The book world is abuzz with talk of self-publishing, and for good reason: getting to hold your work in your hands in typeset, bound-book form has never been quicker, cheaper, or easier. Gone are the days when a coterie of editors in New York dictate what the reading public will be able to experience; now writers have the power to bypass the editorial-acquisitions process completely and self-publish with the touch of a button. As a writer today, you have more creative control—and more earning potential—than ever before. With sights set on bigger royalties and better covers, self-pub authors often, tragically, end up devaluing the editorial process that traditional publishers provide as part of the package. But it’s not a black-and-white choice between creative control and quality. Self-pub authors have all the editorial tools at their disposal that one would find with a traditional publisher, but it’s their responsibility to seek those tools out before they hit the “print” button.
Here’s a primer on what should happen to your manuscript before you pull the trigger and why:
The Developmental Edit
It’s done! you think with a mixture of elation and pride as you make the Save-As version “MS-final.doc.” In one sense, you’re right—you’ve written a novel, and it’s a huge achievement that probably calls for a drink or three to celebrate. You may even want to step away for a little while and come back for a read with fresh eyes. But after the hangover, it’s time to call in your developmental editor. Note: Your developmental editor is not your wife, your friend, or your mom. A developmental editor’s job is to read your manuscript with a professionally trained eye, looking at big-picture narrative arc, plot, pacing, structure, character development, point of view, voice, and more. Creating a world to house your fictional story is an enormous task to ask of just one brain, and no matter how good a writer you are, I promise you that there will be some weird hitches in your timing sequence, or something off about the main character’s voice in one section, or a glaring hole in the plot that doesn’t look like a hole to you because everything makes perfect sense in your head. Your dev editor will point out these inconsistencies and offer suggestions to help tighten and fix them. Some authors shy away from this kind of feedback—but wouldn’t you prefer to hear about these content problems from an editor whose only task is to help you improve your book rather than in your readers’ scathing comments on Amazon.com?
Your developmental editor may have done a fair amount of work to smooth transitions and otherwise strengthen the book line for line, but they were likely more focused on big-picture issues. A copyeditor’s sole responsibility is to ensure that each sentence of your work is squeaky clean. Editing on the heavy side, a copyeditor will do some wordsmithing (would you like to use “night shift” rather than “nightgown” to align with medieval vocab throughout?). Editing on the lighter side, he or she will ensure that supporting character Lucy doesn’t morph into Lucie halfway through the book, that you haven’t overused your favorite phrase, and that your indefinite pronoun antecedents are clear to the reader. The copyeditor is queen of grammatical nuts and bolts, and she will apply a consistent style so that you don’t have to worry about those details (since most people don’t know all those nit-picky rules anyway). If you do nothing else, do not skip the copyedit. Skipping a copyedit would be like washing your hands without soap and calling it good because you don’t see any germs. Germs that might kill you.
Once your manuscript is copyedited, then—and only then—is it ready to be “poured” from its Word-doc form into a legit-looking layout typeset by a designer. Occasionally during this process the designer will introduce mistakes such as forgetting to italicize a word that was intentionally italicized in the manuscript, breaking a line in an odd way that leaves only two letters dangling on a blank page, or skipping a chapter number. Enter the proofreader.
Proofreaders specialize in keeping their eagle eye out for any lingering text errors (there’s a missing word here: “Would you like go to dinner with me?”) and also catching formatting-related issues as a result of the design. They mark word stacks (such as three lines in a row ending with “and”), missing quotation marks, extra spacing around dashes, or an incorrectly styled epigraph. Their checklist is long. The proofread not only puts your text through a fine-mesh sieve to catch any final errors, but also polishes it visually to a high shine on the page.
These are just three parts of a complex process, of course. Need a ghostwriter to help you get to that first “MS-final.doc” moment? Have you thought about how to approach writing pithy marketing copy for the back cover of your book? What about publicizing your newly-minted copies? Don’t make the rookie mistake of thinking you’ve got it covered just because you wrote a great story. Taking the time to publish a truly professional book will not only make your work its very best, but it will give you a shot against the big league players who have whole publishing houses behind them. Your future self will thank you.