The Author–Editor Relationship – A View from the Editor’s Eyrie

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.

ChapterSummarySetting (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?

Practicalities

  • 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?

Editing requirements

  • 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?

More 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).

Self-publishing

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

Note

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.

Flash Fiction – A Novice’s Tale

Flash fiction, micro-fiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction. Very short fiction goes by a number of names and its allowable word length varies – it may be less than 1,000 words, under 100, or, like the Writers Victoria Flash Fiction competition, up to 30 words.

The lower the word limit, the more important it is that every word counts. This makes flash fiction more akin to poetry than long form fiction, but with more plot and less imagery. It’s a quick dip – in, out, done.

But brevity does not imply rush. Flash fiction is also about restraint and precision and evocation.

Writers Victoria Flash Fiction 2022

As a newcomer to flash fiction, I happened upon Writers Victoria’s 2022 Flash Fiction competition, held annually since 2010. The task was fittingly brief: ‘30 days. 30 prompts. 30 words.’

Each day, the prompt word lobbed into my inbox at 8.00am. Then, along with hundreds of other participants, I had until midnight to submit an entry. The entry had to include the prompt word or an accepted variation.

Post-competition reflection

On reflection, I was pleased with some of my entries, barely satisfied with others, and a mite disgruntled with the rest. But my self-imposed task was to be disciplined about submitting, not to hold out for a work of genius.

To help me reflect on the experience, after the event’s completion, I turned to ‘12 Top Tips On Writing Flash Fiction’ by the award-winning children’s author Gareth P. Jones. The tips are published on the excellent Jericho Writers’ website.

Here are Jones’s tips, each one matched with one of my entries.

#1 Select Your Genre

Gareth Jones notes that ‘flash fiction can be in any genre’. As a reader of historical fiction and a long-time student of history (and having recently watched the second series of Bridgerton) it was no surprise that several of my entries had historical flavour.

Day 2 – glow
Miss Alice Wilmington strolled beneath her lace-trimmed parasol as she took a turn around the park.
‘Mama, it’s so hot. I’m sweating.’
‘My dear, ladies do not sweat; we glow.’

#2 Choose an Overarching Theme

Jones suggests that current events can be a jumping off point for flash fiction. In early April, I had read an essay about the arguments for and against the presence of brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park. The prompt word ‘dapple’ immediately conjured an image of these horses.

Day 17 – dapple
Bay, chestnut, strawberry roan and dapple grey
the high-country mob flashed before her eyes.
She wanted to love their brazen wildness,
but her heart bridled at ruined wilderness.

#3 Use One or Two Key Characters

With few words to work with, characters need to be kept to a minimum. Jones suggests making the protagonist ‘complex or flawed’ and ‘choosing first person over third person’. I now realise that I used third person for all of my entries, but I did follow the ‘complex’ character idea several times.

Day 21 – gold
Stella levered herself out of their old Corolla.
She keyed in the entry code and made her way to Doug’s room.
He blinked, vacantly.
So, these were their golden years.

#4 Make Every Sentence Count and Don’t Rush

After getting the initial words down, Jones recommends ‘peel[ing] away the unnecessary words’, followed by further carving and chiselling. I began my Day 7 entry (‘bright’) with a surfeit of words. The ‘story’ of the monk at his desk went through many iterations and much stripping away. The sunlight no longer ‘leached through the scriptorium window’, the monk’s eyes were not ‘bright with concentration’ and his pen did not hover over ‘hammered gold leaf’. I was not entirely happy with the final wording, but I think I made each word count.

Day 7 – bright
Winter sun stippled the scriptorium desk.
Back bent, fingers frozen, the monk’s pen did not falter.
His illuminations lit the room, brightening his soul with earthly delights.

#5 Prompt Visualisation

When inspiration failed for Day 16 (‘oasis’), I followed Jones’s advice and turned to old holiday photographs. When I came upon a photo of London’s St Dunstan-in-the-East, I knew I had found my ‘oasis’.

