You’ve finished your manuscript. Congratulations!
You’ve completed several drafts and revisions, you’ve driven your family crazy with your devotion to writing, and you’ve conscripted a friend to read your remarkable words.
What happens next? If you want your manuscript to find its way into readers’ hands, you might be thinking ‘it’s time to find a publisher’. There are many routes to publication – from self-publishing (in hard copy or on an e-platform) to mainstream commercial publishing (known as trade publishing) and the various hybrid and independent publishing options in between. But before you decide on your preferred publishing route, consider having your manuscript edited.
The fresh eyes of a professional editor can enhance your writing and improve your publishing prospects.
Before approaching an editor
You will save time and money if you get your manuscript into good working order before approaching an editor. Here are some things you can do.
Devise your own ‘house style’
House style is the set of conventions you follow for spelling, capitalisation, grammar, punctuation and formatting. For example, will you use single or double quotation marks for dialogue? Will you indent the beginning of each paragraph or have all text left-justified? Will you spell out numbers in words or write them as digits? Look at books that are similar to yours and follow the approach they’ve taken.
If a trade publisher accepts your book, they will have their own style requirements but transferring a manuscript into a publisher’s house style is easier if your document is internally consistent.
A good place to start when determining your house style is the Australian Style Manual. Although it’s written for government publications, many of the standards are the same as those used in works of fiction. For spelling, the Macquarie Dictionary is a good choice for books intended for the Australian market. If still in doubt about a style matter, defer to an authoritative reference book such as Pam Peters’ The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage.
Create a chapter summary
A chapter summary will help with consistency of timelines, characters’ names and features, and settings. Create a spreadsheet with headings for each chapter (number or title), its settings (spatial and temporal), the characters included, and a brief summary.
|Chapter||Summary||Setting (Spatial)||Setting (Temporal)||Characters|
If you’ve said a murder occurred on Tuesday and then, in a subsequent chapter, the timeframe has moved on by three days and you’ve said it’s now Sunday, it’s easy to spot the problem. If your summary identifies characters who only appear once or twice in your entire story, ask yourself if they are necessary or could they be eliminated? (Readers don’t need to remember the name of someone unimportant.)
A chapter summary also gives you a sense of any chapters where there is minimal action or where the story isn’t progressing. Do you really need that slow chapter or could you cut it out?
Find a beta reader
A beta reader will tell you if your book ‘works’. Did they enjoy the story? Were they engaged by the characters? Was the setting effectively evoked? A beta reader offers a general impression – is this a book they’d like to read?
Choose your beta reader with care. Will your best friend give you genuinely honest feedback? And don’t give a horror novel to someone who only reads light romance.
Make sure your chosen reader can check the accuracy of your setting. If your contemporary tale is set, for example, in Melbourne’s inner west and you haven’t lived there for 15 years, find a beta reader who’s living there now. They’ll let you know whether your descriptions ring true.
Seek out a sensitivity reader
A sensitivity reader will tell you if you’ve erred in your portrayal of characters whose life experiences differ markedly from your own.
For instance, you might be an able-bodied, heterosexual author, of Anglo heritage, who happens to be an atheist. Are you clear about the impact of cystic fibrosis on your crime novel’s detective? Do you understand the daily challenges faced by your trans character? How well do you know the world of the Fijian rugby league player in your middle grade novel? What insight do you have into the life of your protagonist’s Hindu school friend?
A sensitivity reader will view your story through a specialised lens and pick up any obvious errors or unconscious biases. (For example, they’ll tell you that your Hindu character would not be sitting down to a bowl of beef stroganoff for dinner.)
If your manuscript includes references to First Nations peoples and cultures, or has First Nations characters, be especially careful. Consult the Australia Council’s Protocols for Using First Nations Cultural and Intellectual Property in the Arts. The protocols include advice for non-Indigenous writers writing on Indigenous themes.
How do I find an editor?
Once you’re satisfied that you’ve done what you can to get your manuscript into the best possible shape, you’re ready to find an editor.
You might know someone who has already worked with an editor and can provide a recommendation but, if you’re unsure where to start, the best option is to visit the websites of professional editors’ associations. In Australia, a good place to begin is IPEd, the Institute of Professional Editors. In IPEd’s ‘find an editor’ directory, you can tailor your search via filters such as the type of editing required, your manuscript’s genre or your subject area.
When making your selection, consider whether you want to meet in person, or whether you’re happy to conduct your author–editor relationship via phone, email or video link. If you like to work face-to-face, choose an editor in your local area.
What will the editor want to know?
When you approach an editor, provide some basic information in your initial contact. Rather than saying ‘I’ve got a book that needs editing, are you available?’, offer additional details. These could include:
- literary form/genre (e.g. memoir, family history, young adult novel)
- total word length
- type of editing required (i.e. substantive editing, copy editing or proofreading. See the Canberra Society of Editors’ commissioning checklist for help in deciding what you need.)
- timeframe for completion
- any special requests.
You might want to contact several editors to find one that’s a good fit for you. One way to gauge your compatibility is to ask for a sample edit. (Some editors will charge a fee for this and then deduct that amount from the final cost if you proceed with them.) The editor will probably ask for about 3,000 words of text, possibly the opening of your manuscript plus a section from the middle. This sample will enable them to judge how long the editing will take and they’ll then be able to provide you with an informed quote.
