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.

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Because over 50% of my business involves some sort of editing, I often get emails out of the blue asking for editing help. These inquiries typically look something like this:

“Hello, I have a manuscript I’ve just completed, and I need someone to look it over before I send it to a publisher. How much do you charge for editing?”

In response, I have to answer…

“It depends on what kind of editing you need.”

The reply back is normally…

“Well, I don’t know. I just need it to look good.”

Hmmm…

It’s very difficult for me to offer a quote with this information. There are many kinds of editing, each having a specific goal, and usually, a different price tag. In Part 1 of this Editing Series, I will present an overview of 3 major types of editing. To be technically correct, these 3 types are broken into even smaller subsections, but I’ve found from a practical standpoint of actually doing the work involved with each of these 3 types, I always include the corresponding subsections in my editing as well.

From broadest to most specific, these 3 areas of editing are:

1. Substantive Editing (I sometimes refer to this as Content Editing when speaking to clients because it better describes the type of editing it is.):

This is the first phase of editing, typically done after the final version of the rough draft is completed. In this phase, an editor will focus on overall organization, presentation, and clarity of the manuscript. This will look very different for fiction vs. nonfiction works. I’ll talk more about the specific elements of each in my next post, but as an overview, some things an editor will look for in this phase include: the flow and transition of paragraphs and thought, consistencies in characters’ dialects, character development, point of view shifts, organization of chapters, use of techniques such as flashbacks, and other such big-picture ideas.

2. Copyediting or Line Editing (Some people call this Manuscript Editing, but to me that’s a pretty vague term and makes this process even more confusing!):

This editing phase will occur after the author has reworked his manuscript based on the editor’s changes and suggestions from the substantive edit. At this point, the manuscript is in its final form from the author’s standpoint. In this phase, the editor will scrutinize the manuscript line by line, searching for things such as: style consistency (including adherence to a house style if necessary), use of redundancies or repetitive words, accuracy of reference notes and tables, proper punctuation, sentence structure, proper grammar, and spelling. The main goal with a copyedit is clarity. It is the editor’s job to make the manuscript as clear and readable as possible, without usurping the author’s voice and style.

3. Proofreading (Technically, this is not really editing, but it is part of the editing process–or should be–for every manuscript.):

Proofreading is the final stage of the editing process and is often done more than once. At publishing houses, manuscripts are normally proofread three times, each time by a different person. Proofreading normally takes place immediately before and then after a manuscript has been formatted for publication. Proofing is the nitty-gritty phase of editing, where editors (some editors don’t do proofreading but will pass the manuscript onto those who specialize in proofing) focus on all the details of the manuscript. Some of these details include: typos, misspellings, punctuation, errors in reference notes, proper pagination, errors in headings/footers, and overall formatting and visual issues.

In my next post, I’ll begin looking at each of these areas in more detail and include tips for self-editing at each stage as well as suggestions on how to find professional help when you need it.

Now that we’ve discussed the important elements of an article query letter, let’s talk about what should definitely remain absent from your queries. Sometimes what’s not done or said is just as important as what is. Things to avoid in a query letter:

1. Lack of focus. Writers sometimes try to tackle too many topics in one article, and their query may reflect that. Choose one angle for your article, and one issue of your topic you wish to focus on. In your query, be very specific as to what you will cover and how you intend to cover it. Avoid tangents and side topics at all costs.

2. Wordiness. Your query should ideally be one page. In order to present all the information you need to, brevity is key. Write as tightly as possible, and only say what absolutely needs to be said. Avoid unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and ramblings.

3. Mistakes. This is such an easy thing to remedy, yet many writers won’t take the time to do it. Self-edit your query, checking for grammar errors  (such as sentence fragments), misspelled words, and unnecessary words or redundancies. Then, have someone else check it as well. Chances are, you will never see all of your own mistakes. Aside from spelling and grammar errors, be careful to double-check any facts or statistics you are presenting, along with the proper spelling of the editor’s name.

4. Not doing your research ahead of time. One sure turnoff for an editor is when he learns that you have no idea what his magazine is really about, how it’s structured, or what kind of stories he likes to see. Do your homework and make sure you understand the magazine’s readership. Avoid queries that look like templates, where you’re just substituting the magazine’s name for another with each one you write. Make sure your query is tailor made for each editor.

5. Presenting yourself arrogantly. Your query letter should prove that you are the right person–the only person, perhaps–to write your article. It should not, however, spend most of its time discussing you. A quick overview of your writing accomplishments and why you can write the article is all that’s necessary. Too much self-promotion and the editors may wonder how difficult you’re going to be to work with.

If you avoid these top taboos when writing queries, you are well on your way. The final installment of How to Write an Article Query Letter will look at how to really make your query shine and how to put your whole query package together.

Until next time…