Honest advice for authors about what’s achievable
I love words and the English language and really want to improve every piece of writing I work with so good writing is always what I aim for. I believe that it is essential to be open and honest about what is realistic. Clients often express a desire for their work to be ‘perfect’ and that is ideal. However, is this possible? Will you get perfection?
There are two key issues here:
2) what’s gone before
With any document if you ask ten editors and proofreaders to make edits, even if the reference books are the same (for example New Hart’s Rules and The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors) the ten finished documents will each be unique . Ask ten readers to review those edits and they will give you ten different responses.
Reader A was taught that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. The editor follows the guidance provided by New Hart’s Rules or the Chicago Manual of Style and disagrees.
I aim for perfection. Here’s the rub, though. Subjectivity aside, I believe that perfection is impossible to achieve in one editorial pass, even in more than one. Publishers agree, and that’s why they hire editorial professionals at several stages of the production process. Below is a simplified overview of what happens in the mainstream publishing industry.
Each press’s workflow differs, of course. However, broadly speaking, the process goes something like this:
- First, the raw-text file (usually a Word document) is substantively edited. This is the big-picture or macro-level work that looks at issues such as structure, plot, characterization, narrative flow, coherence, relevance and completeness. This stage might also be referred to as structural or development editing.
- Next comes the line editor or copyeditor. Line editing aims to improve the flow of the text at sentence level. Copyediting aims to standardize the text according to brief and preferred style. The extent of revision at this stage is heavy, with thousands of changes. Many are literal, like typos, grammar problems, inconsistencies in hyphenation and capitalization, missing words, incorrectly rendered punctuation, and so on. Others are more contextual, such as problems with time line, sentence structure, repetition, consistency of character names, or inconsistent terminology.
- The revised file is returned to the author, who then reviews the editorial amendments and attends to any queries/problems identified.
- Next, the reviewed file is delivered to the project manager, who arranges for a layout artist to design the so-called ‘first proofs’.
- The designed first proofs are sent back to the author, and to a second editorial professional (usually a proofreader) for an additional pass. This is where additional errors are picked up. At this stage, there are always errors, though we’re talking in terms of tens (or, rarely, hundreds) rather than thousands. These errors remain in spite of the fact that the file has been worked through meticulously beforehand at several different stages.
- The author’s and second-pass proofreader’s changes are then collated, and the ‘second proofs’ are created by the designer.
- The project manager and author then review the file one more time and the book is finally published.
It would be no less than a miracle if every single problem could be identified in one pass, and if it was possible then publishers wouldn’t commission editorial professionals at several different stages – they’d save their pennies and just go for one pass. However, publishers know that perfection is impossible because there is so much to deal with, particularly at the substantive and line/copyediting stages.