
What we are going to do is take what you’ve written and make it the absolute best book it can be—while sounding like YOU—even if you’re “not a REAL author.” With the help of an editor, your writing is absolutely going to be good enough to publish.
Stop overthinking it. Editing doesn’t mean starting from scratch. And that should come as a relief!
High-level editing and low-level editing
There are 4 different “levels” of editing called editorial passes. To simplify, think of it as macro editing and micro editing (these are my terms to explain our industry jargon). I’ve already written about these editorial passes in this article.
Macro editing takes a high-level approach to your writing. We look at the broad strokes of your argument, your message, and the structure of your ideas. For more information on my Macro Editorial VIP Day, click here.
Micro editing takes a low-level approach and always comes after macro editing. When you’ve gotten your chapters and paragraphs organized, you can refine further on a line-by-line and word-by-word scale. For more information on my Micro Editorial VIP Week, click here.
A client of mine provided a chapter of his upcoming book asking for my feedback. I could only comment on the details since I didn’t have the big picture of the rest of the manuscript.
When he told me he was having trouble finishing the manuscript, I offered a macro edit because I suspected his writer’s block stemmed from lack of a core message.
Sure enough, when he sent me the rest of his unfinished manuscript, I saw he had been writing from a stream of consciousness instead of an organized outline. I helped him get clear on who his target readers were, identify a gap in the market for his book, come up with his core message, and start to outline a solid structure for his book.
Another client, a first-time author, had clearly followed a detailed outline when I first read her manuscript. Part memoir, she followed a chronological narrative interspersed with key takeaways from her career and other high points in her life.
But, since English was not her first language, she knew she needed help making her writing sound natural. I spoke with her on a call so I could understand how she communicated when she was relaxed. I used that information to help me craft her writing voice word by word into something that sounded like her, relatable—but also easy to read for a native speaker.
Every project is unique. What will editing do for yours?
In this article, I’ve described my approach to editing books and the scope of my work. Every author has a unique writing voice, message, and audience.
Now you know why you should hire a human editor instead of trusting a software tool, why editing isn’t about following some arbitrary style book, that working with an editor doesn’t mean you are going to be overhauling your entire book, and how we must first address large-scale issues in your writing before tackling the text word by word.
If this article brought up more questions than answers for you, send me a private message on LinkedIn or Instagram. I’d be happy to answer your questions, and if you can share a writing sample, I’ll take a look and offer some solutions!