The sample edit might utilise the ‘track changes’ and ‘comments’ features within your supplied text, along with further notes in a separate document. You’ll see the editor’s approach and you can decide whether you’d like to work with them.
But wait, there’s more
Once you have committed to working with an editor, the editor may ask for further information. If you haven’t already thought about the answers to the following questions, there’s no time like the present. (You might not have answers for all the questions. Just tell the editor as much as you can.)
Purpose and intended audience
- What prompted you to write this book?
- Who do you think will read the book (i.e. target audience)?
- Have you seen/read books that are comparable to yours? If yes, what was it about them that appealed to you?
- Will the book be published in hard copy or electronically?
- Will the book be self-published or submitted to a publisher (independent or trade)?
- What software program have you used to create your manuscript (e.g. Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, Google Docs, Open Source)?
- Does the book include photographs, illustrations, tables or charts?
- Do you already have a ‘house style’ (e.g. spelling, punctuation and capitalisation preferences) or will you need the editor’s help to create one?
- Should the editor do any background reading before beginning the editing (e.g. for a non-fiction manuscript, are there books on a similar subject or any reference works they should consult)?
- Is there anything in particular you want the editor to look out for (e.g. for a fiction manuscript, are the main characters sufficiently fleshed out; or, in a family history, are the photograph captions formatted consistently)?
What might the editor tell me?
Take a breath. If you’ve asked for a substantive edit, you may receive feedback that will be challenging to hear. Remember that the editor’s main concern is to help you get your manuscript into the best possible shape. Like you, they want it to be as good as it can be.
If your manuscript is a work of fiction, you are likely to receive comments about the overall structural integrity of your story including plot, characters, main themes and settings. There may be feedback on your writing technique. Have you used the passive voice where the active voice would serve the story better? Do long prose passages, or a plethora of adverbs and adjectives, slow the pace of the story? Have you varied your sentence length to keep the reader engaged? Is your dialogue natural and convincing?
Your editor may also mention your general language usage. Is it appropriate for your intended readership? (There are several readability tests available including the Flesch–Kincaid tests which are inbuilt into Microsoft Word.)
You might feel overwhelmed by the volume of feedback. Take it slowly. Make the changes that seem right for you. Remember that (at this stage, at least!) all final decisions are yours. It’s your book and you have to be happy with it.
And after the editing?
Once you’ve made your revisions, you might want to engage a copy editor and/or a proofreader. By this stage of the writing/editing process, you will have spent so long with the words in your manuscript that you’ll be reading what you expect to see on the page, not what’s actually there. You might opt to utilise software, such as PerfectIt, that will automatically check some copyediting tasks (e.g. inconsistencies in capitalisation, spelling and punctuation).
Submit an extract to a journal or enter a writing competition
Consider submitting an extract from your manuscript to a journal or magazine. You’ll need to do some research to find a publication that is a good ‘fit’ for your writing. Browse the shelves of your local newsagency or library; search online for ‘Australian journals and magazines’; or, if your library/school/university has access to AustLit (the Australian literature information resource), search for journals that are currently published.
Likewise, seek out writing competitions that match your writing genre. Telling a publisher that an extract from your manuscript has been published in a journal or that some of your writing has been shortlisted in, or won, a competition, means they’ll know someone else has already given your work a ‘thumbs up’.
Join a writers’ association
Whether you choose a traditional publishing route or decide to self-publish, consider joining your local writers’ association and/or the Australian Society of Authors. You can find a list of the major state and territory writers’ associations here. There are also many smaller, regional associations as well as the Australian Writers’ Centre, the latter aiming to provide ‘industry relevant’ training courses. All these organisations offer a wealth of resources, advice and workshops.
Literary agents and publishers
Some authors will seek out a literary agent, others take their chances and approach a publisher directly. The website for the Australian Literary Agents’ Association provides a starting place for finding an agent and the directory of the Australian Publishers Association lists a range of publishers across various markets (e.g. children’s, trade, educational).
If you decide to self-publish, you’ll need to get up to speed on some publishing jargon. If you’re not yet familiar with copyright and fair dealing, pre-publication data and ISBNs, and legal deposit requirements and Creative Commons licences, you soon will be.
There is plenty of accessible information to steer you through these esoteric byways. Take them one step at a time.
A final tip
Creating your manuscript is just the start.
Unless your book has been commissioned by a publisher, the road from manuscript to published book can be long and arduous, and littered with delays and disappointments.
You’ll need stamina. Be prepared to stay the course.
Links and sources
- Australian Style Manual
- Macquarie Dictionary
- Pam Peters: The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2007
- Protocols for Using First Nations Cultural and Intellectual Property in the Arts
- IPEd (the Institute of Professional Editors)
- The Canberra Society of Editor’s ‘Commissioning checklist for editors’
- Australian Society of Authors
- Australian State and Territory Writers’ Associations
- Australian Writers’ Centre
- Australian Literary Agents’ Association
- Australian Publishers Association
- Copyright Australia
- Fair Dealing
- Pre-publication data service
- ISBN (International Standard Book Number)
- Legal Deposit
- Creative Commons Licences
I have edited or proofread dozens of books and smaller publications including novels, family histories, picture books, self-help guides, autobiographies and memoirs, and academic and scholarly works. These books were published across the spectrum of publishing pathways. I ceased offering editing services in 2022. The thoughts in this blog post are neither prescriptive nor definitive. They are simply a distillation of ideas I have gleaned along the way.