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?


  • 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).


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


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.

Gleanings from #HNSA2021

Another conference shifts from the physical to the virtual. More dodgy internet connections, more barking dogs and chattering children, more partners crouching in screen backdrops, more collective groans.

Hang on. Just back up a minute.

Not everyone feels that way. Let’s be honest: a virtual conference is an introvert’s dream. I know many people are chafing at the bit, desperate to return to in-person gatherings, but I’m not one of them. For introverts like me, a virtual conference is, as Mary Poppins would say, ‘practically perfect in every way’.

Not only do I avoid travel and accommodation costs, I also avoid actual people. No more standing in solitary isolation at break times admonishing myself for my anti-social preferences, no more repeat visits to the conference bookshop to avoid conversations with strangers, no more disappearing outdoors on the pretext of needing some fresh air.

For me, virtual has much to recommend it. And the 2021 Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) conference, held online for the first time, did not disappoint.

The conference theme was Recovery: Restoring, Reconciling and Re-imagining Lost Histories. My conference gleanings fall into two further ‘Re-’ categories: Research and Realism.

Research: Resources for Writers

How do historical fiction writers discover what Sydney’s Liverpool St looked like in 1909 when Foy’s department store moved there from Oxford St?

How do they know what food was served on the SS Great Britain when she sailed away from Liverpool in 1871, bound for Hobson’s Bay, and with Anthony Trollope on board?

How do they find out whether buttons were used in everyday clothing in 13th century England?

Authors at the HNSA conference proffered their favourite tips and resources and, because they were speaking from their own homes, they could readily pluck items in hard copy from their shelves for ‘show and tell’. Here are some of the resources recommended at the conference:

Dictionaries and Thesauri

Geraldine Brooks held aloft her weighty, two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the OED. The thesaurus ‘works as a taxonomic index of language history … it is not just for looking up synonyms – instead, it can be used to explore the different words used for a particular meaning over time’. You can take a 15-minute virtual tour of the thesaurus to learn more.

While the first edition of the thesaurus was published in print format, the second edition is available here. Perhaps your protagonist is strolling through the English countryside in 1150 admiring the Spring blossom on a crab apple tree but, wait, was it called a crab apple back then? The answer, according to the historical thesaurus? It was a wergulu or a wuduaeppel or a wudusuræppel. (I do love a thesaurus.)

Screenshot from the Historical Thesaurus of the OED


Kelly Rimmer recommends looking at photos to understand an era. I would add that, (pre- and post-photography), paintings and newspaper illustrations are another way of getting a feel for a setting and a society.

Tom Roberts (1885). Bourke Street, Melbourne

Think of the 16th century games depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games or the activity in late 19th century Melbourne in Tom Roberts’ Bourke Street.


Catherine Jinks calls Trove ‘a miracle’.

Trove combines the collections of Australian libraries, universities, museums, galleries and archives. Many of its resources are digitised including newspapers (mostly up to the early 1950s), Government Gazettes, maps, pictures, photographs, music, letters and interviews.

Reference Works

Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth likes to ‘deep dive’ into the social history of the eras she writes about. How do you know where/how people went to the toilet in a particular historical period? Kate uses reference books like Sally Magnusson’s Life of Pee: The Story of How Urine Got Everywhere.

Experts and Scholars

Alli Sinclair lauds the knowledge of experts and scholars. Her experience in writing The Codebreakers was that experts want to share their knowledge. Professional associations and university departments are a good place to start when tracking down specialists.

Alli Sinclair

Aggregated Data Sets

Jock Serong recommends the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Enter a word or phrase into the viewer to see its occurrence in a corpus of books over a period of time.

For example, if your characters are meeting for a sexual liaison in World War I Sydney, it’s unlikely to have taken place in a motel room – the word ‘motel’ does not start appearing in books until the mid- to late 1940s.

You Tube

Kate Kruimink suggests YouTube as a way to hear the music of a particular historical period.

For her novel A Treacherous Country, in which her young protagonist sails from England to Van Diemen’s Land, she listened to recordings of sea shanties via YouTube. (Captain Halyard has multiple compilations of sea shanties and folk songs on YouTube. You can get a taste of them here.)