Day 16 – oasis
Glass and steel crowded the sky.
Red buses and black taxis charged along streets.
Tourists and office workers jammed footpaths.
Within St Dunstan’s bombed-out walls, Madeleine found her lunchtime oasis.

St Dunstan’s-in-the-East, London

#6 Start in the Middle & Use Descriptive, Concise Language

‘Don’t introduce the story – tell it’, says Jones. Begin at a point of drama.

Day 27 – soft
There was no point arguing.
She would have to be patient, take a softly-softly approach.
She needed a job and her own money if she was ever going to escape.

#7 Deal with a Single Conflict

‘Limit your conflicts to one single struggle or choice that your character encounters.’ For my ‘subdued’ flash fiction entry, I had in mind a young woman from the late Middle Ages, brazenly facing her (probably unjustified) death sentence.

Day 15 – subdued
Celeste bound straw to her breasts.
She wound it about her arms and legs.
‘A holy scarecrow!’ they jeered.
Head high, she faced the stake.
She would never be subdued.

#8 Use Descriptive, Concise Language

Shorter sentences, greater impact, says Jones. My Day 12 entry (‘shimmer’) included a long middle sentence. I like its descriptive aspect, but not its length.

Day 12 – shimmer
Marina splashed into the water.
The sea shimmered like a vast salt lake, its crystal light jitterbugging to the pulse of wind and tide.
Breathing deeply, she joined the dance.

Towards North Beach, from Bawley Point, New South Wales

#9 Create Surprise and Provide a Twist

‘A good piece of flash fiction often simply illuminates a fleeting moment … If you can surprise your reader then you’re onto a good thing.’ More sage advice from Gareth Jones. Having dipped my toes into the waters of tanka, I’m familiar with conveying fleeting moments and surprises (called ‘pivots’ in tanka). Some of my flash fiction (for example, Day 10’s ‘twinkle’) illustrated a fleeting moment, but I didn’t manage to create any surprises.

Day 10 – twinkle
At the wedding reception, Cedric watched the youngsters, twinkle-toed, twirling across the dance floor. His feet tapped beneath the table. He could still trip the light fantastic in his mind.

#10 Present a Memorable Last Line

Aim for a final line ‘with a little punch’, says Jones. I like my last line for Day 14 (‘horizon’). It’s succinct (so it meets the criterion for #8), it has no unnecessary words (#4), and it has a good, two-beat rhythm.

Day 14 – horizon
The move to London was meant to be a bold adventure.
But Margaret missed the outback skies.
Without the horizon, her vision vanished.

View from Sculpture Park, Broken Hill, New South Wales

#11 Write a Powerful Title

According to Jones, the ‘title is a part of the story’ in flash fiction. But for the Victorian Writers Flash Fiction Challenge, no titles were required. The word prompt became the de facto title.

#12 Get Others to Review and Critique Your Story

‘Be open to criticism and suggestions.’ Jones’s advice applies to all forms of writing. Beta readers, manuscript assessors, editors and proofreaders can all play a role in honing early drafts and later revisions.

The Victorian Writers competition didn’t allow much time for review and critique. The hint word was provided at 8am and entries had to be submitted by midnight. However, the flash fiction community provided excellent feedback. Although the undertaking was a ‘competition’, the spirit of collegiality and generosity shared by participants was more like a team sport where everyone was on the same side. Ultimately, there were some ‘winners’ – you can read them here – but I suspect every writer enjoyed and benefitted from the experience.

And that is Gareth Jones’s parting point – ‘enjoy the challenge’. Flash fiction ‘affords you the opportunity to play with a nugget of an idea and, hopefully, come up with something interesting, fresh and illuminating.’

My thanks to Writers Victoria for hosting their annual flash fiction exercise which is open to allcomers.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!

Links and Sources

Flash fiction, micro-fiction, postcard fiction ... one writing form, many names. I dip my toes in its waters courtesy of Writers Victoria's annual competition.
Writers Victoria tweet with prompt for Day 30 of Flash Fiction 2022