In Part 2 of this series on editing, I want to focus on “big-picture” editing, which is called substantive or content editing. As explained briefly in my first post of the series, this type of editing will look different for fiction vs. nonfiction, but the overall purpose is the same in both: to focus on overarching problems with a manuscript and to view the manuscript as a whole. This is different than the other two types of editing–line editing and proofreading–which evaluate a manuscript in very small, often isolated, chunks.
First, let’s look at nonfiction.
The big-picture ideas for nonfiction editing (for books and articles) include the overall organization and presentation of the material as well as the flow and transition of paragraphs. No matter how a nonfiction piece is organized–Q & A or other interview style (for magazines), chronologically, in sequential steps, or as organized subtopics, clarity is paramount. An editor will be looking for ideas that need to be re-ordered within the manuscript and ways to make the thoughts flow as smoothly as possible.
Transitions between chapters and paragraphs are also important, so the work doesn’t end up looking disjointed. Within the chapters, each paragraph should have a strong topic sentence and only one theme. If there are random thoughts within your paragraphs, they should be corralled, and either moved to another paragraph or eliminated.
Editors will also look to see how your reference work, if applicable, fits into the body of your work. If you’re using illustrations, charts, statistics, etc. they need to be properly placed and aptly support your text.
Before sending your manuscript off to an editor, check to see that there are no holes in your logical presentation. Read it objectively with fresh eyes, making sure that you haven’t left any unanswered questions about your topic.
Now onto fiction. When content editing a work of fiction, some things the editor will look for are: how well the characters are developed; if the dialects of the characters are consistent throughout the book; if the story flows well from scene to scene; if the point of view remains consistent within scenes; if various techniques like flashbacks or dream sequences are used correctly and do not lead to confusion; overall pacing of the story; how well the story arc is developed; if the chapters’ beginnings and endings are written in such a way as to make you want to read more; how effectively the conflict is developed; the effectiveness of the story’s subplots, and if all the loose ends are tied up by the end of the story.
When you ask for a content edit, these are the things you should expect to be scrutinized in your manuscript. Often, when writing fiction, it’s easy to make a lot of assumptions about what the reader knows, or should know, from your writing. Things that may seem obvious to you may not be so to your reader. Having an editor review your manuscript will bring those areas to light so that your writing becomes more clear.
Before you send your manuscript off for a content edit, keep the above list in your mind as you’re reading through your story. Make sure you can check off each of those areas to the best of your ability. If there’s a certain area that you’re struggling with, like getting a flashback scene to work so that it fits into the flow of your story properly, let the editor know that ahead of time. Ask for suggestions for how you could make it better.
It’s sometimes hard for writers to stay open minded during this first editing phase, because this is where most of the slicing and dicing of a manuscript occurs. Your editor may suggest cutting entire scenes because they slow down the story too much, or you may be asked to rework a character because he’s not believable.
You obviously don’t have to do what the editor says, but at the same time, it’s helpful to not be closed minded, thinking only your way is correct. At least try the suggested edits and see if they strengthen the manuscript. This is where having an editor whom you trust (and get along with) becomes really important.
So, how do you find such a person? For a content edit, if at all possible, I highly suggest meeting with the potential editor, or at least having a phone call if an in-person meeting is not feasible. You will gain a much greater sense of confidence (or lack thereof) and rapport through an actual conversation versus email. It’s very important that you both are on the same page with your expectations and desire to make the manuscript the best it can be.
When it comes to locating a content editor, I recommend using referrals when possible. If you don’t know of anyone right off who can refer you to an editor, start asking around in your critique group and writing circles. You can also locate editors at writing conferences and workshops. You can find editors in market guides, but just make sure you screen carefully.
That’s all for now on content editing. Next post I’ll move onto what to expect when hiring a copy editor.