Jock Serong and Kate Kruimink


Mirandi Riwoe suggests cartoons as a source for discovering what people were really thinking.

An example highlighted by Riwoe is The Bulletin’s 1886 depiction Chinese people. Phil May’s cartoon (complete with a recognisable Henry Lawson smoking opium) is titled ‘The Mongolian Octopus: His Grip on Australia’ and it encapsulates The Bulletin’s and the wider community’s attitude in the late 19th century.

Phil May. ‘The Mongolian Octopus: His Grip on Australia’. The Bulletin, 21 August 1886, pp.12-13.


Despite the extraordinary array of resources available today – both online and in hard copy – nothing beats research ‘on the ground’.

In yet another impact of COVID19, more than one HNSA conference panellist revealed cancelled plans for research trips to overseas destinations during 2020 and 2021. Expect 2022s international flights to be crammed with historical novelists.

Realism: Historical Authenticity and Accuracy

How do historical novelists balance detailed research with captivating fiction? Because, as Sue Williams succinctly puts it, ‘readers don’t want to read the research’.

Perhaps writing historical fiction is a bit like being on a seesaw. The author begins with the seesaw weighted down on the side of research but finishes with the story solidly on the ground and the research sitting lightly in the air.

The Seesaw. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

And it needs to be remembered that the historical record is both incomplete and subjective. It can only take the novelist so far.

An incomplete record ‘recovered by the imagination’

During her conference workshop Research and Fieldwork, Mirandi Riwoe referenced Hilary Mantel’s take on historical fiction: 99.9% of human activity never makes it onto the record and ‘can only be recovered by the imagination’ (History Extra, 28 July 2020).

The fiction writer, says Steven Carroll, needs to ‘take history by the hand and lead it into the land of supposition’.

Steven Carroll

The subjectivity of history

Travelling into the land of supposition offers the novelist scope to remove some of the filters entrenched in the written record.

Pip Williams

Pip Williams reminds us that ‘it’s wrong to think that history is true and fiction is not’.

Non-fiction writing is subjective; historians and eyewitnesses write from (often unacknowledged or unrecognised) perspectives.

Historical fiction is important, says Williams, because the ‘official’ record is often inadequate to answer the questions we’ve got about history. It doesn’t necessarily tell us the ‘why’; the novelist can posit a thesis. As Carroll puts it, we need to ‘invent a doorway’ to do the things that history cannot.

Here’s an example.

In the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the words of women are largely missing. Where are the words of the scullery and the birthing room, asks Williams?

If those words were not found in a written source, they were omitted from the dictionary. Even the words that are included are generally sourced from the writings of male authors, and then filtered through the minds and morals of male editors and male lexicographers.

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Williams invented a doorway. In The Dictionary of Lost Words, she breathes life into the words that fell through history’s cracks.


On a sombre note, Kelly Gardiner reminded conference participants of the deaths in 2020 of esteemed authors Jesse Blackadder and Liz Corbett.

The HNSA has established a mentorship in Corbett’s name. The mentorship, ‘for a previously unpublished author from Australia or New Zealand’, will help an author develop an unpublished historical fiction manuscript for young adults.

Julie Janson – Keynote Address

It would be remiss of me not to mention Julie Janson’s keynote conference address. (It was the only session where I missed being physically present in the conference room with other people. I’m sure I wasn’t the only virtual attendee who clapped at the end of the address.)

Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug people, and a playwright, novelist and poet, took as her theme ‘the role and responsibility of historical novelists in recovering lost, overlooked or deliberately erased histories’. She asked whether the genre could ‘play a part in achieving truth in reconciliation’.

Janson concluded her address by suggesting three specific measures to aid reconciliation: change the Australian flag, change the national anthem and change the date of Australia Day.

Links and Sources

If you were unable to attend the conference but would like to know more, the online recordings will be made accessible, for a fee, for a limited time. Check the HNSA website for details.

Conference sessions

The following sessions from the 2021 HNSA conference are referenced in this post:

Other Authors and Books